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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at the Capstone Dinner

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
National Defense University (As prepared for delivery)
Washington, DC
May 17, 2012


Good evening and thank you, Stephen.

I would like to extend my thanks and greetings to Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, Capstone Director Stephen Pietropaoli, my soon-to-be-colleague Brian Cullin, all the Capstone Flag officers and spouses, and the whole National Defense University family.

When I saw the roster of Capstone officers and spouses here tonight, I was amazed at how broad-based and eclectic you all are. Now that’s a civ-mil family! We have men and women officers. We have male and female spouses. We have people in special ops and in policy. We even have a chaplain who could probably share a few communications strategies for reaching a higher authority. But a great many of you have faced, or are facing, leadership issues directly and indirectly tied to civilian-military collaboration in peacetime and contingencies.

As the former Executive Vice President at the United States Institute of Peace, I was engaged directly in the business of peace building and conflict resolution. Civilian-military cooperation was central to that. We worked very hard to make that hyphen work between civ and mil – the color purple. And we extended our cooperation to NGO’s, to corporations, and to the indigenous people and communities we were working to bring together.

We quickly realized how important it was to share mutually understood and reinforcing strategies and information. And we made full use of social media to enhance the process. We understood that, everywhere we looked, there was a person to connect to. And each person extended and strengthened the chain of success.

Few have understood these interwoven principles better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As soon as she took office, she emphasized the importance of consolidating the three D’s of our foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development. Ever since, she has worked hard to make sure all three components work together to achieve our foreign policy goals and deepen our national security.

In my new capacity as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, it has been my privilege to support these goals – and to employ these strategies. Our mission is to engage foreign publics in targeted ways to advance our national security interests. It’s important that we focus on people in our policies. They are the ones who are directly affected and so they should be centermost in our engagement. Our policies are flying blind without it.

Working across agency – between the Departments of Defense and State – is central to that. And tonight, I want to talk about why our civilian-military cooperation is so important – and then I want to mention some of the ways in which we are working together towards our common goals.

As the President said in his National Security Strategy, globalization has intensified the dangers we face. Those challenges include international terrorism, the spread of deadly technologies, economic upheaval, and a changing climate. And thanks to social media, for example, the power structures of the world have become increasingly decentralized. We saw this during the Arab Spring when citizens – emboldened, energized, and empowered by social media – toppled entire governments in North Africa.

Not only that, we face environments of significantly reduced resources. So, to sum up, not only do we face more challenges than ever, they are more complex than ever – and we have less money to address them.

Now, that’s a three-dimensional cluster of problems. And our national security is too important for us to use one-dimensional thinking to address them. We have to use 3-D thinking and 3-D strategies, which means changing how we work together. For too long, we have worked side by side but not together – one side boots, the other side suits. We have been separated by our own acronyms, our own compartmental blinders and our stovepipe thinking.

So it is more important than ever that we maximize our communications and make sure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s also important that we think of this new era, not as a set of problems to react to tactically, but one of opportunity – ripe for our own creative and team-inclusive strategies. We have to find innovative ways to achieve our policy goals and reach new audiences – especially young people, who will be here longer than everyone else and will benefit most from our long term planning. Innovation is going to be key, as we seek new ways to expand our civilian-military cooperation to enhance our public diplomacy goals. Luckily, we are doing that.

One example of our civilian-military cooperation at the strategic, whole-of-government level, is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications – or CSCC. It was established in 2010 to help counteract messages of violent extremism around the world with a team that is not only civ-mil within the office but in its partnering beyond.

It is headed by a State Department Public Diplomacy officer, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who reports directly to me. Its Deputy Coordinator for Plans and Operations is a Marine Colonel, Colonel James Gfrerer. About one quarter of the interagency team comes from the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. And the office cooperates with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations Command, and the geographic combatant commands, as we work to undermine, marginalize, and defeat the propaganda of al-Qa’ida. This enhances our civilian-military skill set, gives us a more dynamic team, and helps us face three-dimensional problems with three-dimensional strategies.

Over the past decade, few countries have required more urgent cooperation from our interagency efforts than Iraq and Afghanistan. The need to improve, pool resources and develop interagency collaboration – so we can leverage each other’s capabilities – has been critical.

Luckily, we have caught on. And State Department civilians have been working side-by-side on a daily basis with their military counterparts. We have almost doubled the number of people exchanged between departments. And we have established a great precedent: A political advisor – or POLAD – now serving on the staff of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. This allows us to ensure that our government can speak and act with one unified voice.

Let me give you a concrete example of how a POLAD worked for us. We had one with the Commander of Joint Task Force (JTF) Odyssey Dawn, aboard the USS Whitney – in the Mediterranean, right when we were waiting on the UN Security Council vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya. He was the ship’s link between our military and our diplomatic efforts to secure a resolution. He kept information flowing so that, as soon as the vote came, the JTF was ready for duty and immediately began enforcing the zone to protect Libyan civilians.

Afghanistan is an example of a country where our civilian-military cooperation has come together in so many important ways.

One of our initial problems there was its lack of communications infrastructure. The only way most people found out information was through Friday sermons in mosques. That suited the Taliban just fine who liked to operate without fear of civilians alerting one another – especially at night. So we built cell phone towers so that the people of Afghanistan could better connect with one another. In 2001, there were only 20,000 cell phones in Afghanistan. Today, there are 18 million. Now that’s people-to-people connectivity!

So, how did civilian-military cooperation fit into all this? One of the Taliban’s responses was to knock out the cell phone towers. So the military allowed us to put cell phone towers in secure locations – on military bases – and this allowed Afghan civilians to communicate. By working together, across agencies, we helped Afghans take back the night.

We are working across agencies in other effective ways. Our military and the State Department worked together to co-fund the renovation of the national stadium in Kabul, for example. This helped to unite Afghans of all tribes and to institutionalize national pride in their sports teams.

We are also creating greater cooperation in our messaging. Our embassy is very close to the ISAF compound, where we make sure our strategic communications is unified. And our Communications Director of Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Eileen O’Connor, is in constant contact with Ambassador Crocker and General Allen. This worked especially well right after the Quran burning incident when we made sure all our messaging was coordinated and respectful.

There are many more examples but I believe the point is clear: We do more by thinking together and working together than working apart. If you take a look at yourselves tonight, you’ll see that we come from so many different walks of life and corners of our government. But we are bound by our desire to enhance our national security. We need to bring all our unique and diverse assets together for that common goal.

So whether you go from here to a Washington office, or a combatant command, or an embassy or consulate, or a deployment out at sea, I hope you will understand the value of interagency cooperation. You may even find yourself in the position of having to explain this philosophy to your peers or even a senior officer. And in which case you can consider yourself an interagency ambassador! There is no extra pay for this. But the dividends are enormous when you consider the national security of our country.

But it’s more than just a question of understanding its importance. The bigger question is: will you work to make it happen? Will you explore new ways to leverage and support it in whatever aspect of public diplomacy or public outreach in which you are working? I hope so.

I thank you for your time and attention tonight. And I look forward to finding new ways in which we may work even more closely together on these critical efforts of national security.

Thank you and, as that journalist-turned-diplomat Edward R. Murrow used to say, good night and good luck.

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