06/18/2012 04:33 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Weapons of Mass Instruction

A couple of weeks back, I returned with 14 graduate students of the George Mason University Peace Operations Policy Program from a one-week field study course in Liberia. The purpose of the course was for the students -- a dozen of which, interestingly enough, were women -- to do something that couldn't be done in the classroom. They got a look at a country struggling to emerge from one of the longest and most vicious conflicts in African history, instigated by war criminals like Charles Taylor (sentenced essentially to life imprisonment while we were there). They met face-to-face with representatives of the United Nations Mission, the U.S. Embassy's country team, the Liberian ministries, NGOs and other civil society organizations, and Liberians themselves. All of these players in their own ways are involved in the complex, difficult, and patient work of building peace in a place that has hardly known it -- so much, in fact, that an entire generation went without any education to speak of, among other things.

This is a rare opportunity for most of our younger people. We Americans, by and large, live insular lives and have little to no clue how lucky we are. Although most of the students had never been outside the United States and almost none had seen Africa, they were engaged, interested, had read up on the subjects, asked tough questions, and impressed most of the people they met. They impressed me, too. In the seven days we were there, they learned a lot, as did I -- even though I've been in the business of foreign engagement, one way or another, longer than most of them have been alive.

Beyond all the learning, they fulfilled brilliantly their other, implied mission as informal ambassadors of their country and culture. One deputy minister took the appearance of a group of American students who felt it safe enough to come to Liberia as a very good sign that his country was at last returning to a state of normalcy unimaginable for half his lifetime. As the Liberian radio jock who interviewed some of them that Saturday night, they "repped" with their openness and optimism, making friends with just about everyone they met, and just being good Americans without pretense or extraordinary effort. I was as proud of them as any of the soldiers I led in my former career that had done likewise.

All for the cost of a barely tricked-out Cadillac Escalade.

Afterward, I mused on Facebook: "Imagine, if we were to take $5-billion out of the Pentagon (which would hardly miss it) to finance more of these kind of personal level engagements of our young people, what that would do for our national security and the quality of our foreign policy, especially in the long term."

This isn't some kind of utopian fantasy. It's becoming increasingly evident that the relations between peoples are becoming as important, if not more, than between states. With the advent of social media, this very kind of enduring contacts beyond the control of governments -- like the ones the students have been already forming with some they met in Liberia. Yet, these personal moments of interaction multiply -- and are multiplied by -- networking technologies inconceivable at the time the Liberian civil war started. Beyond globalizing and humanizing security and peace, they are also empowering and democratizing them, creating and connecting communities that go within and beyond borders.

There's plenty of evidence that "when we can come together, when we cooperate, when we put aside petty differences, the results are astounding," as Fareed Zakaria noted in his Harvard commencement address. Since the turn of the century, despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deaths from war and terrorism are down 50 percent from the previous decade and 75 percent from the Cold War era. Even in the slow aftermath of the Great Recession, the global economy will grow 10 to 20 percent faster this decade than the last and 60 percent faster than two decades ago. The United Nations estimates that global poverty has diminished faster in the last 50 years than in the previous 500. From standards of living to health care, things have been and are continuing to improve, albeit not as much as we would like.

It's no coincidence that greater connectivity between people, from travel to Twitter, has accompanied all this. And with that have come improved knowledge, understanding and perhaps wisdom -- the building blocks of transformational leadership and learning cultures that stay on top.

In 2010, the State Department-sponsored student exchange budget was $635 million, involving about 50,000 exchange participants, helping 8,000 U.S. students learn strategically critical languages, and promoting 2,000 partnerships between U.S. and sister cities abroad. Every year, as a result, twice as many students visit the U.S. as there are U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan.

The human interactions of the latest generation do more than foster peace and security than the unrecoverable costs of Cold War deterrence systems. According to the Commerce Department and others, international students generated nearly $20 billion to the U.S. economy in 2009-10. Beyond the intangibles, programs like this pay, many times over. In numerous ways, they are an investment.

Compare this to the $600 billion or more over the next decade the U.S. government will spend to maintain its outdated nuclear arsenal, even though it will be reduced to just over $1,500 (still far more than necessary for national defense) under the latest treaty with Russia. As they look for an exemption from sequestration for defense, many in Congress are considering deep cuts to programs like international student exchanges and other foreign assistance programs. While they acknowledge the goodwill these initiatives create, too many of them see them as nice-to-do rather than vital to national security -- which makes you wonder whether they really understand, in this day and age, what national security really is. They should have heard what one of the Liberians told us: "The best way to create a sustained peace is to put bread on the table; improving daily lives is the best way to security."

It's not a matter of spending more; nor is it a matter of either guns or butter. Shifting priorities and re-balancing our commitment of resources to meet new realities is not idealism. It's good strategy. Rather than cutting programs like student exchanges, we should be investing more, because they generate results and are return on investment ratio than a lot of puts and options, in good part because the learning goes both ways, doubling down on the outlay. A transfer of less than one percent of what we would spend on weapons of mass destruction to weapons of mass instruction would probably do more for the safety, security, and quality of life for Americans and others than the other 99 percent that exists only to prevent the unthinkable, so it can never be used (hopefully).

It's a one percent we all can live with.