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From “Geopolitical Suicide” to Just Plain “Suicide”

Thomas Cole, “Destruction,” 1836 (from “Course of Empire” series)

Rita Konaev has a great piece at the Washington Post on the Trump administration’s new policy for international students.

If this policy had been enacted when I was an international student, it would have ruined my professional and personal life. But in addition to the personal tragedies that will follow this policy, the rule will hurt the financial viability of U.S. higher education, hinder American innovation and stunt the country’s competitiveness on the global stage.

Konaev correctly notes that many foreign students simply cannot take remote classes from their home countries. Some lack reliable internet access. Others face political environments where their coursework could put them in danger. Time zone differences make synchronous parts of classes simply impossible for students in parts of Asia.

The United States remains a world leader in higher education – in consequence, it’s an important export sector. But it brings in the ‘wrong kind of people’ and, you know, is all about “extreme indoctrination.” So this is one area where the Trump administration doesn’t want to put America and American workers first.

According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education, there are more than 1 million international students in the United States. These students typically pay full tuition, which subsidizes the costs of enrolling more U.S. students. For public colleges and universities, the revenue generated from international students also helps moderate the effects of federal and state education budget cuts. This policy may force schools such as San Jose State, where international students account for nearly 11 percent of the student body, to choose between what they believe is safe and their bottom lines. How many U.S. students will have to defer enrollment or take on more student debt because of this ICE policy?

It isn’t only universities that would feel the gaps in their budgets: In 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy through consumption and federal, state and local taxes. Small college towns and cities reliant on revenue from the student population would be hit the hardest if international students — who are more likely to continue living in the areas where their schools are based while learning remotely — are forced to leave.

This economic dynamic has been at risk for some time, and ICE’s decision could accelerate the downward spiral. While the number of international students enrolled in U.S. schools has continued to rise, the rate of that increase has slowed because of high tuition costs, visa processing delays, restrictions on work after graduation, and increased competition from universities in Canada and Europe. But the pandemic contributed to what the American Council on Education predicted to be a 25 percent decline in enrollment for the upcoming academic year — even before ICE announced this new restriction.

The net result of these policies will be to drive foreign students elsewhere. At some point – and if we’re not already there, then you can bet a second Trump term will do the trick – foreign students and talent will decide that they’re better off trying their luck with Canada, Australia, or “Global Britain.” Human capital will become yet another source of American power and competitiveness that the Trump administration ruins for at least a generation. The United States without brain drain and robust immigration will lose its crucial demographic advantages over not just China, but other great powers such as Russia, Germany, and France.

As any number of commentators have pointed out, if you really believe that the United States is entering a period of sustained great-power competition – and, for what it’s worth, I’m currently collaborating on a piece for another outlet that criticizes this framework – none of this makes any sense.

Alex and I drive home this point in Chapter 7 of Exit from Hegemony and it’s why I (apparently) coined the term “geopolitical suicide” to describe the dispositions of the Trump administration. Brian Blankenship and Benjamin Denison have a good article in Survival that walks through how completely out of whack our domestic and foreign policies are with the administration’s proclaimed international goals.

Of course, the Trump administration’s major domestic initiative these days is to simply kill as many Americans as possible. This makes it faintly ridiculous to point out how its policies undermine American power.

Forget “geopolitical suicide” when we’re talking about outright suicide. At this point, I think Vasabjit Banerjee has offered the best analysis of what we’re seeing:

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