Politicians should have to live abroad, learn another language

Emily Vernon

Politicians like to appeal to American patriotism. However, this mentality of American exceptionalism negatively affects both foreign and domestic policy by encouraging a politically closed-minded culture. The government should encourage America’s melting-pot culture by requiring elected federal officials to have lived abroad for at least a year and proficiently speak a foreign language.

A president who has lived abroad is less likely to adopt ethnocentric policies and more likely to avoid focusing solely on American, rather than humanitarian or global, interests. It is
important for federal officials to understand that other countries operate under different governmental systems, most notably social and parliamentary democracies. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, known for his progressive ideas regarding the death penalty and gay marriage, has similarly noted that it is important to take into consideration international laws and politics while attempting to “preserve our basic values.”

It is likely the American public would not be opposed to such legislation. According to TransferWise, an international money transfer website, 55 percent of U.S. citizens ages 18–34 would consider moving abroad. Currently, there are 6.3 million Americans doing so.

Government professor Raul Madrid said he believes public officials should live abroad in order to achieve empathy for other countries and expand their cultural knowledge.      

“I think one of the problems elected officials often have before they enter office is they don’t have much in the way of foreign experience,” Madrid said. “They are essentially unqualified to make a lot of the decisions they have to make.”

In addition, federal politicians should be required to pass a language proficiency exam in a language other than English. This would connect the politician to the 61.8 million Americans who speak another language at home and open up a line of communication with other countries and their citizens.

Government associate professor Terrence Chapman, an expert in international affairs, wrote in an email that a cultural perspective is important for understanding policy.

“Ordinary citizens should care about how things work abroad, because it provides some perspective about how life is under our government versus how life is elsewhere,”
Chapman wrote.

In order to make informed decisions about our democracy at home, elected officials should understand how similar decisions have affected other countries.  Encouraging elected federal officials to live abroad and speak a foreign language can open America’s political culture to positive influences from around the world.

Vernon is a PACE freshman from Houston. Follow her on Twitter @_emilyvernon_.