printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Keynote Speech at Partnership for A Secure America

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Washington, DC
September 24, 2012


(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you. Let me first congratulate you on completing the Congressional Partnership Program. By working across the aisle and between the House and the Senate within the framework of bipartisanship, I believe you are better equipped to serve our country – and most importantly, the American taxpayers.

I am here to underscore the importance of carrying that bipartisan spirit into your discussions on foreign policy. At this challenging moment, following the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats – and the unfolding events that continue even now, that spirit couldn’t be more important.

I am proud to stand in for Sam Nunn as your speaker. Over the course of a long and successful career, he embodied the principle of bipartisanship. One of his most enduring legacies is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Working with Republican Senator Lugar, he helped lay the groundwork for one of our finest foreign policy achievements: the deactivation of thousands of nuclear warheads, and our arms agreements with Russia.

Without that bipartisan teamwork, it’s hard to imagine we’d have any of those agreements over the past 30 years.

I am also proud to support the bipartisanship that this organization represents. It is why I got involved with PSA years ago and served on the board. I believe that the statements that PSA has offered over the past few years, co-signed by leading foreign policy experts on both sides of the aisle, are not just symbolic. They are substantive reminders of what it means to support U.S. foreign policy.

As we meet, we continue to respond to the effects of one reprehensible film, and all the repercussions taking place in many Muslim communities around the world.

We find ourselves immersed in a swirl of rage and violence directed at American Embassies over a video that we had nothing to do with. We see voices of suspicion and mistrust that seek to divide countries and cultures from one another.

So we must think about the message that we want to convey to the world. We must convey that – as Americans – we stand for certain inalienable freedoms.

That we stand in defense of freedom of speech as we reserve our right to reject the content of speech which we find despicable.

That we also stand for religious tolerance, and we are the home to people of all religions – including millions of Muslims. So we defend the right of that video to be made, just as we reject its denigration of religion.

We also stand for the unfiltered freedom of the Internet: It should be the forum for all opinions and perspectives – as well as a place from which to report atrocities and outrages, or to report on natural disasters, or share best practices.

This is not the place to dig deeper into that debate. But my point tonight is this: The importance of getting this and other messages right is absolutely crucial. So the need for bipartisan consensus in our foreign policy couldn’t be more imperative.

A public statement came out, shortly after the tragic events in Libya, and I’d like to read it.

"Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken.

We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists.

To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives."

This statement didn’t come from Secretary Clinton or President Obama – as you might expect. It came from Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman.

They understood that, when we speak with bipartisan consensus, America’s voice resonates at home and abroad.

At home, a statement like that tells Americans that foreign policy should never be undermined by partisan disagreements. If anything, our differences and perspectives should enhance our foreign policy.

To people around the world, it also sends a powerful message: No matter what side of the aisle we come from, we are Americans with shared purpose, values, visions, and solidarity.

Finding ways to enhance bipartisanship isn’t just the right and moral thing to do. It’s the smart and strategic thing to do – for the United States, for people around the world, and for you in this audience tonight. I’ll explain why.

Now, I don’t know how many of you saw the news coverage or the photos of Aung San Suu Kyi receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.

If you look at those photos, you will also see Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, who has been an advocate for Burmese human rights. You will see Speaker of the House John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And you will see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Burma policy is one of Washington’s “success” stories of bipartisan cooperation. You see all those people at the medal ceremony because both parties worked together to apply pressure on the Burmese Government.

They agreed we needed to work for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Burmese people. They agreed that we needed to support their desire to pursue their God given potential without reprisal, tyranny or corruption. And to educate their children to have even better futures.

It was these ideals that led both parties to give the steps the Burmese Government took toward reform the benefit of the doubt and passed and supported other policy steps to allow for further political and economic engagement with that country’s government and people.

Why was consensus on Burma so important? We established another beach head of democracy in one of the most important regions in the world.

That’s a core principle of public diplomacy. Our position in the world becomes stronger and more secure when we support democratic representation, human rights, and inclusive economic institutions. When we enhance prosperity abroad, we create opportunities for U.S. investment, and for trade. That creates jobs for our people. We also augment our global position as a leading voice for all of these values – from freedom to prosperity.

That’s not only a preventive measure for our national security – it’s a proactive measure for our leadership.

As Lee Hamilton said, democracy is a process, not an outcome. In a representative democracy like ours, how we reach a result is every bit as important as the result itself — and maybe even more important.

For a long time, Congress recognized this – and that is why, over many decades of practice, it built what is known as the “regular order” — a set of processes and means of doing business designed to ensure that proposals get careful scrutiny and all voices are given proper space to be heard.

We must use this process to find common ground, not emphasize our divisions. We can only do it by working to find common ground.

This brings me to another reason why we should pursue consensus: It’s strategically the smartest thing we can do.

Here’s why. The global challenges we face are complex. They are multilayered and cross cutting. So we need problem solvers who can address those diverse issues. We can do that by bringing together problem solvers with different perspectives, assets and connections.

Now, that principle drives our public diplomacy. We work broadly to bring all underserved communities to the problem solving table. That includes women and girls, the LGBT community, ethnic or tribal minorities, and young people.

So we should also make sure our problem solvers come from a wide representation of political parties. Not just because we believe in democratic representation but because we need everyone’s help.

Of course, it’s all very well to talk about consensus between two parties – especially on the eve of a national election. But how do we realistically achieve that?

How do we answer the perfectly legitimate response that no one should compromise the principles of their party?

Don’t get me wrong: Principles are deeply important and they should always inform a party’s decisions about policy, domestic and foreign. But there is always room to find areas of agreement.

The late Senator Ted Kennedy knew this. When someone came into a new position of authority from either party, he’d always pay them a visit and ask: “What are your most important priorities and how can I help you?”

He understood that, when we demonize, we also close the window on any areas of agreement. When we get to know another senator or representative, we can learn the full spectrum of their values, viewpoints and behavior. From that knowledge we can build trust and strategic partnerships – and serve our true constituency: the American people.

This is not difficult to do. And the more you identify common areas of interest across the aisle, the more you will identify yourself as part of the problem solving solution. And the better you will serve your country.

Fortunately, there are many committed people on both sides of the aisle. Both Chairman Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have worked together on appropriations for critical humanitarian relief and global health programs, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

They have also worked together to create the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, requested by the President, to respond to rapidly changing events in that region.

These are the kind of successful, bipartisan outcomes that take our country forward.

Here’s another benefit: your careers. After the election, you will see that key people have gone, and others have moved into key positions. Leadership may change hands. So, the more you have worked towards consensus, the more likely your consensus-building reputation will help you.

That will make people more likely to reach out to you. That could contribute to a long and fruitful career – and as consensus builder, you will better serve our country.

So the ball – in many ways – is in your court. Through your hard work and commitment, you are a big part of the reason the system works already. With a belief in the principles of consensus, you can also be the reason the system changes for the better. And that’s an outcome that will benefit all of us.

Thank you. And I look forward to your comments and questions!

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.