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Rejecting the Next Bill Gates

The foreign visa crisis is an urgent danger for the United States.

By Fareed Zakaria
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A29

As Condoleezza Rice enters the State Department, she will face a number of pressing foreign policy problems that she cannot solve. This will not be for lack of effort or intelligence on her part. It's just that many foreign policy crises involve the interests and activities of countries across the globe, and changing them takes time. And even then, whether it's Iran, North Korea or Darfur, there is no quick fix that Washington can impose. But there is a growing danger for the United States that needs urgent attention, that can be solved and that is almost entirely within Rice's power to handle. It's the foreign visa crisis. Left unattended, it is going to have deep and lasting effects on American security and competitiveness.

The facts are plain. U.S. visa procedures have become far too cumbersome, and bureaucrats are turning down far more applications than ever before. One crucial result is the dramatic decline of foreign students in the United States -- the first shift downward in 30 years. Three new reports document the magnitude of this fall. Undergraduate enrollment from China dropped 20 percent this year; from India, 9 percent; from Japan, 14 percent. The declines are even worse in graduate schools: applications from China have dropped 45 percent; from India, 28 percent.

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Some Americans might say, "Good riddance, it's their loss." Actually the greater loss is ours. American universities benefit from having the best students from across the globe. But the single most deadly effect of this trend is the erosion of American capacity in science and technology. The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. Yet that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering workforce are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half of the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

Americans don't do science anymore. The NSB put out another report this year that showed the United States now ranks 17th (among developed nations) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third. The recent decline in foreign applications is having a direct effect on science programs. Three years ago there were 385 computer science majors at MIT. Today there are 240. The trend is similar at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California at Berkeley.

Falling foreign enrollments will produce a broader but no less profound loss for the United States. America has spread its interests, ideas and values across the world by many means, but perhaps the single most effective one has been by educating the world's elites. For example, Western ideas about the benefits of free markets and free trade have become the global standard. This may have much to do with Western foreign and trade policies. But surely this shift has been strengthened and facilitated by the fact that so many of the people in the ministries of finance, trade and industry in the developing world were educated at Western universities. The U.S. government can claim little credit for Chile's remarkable and successful free-market revolution. But the University of Chicago -- which trained most of the economists who spearheaded those reforms in Santiago -- can. Foreign students return home from the United States bringing with them an appreciation for U.S. values, ideas and, indeed, for America itself.

The hegemony of ideas is often a greater and more lasting source of power than brute force. When historians write about our times, they will certainly note that America dominated the international agenda for decades through this distinctive form of power.

But that hegemony is weakening for four reasons. First, America has become less attractive in the eyes of the world. Second, Washington is making it tougher to come here. Third, there is greater competition and more alternatives for the world's best students. (The biggest beneficiaries of the American decline have been universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.) And, finally, there are more opportunities around the globe. A software engineer in India can make a good living in Bangalore and not have to leave his country, culture and family behind.

Some of these problems can't be solved by the next secretary of state. But America's image abroad is something Rice could help improve. And visas will be entirely under her control. I understand the need for greater scrutiny after Sept. 11. But it has given already cautious bureaucracies a new rule: "When in doubt, deny the application." Every visa officer today lives in fear that he will let in the next Mohamed Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.


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