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A Lifetime of Diplomatic Engagement

By Paul Foldi

In these contentious times, when the United States seems to be going down the road alone, the foreign policy achievements of the late Senator Richard Lugar offer a different model – engagement.

Whether working with our allies, or even with our enemies, Senator Lugar showed that achieving a goal unilaterally was never as likely to produce long-standing results as when working with others who shared our vision and were also committed to the outcome. This sense of partnership has been the hallmark of all successful long-standing U.S. foreign policy successes since World War II, regardless of the party of the president, or the individual in the White House.

The More Things Change….

As Senator Lugar wrote in 1988 decrying partisanship in foreign affairs, “Presidential primaries and even general election campaigns give vent to the worst of foreign policy arguments..” Intended as a series of foreign policy epistles, Lugar’s Letters to the Next President ran the range of the pressing U.S. priorities from that decade. Although the themes of Letters are timeless – rule of law, free elections, democracy promotion as a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy — they may seem distant to today’s generation.

Indeed, the modern reader of Letters would be hard-pressed to recognize some of the undemocratic locales that Senator Lugar focused on. South Africa – then still in the throes of apartheid – and the Philippines – whether one approves of Duterte’s policies or not – have each seen more than half a dozen elections since Nelson Mandela and Corazon Aquino first wrested power democratically. Still, other hotspots from the late 1980’s will be instantly recognizable: Sandinistas are once again suppressing Nicaragua’s free press and opposition parties, continued instability and violence in Guatemala fuels much of the immigrant caravans, and U.S. Congressional partisan bickering is producing gridlock instead of honest debate. Yet Lugar’s core theme — American leadership through engagement — resonates as much today as when the thought pieces were written.

Washington Bipartisan Efforts – Global Results

Senator Lugar’s focus on engagement was not limited to the bilateral stage. His efforts to reduce the number of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons impacted not just the United States, but the entire world.

No reflection of his work can fail to mention his ground-breaking work to help secure the nuclear stockpiles spread throughout the Soviet Union at its dissolution. The visionary Nunn-Lugar Program used millions of American taxpayer dollars not only to dismantle and prevent “loose-nukes” from falling into the hands of rogue nations and actors, the program also funded former Soviet nuclear scientists to keep them from assisting the same out of economic necessity.

Co-sponsored by Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), the measure passed the Senate by an unrecorded voice vote. A similar vote in the Democrat-controlled House guaranteed passage.[1] In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is almost impossible to remember a similarly visionary piece of legislation having such an easy birth.

A rare exception would be the 2003 passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which Senator Lugar – as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – helped steer through the Senate. This veritable Marshall Plan for HIV/AIDS has endured and proven to be one of our nation’s most lasting gifts to the world’s neediest. PEPFAR has saved nearly 20 million lives of those already infected with HIV/AIDS, saved millions more by preventing mother-to-child transmission and brought much needed healthcare infrastructures to the most desperate situations in more than 30 countries across the globe from Haiti to Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa, the Ukraine and Vietnam. In each locale the selfless actions of the United States government did not go unnoticed, and support for the U.S. and President Bush was often higher in them than it was at home.[2]

Given these successes, it was unfortunate to see PEPFAR’s 2008 reauthorization process become a rancorous partisan debate filled with delaying tactics and numerous amendments seeking to strip or re-direct funding, although almost all were defeated.[3] One of the few exceptions was last minute “horse-trading” to secure Western Senate votes by the authorization of a $2 billion Emergency Plan for Indian Safety and Health. Realizing this was a small price to pay for the overall $48 billion – triple the funding from the original bill —Senator Lugar did not oppose the measure. Following the final 80-16 vote, Senator Lugar declared:

“In my judgment, the dollars spent on this program can be justified purely on the basis of the humanitarian results that we have achieved. But the value of this investment clearly extends to our national security and to our national reputation.”[4]

Later, when the reauthorization became law, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), then the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, singled out both President Bush and Senator Lugar for their courage and efforts in the initial passage and continuation of this life-saving program.[5] Indeed, so successful has the program become that – in spite of some behind-the-scenes machinations by various pressure groups – the most recent extensions of PEPFAR in 2013 and 2018 barely registered a blip in the national media or on the floors of the House and Senate.

Sending Science Envoys/Saying YES to Students

Senator Lugar was keenly aware that American advances in AIDS antiretroviral medicine distributed via PEPFAR, as well as the research, technology, and innovation propelling our economy and universities, generated support and admiration for the United States throughout the world. At the same time, by the late 2000’s, support for the United States was being challenged – particularly in many predominantly Muslim countries – by our prolonged involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reflecting back on his invaluable experience at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in 1954 where he corresponded with none other than U.S. Senator William Fulbright, Senator Lugar sensed an opportunity. In early 2009 he introduced a bill calling on the State Department to appoint a cadre of Science Envoys around the globe that would enhance the “relationships among participating countries by building trust and increasing understanding between countries and cultures through the collaborative nature of scientific dialogues.”[6]

The executive branch took the hint before Congress could get too proscriptive, and — with the overwhelming positive backing of the scientific community – Secretary of State Clinton quickly embraced the initiative and announced three distinguished American scholars as Envoys, including two born in the Middle East.[7] To date, the Envoys have included a Nobel Laureate, a former Director of the National Institutes of Health, a winner of the World Food Prize, as well as a university president and numerous deans and distinguished professors. The program has endured to this day, with the most recent cohort of five Envoys including the former Administrator of NASA.[8]

While the Science Envoys program does not bear his name, the same cannot be said of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program. As with the Envoy program, Senator Lugar – this time, working with his long-time colleague across the aisle Edward Kennedy– realized the post-9/11 need for greater engagement with Muslim communities abroad, particularly those in the demographic of the so-called “youth bulge.” Again using his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar, Senator Lugar embraced the public diplomacy value of extended educational stays in a foreign country – both for U.S. participants overseas and for visitors studying here for a full academic year.

Beginning in 2003, high-school-aged boys and girls from more than 30 countries around the globe have participated in the program – ranging from Saudi Arabia, Albania, Suriname, Senegal and Bangladesh. Each year, Senator Lugar would block several hours to address the hundreds of participants attending the closing ceremonies in the cavernous, ornate Senate (now Kennedy) Caucus Room. In addition to providing a capstone keynote to their studies, Senator Lugar would remain – often to the distress of his staff who were trying to keep him on schedule – until every interested participant had a chance to exchange a few words and have their picture taken with him. He continued to attend these sessions long after he left office – a testament to his belief in the program and his recognition of the significance his attendance made to the lives of the participants. Few organizations in the federal government have felt his passing more acutely.[9]

Senator Lugar with participants in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program (Source:
Senator Lugar with participants in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program (Source:

While great strides were made with the program over the years – including in 2009 with the first cohort of American students heading overseas as part of the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad program – there were always bumps in the road. Fortunately the program has endured, and as of today, over 12,000 students have participated in the program. Their alumni network and follow-on higher education will likely produce as many world leaders and Nobel Laureates as the Rhodes and Fulbright programs that came before them.

Public Diplomacy – By Any Means Necessary

Many critics of U.S. exchange programs and American public diplomacy contend that in our interconnected world, American free-enterprise, rather than our government, should be at the forefront of our public diplomacy efforts. Senator Lugar felt otherwise.

His keen interest in State Department-sponsored exchanges was matched by his support for long-standing engagement efforts through the Voice of America and other channels overseen by the then-Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG, now the U.S. Agency for Global Media). His non-proliferation efforts and service in the U.S. Navy pre-disposed him to focus on the Soviet Union (and later Russia) as the main challenger to the United States. But, never one to limit his horizons, Senator Lugar realized that a rapidly advancing China – both economically and militarily – deserved equal attention.

Long a proponent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with its focus on countering Communism in Eastern Europe, Senator Lugar was concerned that U.S. government public diplomacy efforts around Beijing, its satellite North Korea, and other non-democratic Asian nations were not properly focused. Thus in 2010, he authored the legislation [10] that permanently authorized Radio Free Asia – which until that time had suffered habitual crises in funding and status due to its “temporary” nature. To this day, Radio Free Asia remains a vital source of indigenous news for countries whose leaders fear both a free press and the role of citizens in demanding accountability from their governments.

Senator Lugar’s focus on public diplomacy helped challenge the existing structures in other ways as well. A series of well-received Committee Reports laid out his core themes – personal engagement through face-to-face contact with Americans and easy access to our literature – both classic and scientific – through American Libraries, Centers, and Corners overseas; greater U.S. attention and funding to our broadcasting efforts; and countering the “Great Firewall of China” and overall internet freedom objectives.[11] Unlike the Envoy program, the Obama administration did not seem to take the hint regarding this last item and was lax in funding research to help Chinese “netizens” evade their government’s blockade of sites ranging from Google, to CNN, to Radio Free Asia. Senator Lugar, working with his like-minded colleagues on the Appropriations Committee, re-directed $10 million from the State Department to the BBG for internet freedom activities.[12]

Who Will Pick Up The Torch?

Each of these issues – non-proliferation, pandemic prevention, public diplomacy, internet freedom – is as important to American foreign policy today as it was when Senator Lugar was in office. With his passing earlier this year, the question remains – who in the body politic has the passion, daring and courage to put personal gain and politics aside as he did and realize that America’s foreign policy is not a one-man band, that it must be bipartisan, and that working with our allies – even if we do not agree on everything – will, in the end keep America and the world safer?End.






[5] “(President Bush’s) decision to launch this initiative was bold and unexpected, and I believe historians may regard it as his finest hour. I’m proud to be here with Senator Lugar as the President signs this bill into law.”






[11] See: “U.S. Public Diplomacy: Time to Get Back in the Game” ; “U.S. International Broadcasting – Is Anybody Listening? – Keeping the U.S. Connected” ; “Another Deficit: China And The US In The Age of the Internet”



Paul Foldi

From 2003-2013, Paul Foldi served on the staff of Senator Lugar’s Foreign Relations Committee as the Senior Professional Staff Member covering all matters related to Public Diplomacy including those housed in the Department of State, and managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. From 1996-2003 he was a Foreign Service Officer serving in Karachi, Managua, and Washington including as a Pearson Fellowship with Senator Biden and as a Congressional Liaison for UN Ambassador John Negroponte. Currently he serves as the VP for International Development Affairs at the Professional Services Council – an Arlington, VA based trade association. The views expressed are his own. His wife, Bonnie Glick, also a Foreign Service Officer, now serves as the USAID Deputy Administrator. They have two children.



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