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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the University of Southern California

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
As Prepared for Delivery
Los Angeles, CA
October 2, 2012


Thank you, Phil, for that introduction. And hello everyone.

One of the first things I learned as Under Secretary was how few people understand the point and the value of public diplomacy. That has been part of my challenge.

Luckily, I don’t need to explain it to this audience. You are all PD-minded practitioners. And you are proof positive that public diplomacy has emerged as an art, a science, an honorable profession, and a craft. It is topic A in the think tank universe – and increasingly in the mainstream media. More people are emerging as career PD officers at the State Department.

And schools like the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School are teaching it at the graduate level. I am delighted, too, that through a partnership between the State Department and USC, six Tunisian diplomats will come here to study public diplomacy over two consecutive summers.

And of course, as we meet, PD is very much a part of the news of the day. I refer to the events that began so tragically in Libya, and continue across Muslim communities around the world. And a great part of our public diplomacy works hand-in-hand with social media.

It was humans interacting with – or responding to – social media, that contributed significantly to the Arab Spring, and also to the violent protests we saw across the region in the past weeks.

To be sure there were other factors: rampant unemployment among young people; autocratic regimes exploiting their citizens and depriving them of any political voice; religious animosity; and so forth. But social media was certainly a leveraging force.

Public diplomacy, therefore, must incorporate many factors into our messaging and engagement. And recent events have been a challenge as we worked to engage audiences everywhere about our belief in freedom of expression – and religious tolerance.

As President Obama has said, we see no disconnect between the two. And Secretary Clinton just released an important video on YouTube expressing those ideas.

This is a timely example of PD’s reactive role – as we respond to these developments. But PD is much more effective and results-oriented as a proactive tool. We must acknowledge the role of social media to help leverage that engagement in proactive ways.

The world is abuzz with vibrant conversations. Citizens are communicating in multiple ways, 24-7, person-to-person, face-to-face, and virtually. There is no law saying the United States has to be central to those conversations. We have to make it so.

If we don’t take that initiative, we will become irrelevant.

That means being in constant contact with young people, political leaders, and other players, so we know what’s on their minds, what they need, and so on. When we do this, we can formulate our policies more intelligently. When we do that, we can fulfill PD’s most important role: as the eyes and ears of policy.

Without public diplomacy, our policies will risk the prospect of flying blind – and deaf.

We must also understand that PD measures results over the short term, the mid term and the long. And the more we understand that, the more strategic our planning will be – and the less likely we will be to misread or be surprised by rapidly changing environments.

At the reactive end – inevitably, we have to present our counter argument to false, hateful, and cynical messages of extremism. We do that through our Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, where we contest digital space with violent extremists who seek to radicalize young men in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, and elsewhere. When we enter their space and challenge them, we force them to pay attention to a different point of view.

But we also need to be there at the proactive end: engaging with audiences, particularly the young, the unemployed, women and girls, and the underserved communities, so we can support their most positive aspirations.

There are national security implications here. Diplomacy has long been the front line of defense, and PD can help us pre-empt many of the root causes that might otherwise necessitate military intervention. When we create networks of friends and allies whose citizens are self-realized, and who are eager to take responsibility as constructive global partners, we create security for ourselves.

The more we listen, talk with, and interact with people around the world, the more we can minimize the susceptibility of young people to sign up with drug cartels or religious extremists.

The more that we build PD awareness and strategy into everything we do, the more effective we will be as diplomats – and the better we will serve the interests of our country.

But in the spirit of public diplomacy, I am here to listen and share ideas, not just talk. So I want to thank you for listening, and I look forward to your comments or questions.

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