Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon B. Johnson meet at the White House, 28 July 1965

Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon B. Johnson meet at the White House, 28 July 1965

International Scholars Debate Provincialism, Cosmopolitanism in the Fulbright Legacy



by Darinda Sharp

In September, scholars from around the world will meet at the University of Arkansas to discuss Sen. J. William Fulbright’s foreign policy legacy. Scholars from Australia, Europe and the United States have been invited to present papers at a conference addressing “J. William Fulbright in International Perspective: Liberal Internationalism and U.S. Global Influence.”

Fulbright was elected to the Senate in 1944 and served Arkansas for three decades. In 1959, he was named chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. As the longest-serving chairman, Fulbright left a lasting imprint on the nation’s foreign policy. He wrote several books on the subject, including The Arrogance of Power (1966), The Price of Empire (1967) and The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and its Domestic Consequences (1972), which still resonate with today’s policy makers.

During the two-day conference, sponsored by Fulbright College’s Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society, attendees will examine the senator’s contribution and reassess his legacy as it applies to U.S. foreign relations and global developments in the 20th century.

“The conference is built around two central themes, which partly overlap but also contrast with each other in important ways,” said Angie Maxwell, associate professor of political science and director of the Blair Center. “First, scholars will consider the impact of the Fulbright Program itself. And second, they will explore Fulbright’s contributions toward liberal internationalism in the 20th century.”

While the conference itself will include only the participants and organizers, the public is invited to two free forums associated with the meeting. An opening event will begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31, in Old Main’s Giffels Auditorium. Randall Woods, noted Fulbright biographer and the John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History, will serve as the keynote speaker.

“J. William Fulbright in International Perspective” will be the sixth in the Blair Center’s distinguished Blair Legacy Series, which was inaugurated in 2001 with an analysis of the Clinton Administration. As with previous symposia, the invited participants will work in small groups throughout the conference to produce a manuscript based on the papers presented and discussed during the meeting.

Tom Healy, former chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, will speak at the Blair Library Building, home of the Fayetteville Public Library, on Tuesday, Sept. 1. He will discuss the Fulbright Program's worldwide impact. Watch the library's calendar for additional details. 

Conference invitees have examined many aspects of foreign policy and Fulbright’s contributions, including national exceptionalism, liberal internationalism, critiques of U.S. empire, the United States’ global influence, multilateralism, the role of women in the global intellectual elite, the impact of the Fulbright Program, racial inequality, segregation and white supremacy, belief systems, national missions, neo-isolationism, non-diplomatic representatives, U.S. global influence, cultural mediation and Fulbright’s relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“We are excited about hosting this gathering of experts on Senator Fulbright,” said Todd Shields, dean of Fulbright College. “I look forward to hearing their discussions and reading the insights that will come from this meeting in the palace that the Senator called home for so many years.”

According to organizers, the Fulbright Program, which the senator proposed 70 years ago, is the embodiment of his intent to promote a global intellectual elite center in the United States as well as internationalize U.S. culture and society. This flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government was designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Now active in more than 160 countries and with roughly 325,000 alumni to date, it is arguably Fulbright’s most lasting achievement and has proved to be a vital element in global knowledge transfer.

“Committed to liberal internationalism and international educational exchange, Fulbright was also at heart a Southern politician, who early in his career represented the region’s sectional interests, including opposition to the civil rights agenda,” Woods said.  “Like other Southern moderates he would come to embrace the Second Reconstruction. But that dichotomy – between provincialism and cosmopolitanism – revealed a divide that still has consequences for America’s global policies, and for the perception others have of the U.S. international presence. More significant, Fulbright’s reasoned opposition to the conflict in Vietnam is currently being referenced by critics of the second Iraqi war.”

Discussions are designed to shed light on the tensions between provincialism and cosmopolitanism inherent in Fulbright’s career; the embodiments and contradictions of Fulbright’s approach to the internationalism of his day; particular southern variants of mid-century internationalism, and racial, class, and gender aspects of liberal internationalism; and the Fulbright exchange program. Attendees will also evaluate Fulbright’s philosophy and its effects on other nations’ foreign policy conduct or style of internationalism.

Conclusions to these and other subjects will be included in participants’ revised papers, which will be compiled into a manuscript, which will be edited by conference committee members Alessandro Brogi, professor of history in Fulbright College; Giles Scott-Smith, Ernst van der Beugel Chair of Diplomatic History at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands; and David J. Snyder, associate professor of history and foreign relations at University of South Carolina.

Darinda Sharp

About the author

Darinda Sharp serves as director of communications for the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.