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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Web 2.0 Engagement

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
October 15, 2012


Thank you, Sheldon, for the kind introduction. And good afternoon, everyone. I am always delighted and honored to stand in this beautiful building and speak to some of the most intelligent audiences you will ever find. You are exactly the partners we need to extend the reach and impact of our virtual exchanges.

Sheldon, you may recall a time back in April of 2011 when my predecessor, Judith McHale, stood in this very spot and talked about this very issue of 2.0 virtual exchanges.

At that time, I sat in the front row, listening.

As Under Secretary McHale said back then, working through government-to-government channels is no longer enough. If we want our people-to-people exchanges to remain central to our public diplomacy engagement, we have to open new channels. We have to communicate government to people, and people to people. And one of the best ways we can leverage those conversations is through social media and other connective technologies, such as video teleconferencing.

I want to make something very clear: this is not a zero sum game. We are not talking about replacing our traditional, face-to-face interactions and exchanges with only digital relationships. No matter how evolved our technology becomes, there is no substitute for a visiting student to sit across the dinner table with a family abroad. There is no substitute for the give and take of real encounters between people.

Nor are we suggesting that every student in the world can avail themselves of the online connectivity and virtual exchange. There is room for both—virtual and physical exchanges and they can leverage one another in a powerful way. We need both and we need to invest in both.

Exchange 2.0 is our way of combining the cutting edge with the traditional, so we can increase the bandwidth of our diplomacy. I call that very “Win-Win 2.0”!

The truth is, we cannot afford not to do this. More and more people converse, operate, trade, invest, interact, and take decisive and groundbreaking action – with social media as their central tool. Teleconferencing and Skype conversations between friends or business associates are commonplace all over the world. And right now, there are six billion mobile devices in circulation.

If we don’t join that vibrant arena, we will become irrelevant. More importantly, we will lose the chance to help more citizens become empowered…and to support their most positive, productive – and yes,– peaceful aspirations.

By harnessing social media, we can deepen the impact and quality of our public diplomacy everywhere. But we can also reach the people who need it most. I am talking about those who are hampered by geographic challenges or political constraints.

There are just too many people out there yearning for interaction. But there is no way we can have direct contact with even a small fraction of them. Virtual technology gives us the capability to significantly scale up our engagement opportunities.

Through them, we can make those connections. And we can help more people write their own futures, whether they are learning English, or strengthening the social media capabilities of their NGO, or participating in an educational exchange program, or making key contacts around the world.

Exchange 2.0 also works as an extension of our ongoing public diplomacy because it can help us maintain relationships – before and after. It can bring people to our programs. And long after they have returned home, we can use to engage them as alumni. They can stay in touch with us – and one another. They can work on future projects.

The more we engage people to become productive, and realize their aspirations, the better the chances they will pursue shared futures of peace and prosperity. The better the chances they will create environments for investment and trade.

And the more likely we can enhance our national security.

Now, there is much that we have already been doing to reach out through connective technology. For more than ten years, our Global Connections and Exchange Program has supported collaboration through online linkages among students, educators, and community youth leaders. And since 2004, 6,000 teachers in more than 100 countries have benefitted from our e-Teacher Scholarship Program, which offers innovative, online, graduate-level classes.

More recently, we have organized virtual exchanges on the margins of high profile events, including the World Summit of Nobel Laureates in Chicago. At that event, we connected students at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School with young people in Algeria, Ghana, Peru, and Zimbabwe.

And out in the field, our embassies are leveraging new technologies and bringing diverse groups together in the virtual space.

In the Caucasus, for example, our posts—with training and support from our international information programs bureau—are using virtual platforms to bring together students in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to discuss the American experience in democracy. That enhances our outreach in a region with a history of armed conflict and cultural mistrust.

But we are working to do much more. I am pleased to announce, today, that we are standing up a new virtual exchange team at the State Department. We call it our Virtual Exchanges Unit. By integrating virtual aspects into all ECA programs, we’ll be expanding our reach and our capabilities.

And we’ll be able to open new channels between young people in the United States and youth around the world. Without this technology, we could never have those conversations – or build those networks – as easily.

And next month we are hosting a virtual college fair over a 24-hour cycle. It will be the world’s largest such platform with approximately 200 colleges or universities manning virtual booths.

The idea is to have a good diversity of schools, so that the ones with fewer resources can leverage their own international recruitment. This will also increase the availability of information about studying in the USA. And it will increase engagement between educational advisers and students using our American Spaces.

The State Department recently began a series of Youth TechCamps to empower young people around the world to engage via digital networks. This is an exciting extension of Secretary Clinton’s 21st century statecraft, and shows our commitment to remaining engaged with alumni of our exchange programs.

So far, we’ve sponsored three Youth TechCamps. One of the partners here, iEARN, helped us administer the Youth TechCamps in Bangladesh and Pakistan with a huge degree of success. And over the three initial Youth TechCamps, we’ve connected with more than 90 alumni of our YES Program–or Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study.

But I am not here to delve too much deeper into our programs. So I’d like to direct my comments to you in the audience. Critical to the success and impact of State-supported virtual exchanges are partnerships with individuals and entities in the public, private, and nonprofit space. People like you, who can bring a diverse array of talents, assets and resources to the cross-cutting and interconnected challenges we face.

Later today, for example, you’ll be hearing from Lucas Welch – whose Soliya organization partnered with iEarn and Global Nomads Group to form the Exchange 2.0 Coalition. With programs like Connect, they are working to make virtual exchange a robust force for the 21st century.

And earlier this month, the State Department joined with partners for an initiative called GIST – which stands for Global Innovation through Science and Technology.

We worked with CRDF Global, a public-private non-profit that promotes technology-based entrepreneurship around the globe; the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, and the MIT Enterprise Forum in Pakistan. And we created a videoconference that connected 500 Pakistani entrepreneurs with mentors and business members around their country.

If it wasn’t for those partners, and that connective technology, we could never have convened such a widely dispersed community.

These are just a few models that we can employ. We must work together to imagine – and realize – the possibilities ahead. The rewards are obvious: We would find ways to help more people – especially the young – address their needs, meet their challenges, and emerge as productive citizens. That’s an outcome we can all applaud.

So, on behalf of all of my colleagues at the State Department, we look forward to connecting with you to collaborate and scale the reach and impact of virtual exchange. With your support, I know we can – and will – make this happen.

Thank you.

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