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As Condoleezza Rice enters the State Department, she will face a number of pressing foreign-policy problems that she cannot solve. This will not be for lack of effort or intelligence on her part. It's just that many foreign-policy crises involve the interests and activities of countries across the globe, and changing these takes time.

But there is a growing danger for the United States that needs urgent attention, can be solved and is within Rice's power to handle. It's the foreign-visa crisis. Left unattended, it is going to have deep and lasting effects on American security and competitiveness.

U.S. visa procedures have become far too cumbersome, and bureaucrats are turning down far more applications than ever before. One result is the dramatic decline of foreign students in the U.S. -- the first shift downward in 30 years. Undergraduate enrollment from China dropped 20 percent this year; from India, 9 percent; from Japan, 14 percent.

Some might say, "Good riddance, it's their loss." Actually, the greater loss is ours. American universities benefit from having the best students from across the globe. But the single most deadly effect of this trend is the erosion of American capacity in science and technology.

The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. And that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering work force are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

Americans don't do science anymore. The NSB put out another report this year that showed the United States now ranks 17th (among nations surveyed) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third. The recent decline in foreign applications is having a direct effect on science programs. Three years ago there were 385 computer-science majors at MIT. Today there are 240.

Falling foreign enrollments will produce a broader but no less profound loss for the United States. America has spread its interests, ideas and values across the world by many means, but perhaps the single most effective one has been by educating the world's elites. For example, Western ideas about the benefits of free markets and free trade have become the global standard. This may have much to do with Western foreign and trade policies. But surely this shift has been strengthened and facilitated by the fact that so many of the people in the ministries of finance, trade and industry in the developing world were educated at Western universities.

The hegemony of ideas is often a greater and more lasting source of power than brute force. When historians write about our times, they will certainly note that America dominated the international agenda for decades through this distinctive form of power.

But that hegemony is weakening for four reasons. First, America has become less attractive in the eyes of the world. Second, Washington is making it tougher to come here. Third, there is greater competition and more alternatives for the world's best students. (The biggest beneficiaries have been universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.) And finally, there are more opportunities around the globe.

Some of these problems can't be solved by the secretary of state. But America's image abroad is something she can help improve. And visas are entirely under her control. I understand the need for greater scrutiny after 9/1 1. Every visa officer today lives in fear that he will let in the next Muhammad Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.


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