Last month, students at the Defense Language Institute discovered that their study-abroad plans had been cancelled, thanks to unexpected funding cuts to foreign language immersion programs. This may prove a temporary disruption, yet it reflects the Trump administration’s continuing allocation of defense funds — and what remains of Department of State and USAID budgets — away from crucial programs that support global engagement.
Since Trump took office, funding has been cut for Department of State programs and personnel; international development initiatives; and cultural and language training like that provided at DLI. (Meanwhile, the administration has launched or increased funding for programs that divide the U.S. and its allies and provide fodder for their enemies: a border wall with Mexico; detention centers for new immigrants; and military support to Saudi Arabia despite its brutal campaign in Yemen.)
Among the strategically debilitating results is the degradation in the ability of military personnel and other government employees to understand and engage with foreign cultures. Fluency with foreign language and culture underpins successful foreign policy, no matter whether conflicts are counterinsurgencies, surgical counterterrorism strikes, or “great power’ contests with the likes of Russia or China. (In all likelihood, the future holds some combination of each.) Without these skills, U.S. government personnel at all levels — including in Washington — are far more likely to make dangerous misjudgments about strategy and operations abroad. For example, they may underestimate a population’s resentment of foreign forces in a counterinsurgency environment, or simply find themselves unable to communicate with partner forces and local populations.
As anyone who served in the American wars of the past 18 years —in Iraq, Afghanistan, or a dozen other theaters — can tell you if you don’t understand your environment, and cannot speak the language, you are at a massive strategic disadvantage. In my own research on female U.S. personnel in deployed environments since 9/11, I have repeatedly heard about missions of all kinds that were limited by a lack of interpreters. (Many interpreters are locals who serve at towering personal risk; the U.S. government’s continued failure to help them when they are forced to flee undermines America’s ability to recruit local interpreters in the future.)
The need to understand cultural norms and communicate effectively goes beyond development work and the proverbial winning of hearts and minds. Special Operations “capture kill” missions, for example, may have tactical aims, but they are human interactions, with civilians who must be questioned and opportunities for costly miscommunication. Similarly, cyber operations, which depend on nuanced understanding of adversary networks and online behavior, require analysts with language skills and the ability to interpret cultural signals online. Even a nuclear exchange would require advisors who understand and can communicate with the enemy, as the many students of Russian language and culture understood during the Cold War.
Cuts to engagement-oriented spending are far from temporary, if not in implementation than in long-term impact. Like any skill, language and cultural fluency can be a decades-long endeavor, involving travel abroad, classroom work, exposure to target populations, and expert instruction. It cannot be built overnight. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Department of Defense had pitifully few Pashto and Dari speakers. It took a decade to establish a program to address this, and several more years to start turning out skilled speakers. By the time they were producing linguists at a respectable pace, the war was drawing down.
Engaging with foreign cultures and languages is not a liberal hobby that can help when wars devolve into nation-building. Rather, these pursuits, and the deep and sustained global engagement that comes with them, are the best, if not the only way to defend American interests abroad, no matter the shape and location of the next conflict. They will only be more critical as the U.S. looks to roll back the Trump agenda and the alienation and antagonism it has wrought among allies and others worldwide.