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Sunday, Dec 05, 2021

With new student visa rule, Donald Trump is making America small again

International students at US universities are a core arsenal of American soft power. By closing its doors, the Trump administration undermines America’s stature as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs

The way it is going now, I might have been wrong. The professor had written a good book on America and China but smudged it with a snarky title: Destined for War . The addition of a simple question mark (“Destined for War?”) might have eased the melodrama and lowered our blood pressure. But maybe the Harvard man was onto something?

It is indisputable that without commitment and imagination that soars above the bromides of bureaucracies and the short-term needs of politicians – on both sides of the Pacific Ocean – the relationship between the United States and China may be doomed. But is war slated to start in this nuclear age?

Let’s begin with Beijing. If President Xi Jinping isn’t going to lighten up – on the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia – then this formidable leader might soon need to double down on a big-budget public relations exercise to persuade the world that China’s worst is in the past, not our future.

Simply put, China is scaring people. This thrills feral mainland nationalists, but it’s bad for China if its goal is to help lead this century towards peace and prosperity without the black clouds of war.

I sincerely advise Beijing to retire the negative wolf-warrior image of China into some cage at the Beijing Zoo, next to the Panda House.

This is no joking matter because, to make matters worse, many have come to think of the erratic US President Donald Trump in terms hardly more endearing. His sulky pull-out from the World Health Organisation was some special kind of stupid – a jarring contribution to world disorder, perhaps even to further anti-pandemic disorganisation.

Might Washington soon run out of international institutions and multinational accords to insult or drop? At times, its isolationist direction almost seems to be an adolescent kind of North Korean juche, or self-reliance, ideology: who needs to relate like an adult to the rest of the world?

It’s true – Trump can remind one more of Kim Jong-un than John F. Kennedy. Consider the following: for all its horrors and faults, North Korea is a culture in which higher education is honoured. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea boasts of hundreds of higher education institutions, though none rank on any global honour roll of which I am aware.

And even in the best of them – probably Kim Il-sung University – visiting foreign students, a key index of openness and cosmopolitanism, are few.

By contrast, US universities host more than a million international students, a core arsenal of American soft power. The reason for their welcome in the US is not just their helpful capability as tuition-paying students, but even more their contribution to the cosmopolitanism of a serious-minded US institution of higher learning.

Because of international students, the US is greater; without them, the US is greatly diminished. They honour the US by wanting to be here – and they become part of the larger American family.

US higher education is one of the exceptional aspects of American culture. But it apparently has a complex chemistry that is beyond the intellectual comprehension of the Trump administration.

Just last week, its sprawling immigration apparatus snagged in its sticky web university leaders, who are already buried in work evaluating various Covid-19 scenarios for incoming fall students. The US government has announced that foreign students will be eligible for visas only if their universities offer both in-person as well as online courses.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Trump. With the help of the health authorities, universities had been working night and day to figure out what mix of this or that would be safest – whether the sole way to reduce student exposure to the Covid-19 epidemic still sweeping the US (thanks in part to the Trump administration’s ineptitude) would mandate mainly or only online instruction.

Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, for one, has said it is exploring academic and housing options to assure students’ “safety, security and academic success”. LMU has filed an amicus brief adding to a widely supported federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new rules governing international student visas.

Countless other prominent universities across the US, not just LMU, have linked arms with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which teamed up to push the first wave of resistance against the Trump administration’s disrespect of foreign students. I, for one, am betting on Harvard and MIT – and other universities – to prevail.

The Trump administration seems to possess an uncanny instinct for making America small again. Sometimes, for all of its wolf warrior’s roar, Beijing seems almost a “responsible stakeholder” when compared to Washington, with its ill-conceived trade war, its amateurish UN diplomacy, its shrinking commitment to environmental care, its blowhard lecturing and interference in Hong Kong affairs – not to mention the widening sense that the “leader of the free world” seems to have a screw or two loose.

The danger is that Beijing will be tempted to look for openings to exploit as a preoccupied Washington stumbles forward in an presidential election year. That would be a blunder of horrific risk: it would suggest to the world that there might be a wolf warrior after all, and some day that wolf might show up at the door. Hmm, didn’t someone write that the two superpowers were destined for war?


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