Tara Sonenshine on American Public Diplomacy: America Does Exceptional Things

posted by Matthew Wallin on June 28, 2012 at 5:02 pm

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This afternoon, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, had a rousing conversation with a passionate audience about her plans for American public diplomacy. Speaking for a few minutes on the challenges of public diplomacy and her plans, and stressing the need to engage foreign publics, she opened up the floor to a great Q&A session.

In her remarks, Sonenshine stated that honest public discussion is an important element of PD, and pushed the notion that information is oxygen.

The primary challenge of PD, as she sees it, is explaining America, including its policies, practices, and ideas in a way that expands into the public discourse. She explained that America itself is about strong principles, individual resourcefulness, national purpose, and human potential.  America believes that individuals should shape their own destinies.

In the complex world that is public diplomacy, Sonenshine also believes that PD must have short-, mid-, and long-term planning. Given that information flows so quickly, we must be in step with momentary ideas, while being mindful of long term aspirations.

In addition to the strategic goals for public diplomacy set out by her predecessor, Judith McHale, Sonenshine also outlined some of her goals as the Under Secretary, including:

  • Professionalizing the field of PD
  • Defining PD internally across government, externally across the United States, and overseas.
  • Integrating PD with economic statecraft, entrepreneurship outreach to youth, and to women and girls.
  • Enhancing social media outreach, particularly with youth.
  • Ensure our educational engagement is robust.
  • Improving international broadcasting strategy.
  • American Spaces – Sonenshine stressed the importance of these “spaces” to public diplomacy, noting that despite having over 800 of these spaces in foreign countries, Americans know very little about them. She plans to visit the spaces and find out how and what they’ve been doing and find out what they need.
  • Making the case for PD on Capitol Hill, through the nation, and overseas—this will include speaking, traveling, and engaging.

When asked about the idea of American exceptionalism by ASP Board Member Nelson Cunningham, an idea that sometimes comes off as offensive to foreign publics, Sonenshine responded:

…I don’t like to tell people that we’re an exceptional nation, but I tell them we do exceptional things. And I think we’re in an age where we’re all in a fiscally constrained era – it’s “show me.” Show me what you do that makes a difference on the ground in somebody’s life. Show me the Fulbright program. Show me the training that you do with journalists. Give me a sense of where you’ve built something—created something that is going to make a positive difference. So I think we’re in a post rhetoric era, where we’ve had a lot of speeches, we’ve said a lot of things, and now we have to demonstrate what we do overseas that people can see, touch, feel and appreciate.

The audience also asked a fantastic series of questions.

One audience member asked about the role of public diplomacy as a facilitator and convener as opposed to being used solely for messaging. Responding to this, Sonenshine noted that good PD involves an intersection where both of these factors meet. Once you have facilitated and convened, you must explain and define.

A big discussion in the PD community recently has also centered around the expanding efforts of Russia and China. I wrote recently about a Heritage Foundation event that was held on the subject, arguing that we should not be surprised about their pursuit of PD activities. When asked about the Russian and Chinese efforts, Sonenshine noted that she has followed Chinese PD for 10 years, and contended that we should neither be afraid nor skeptical of these foreign efforts. However, we do need to “up our game” and work harder at PD in the competitive environment.

The subject of student exchange was raised several times during the discussion session, where several Fulbright scholars studying in the U.S. made reference to their own experience.

In this context, Sonenshine was also asked about the challenges of youth outreach, where the reality of the visa system often denies youth a chance to visit or study in the U.S. Her remarks expressed optimism, explaining that while visas are an issue, wait times are decreasing. She also explored some of her concerns, stating that we don’t have sufficient data on foreign students studying in the U.S., even though they contribute roughly $20 billion to the American economy annually. As part of youth outreach, we must also focus on sending our own students to foreign countries, she said, as exchange is a two-way street. She also found that America doesn’t make a strong enough effort to keep in contact with alumni networks overseas, and stated that there is a big effort underway at State to build databases to better tap the long-term benefits of programs like Fulbright.

Exploring a question asking about the nature of diplomacy in 2012, Sonenshine touched on the roles of the foreign and civil service, noting that diplomacy can neither be “silo-ed” nor compartmentalized. In her view, public diplomacy plays an important role in the context of our foreign relations, and can be “woven into the fabric” of foreign policy.

We at ASP were very pleased to have Under Secretary Sonenshine, and would like to thank both her and the audience for a fantastic event. See below for videos from the event.

Under Secretary Sonenshine’s presentation:

Audience Q&A:

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