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HOUSTON – Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates delivered a rousing oration in favor of international education and exchange Tuesday. Addressing the thousands gathered for the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators Conference, Gates described foreign language education, study abroad, and the recruitment of foreign students to U.S. campuses as key strategies in promoting America’s national security and economic interests.

“No policy has proven more successful in making friends for the United States than educating [international] students at our colleges and universities,” Gates said.

Gates called the U.S. military “one of the most enthusiastic proponents” of international exchange, its officers having gained “a unique appreciation for the limits of what military power can do.” 

As one example of the power of exchange, Gates pointed to the experience of providing U.S. military aid to earthquake victims in Pakistan in 2005. Discovering that the senior Pakistani officers were more friendly to U.S. troops than were junior officers, Gates suggested that a key reason why was that the older officers had benefited from Cold War-era exchanges with American officers at military training schools and staff colleges.

Gates is uniquely positioned to address international education strategy. In addition to serving as defense secretary under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, and as Central Intelligence Agency director under George H.W. Bush, he has also been a university president (at Texas A&M University, from 2002-6), and now chancellor (of the College of William and Mary). On Tuesday he briefly described his efforts to internationalize A&M, highlighting the establishment of a branch engineering campus in Qatar and the expansion of opportunities to study abroad. “Our economic future depends on Americans who can work successfully in an international setting,” he said.

“Like it not, America is a country with global responsibilities and commitments. The desire to turn inward … is understandable, but both unrealistic and unwise.”

Gates called for more students to learn foreign languages in order for the U.S. to retain its competitive economic position.  He ended his speech by restating his central point that if the U.S. wishes to maintain its credibility and influence, “we must continue to build bridges with universities that are in cultures different from our own” -- a popular cause here at the NAFSA conference.

More than 8,400 international educators from more than 95 countries are attending the conference, which continues through Friday.

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