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Diplomacy in Action

Collaborative Diplomacy

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
American University
Washington, DC
October 17, 2012


Date: 10/17/2012 Description: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine during her visit to American University in Washington, DC. - State Dept Image
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Thank you, Robert.

Hello everyone. I am delighted to come to American University and have this opportunity to speak with you. AU’s reputation as a center of learning for political and international studies already speaks for itself.

The launch of your new Public and Cultural Diplomacy Forum will raise your profile even higher. As Robert knows, I am a strong supporter of strengthening and institutionalizing public diplomacy in higher education. And that includes cultural diplomacy. So, congratulations and bravo!

Of course, cultural diplomacy is about using our cultural achievements to build relationships of trust overseas. We do this with jazz. We do it with hip hop. We do it with U.S. Women’s Soccer and U.S. Men’s Basketball. And of course, there is the American piece de resistance: the movies.

Has anyone seen any good movies lately? How about “The Master”? Or maybe “Argo” – Ben Affleck’s new film about the rescue of the six American hostages in Iran?

I mention movies because – as with public diplomacy – collaboration is the key to its success. And collaboration is what I am here to talk about today – or more specifically, collaborative diplomacy.

When someone finishes a great movie script – with that perfect “meeting cute” scene, and a happy ending – they’re not done yet. They need an agent. They need a producer, who has relationships with financiers and movie studios. Then they need a director and a production crew with all kinds of capabilities – from camerawoman to Best Boy, a cast, agents. You get the idea.

I saw this for myself when I went to L.A. recently and met members of a top Hollywood agency to see how we could work together. We met because we both understood the power of collaboration to achieve mutual objectives and interests. Where we could bring the ability to convene partners and visibility, they could bring ideas and people.

That’s what public diplomacy is all about. Team work. Partnerships. As Secretary Clinton once said, “It takes a village.” And that village is made more robust by social networking, outreach, study abroad, in-person exchanges, and people-to-people engagement.

Now, we are not seeking partnerships because we just like meeting with people. That’s not why President Obama and Secretary Clinton are trying to actively engage with public and private partners and individuals around the world.

It’s because we recognize we cannot do it alone. The problems and issues we face in the 21st century are intricate and interconnected. They are cross-cutting and deep, whether it’s counter terrorism or climate change, economic issues or energy security.

As we consider our challenges, we can’t forget that virtual elephant in the room: social media. More than ever, people are communicating with it, trading with it, investing with it – using it as a central tool for decisive and groundbreaking action.

So, take all this complexity … multiply it by the social media revolution and about six billion mobile devices … and you can draw only one conclusion: No one has all the capabilities and the resources it would take to address them. Collaborative diplomacy is critical. We need a wide network of partners, each with their own skill sets or resources that they can bring to the problem solving table.

We do not have unlimited resources. Our overseas spending accounts for barely one per cent of the government’s operating budget. We have to be creative, innovative and efficient. We have to leverage what we can do.

And what we can do is act as conveners, who bring together people from across regions and sectors to work together on issues of common interest. We can be catalysts, who help to launch new projects, actively seek solutions, and provide vital training and technical assistance. We can be collaborators, working closely with our partners to plan and implement projects.

Who are these partners? Well, they are other governments. They are the private sector, including corporations, and foundations. They are internal and external stakeholders — the State Department and academics, students like you, PD practitioners, and nongovernmental organizations.

And let’s not forget individual citizens – people ranging from Bill Gates and all he does, to the unknown person who sends a text message and contributes $10 over their mobile phone to help countries like Haiti who are so in need.

These are all partners. And we have to take advantage of the power of social networking to scale up our outreach and engagement. It is why I have ensured that on my team are people working on that outreach – to create opportunities for me to engage with students, faculty, and think tanks.

With these partners – across sectors, industries, and borders – we can have the reach and resources, the innovation and the connections. We can help to build economic growth and create opportunity in ways we could never do alone. We can invest in the well-being of people from all walks of life. We can help to make democracy serve every citizen more effectively and justly.

There are so many examples of the kind of public-private partnerships that we are involved in. I’ll mention two.

President Obama launched the SelectUSA Initiative last summer. The Departments of State and Commerce are actually working hand-in-hand on this program and we are already seeing results.

Last year, we brought together American and Chinese governors and other state and local officials to discuss investment opportunities. Very soon after, one of China’s largest heavy equipment manufacturers in China announced a $60 million investment in Peachtree City, Georgia, with plans to add an additional $25 million across the state and hire 300 engineers in the next five years.

Earlier this week, I was talking to the U.S. Institute of Peace, and I mentioned a partnership initiative called GIST. That stands for Global Innovation through Science and Technology.

We worked with CRDF Global, a public-private nonprofit that promotes technology-based entrepreneurship around the globe; as well as the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad; and the MIT Enterprise Forum in Pakistan.

Together, we created a videoconference that connected 800 Pakistani entrepreneurs with three successful American entrepreneurs in a Washington studio. They offered advice on how to turn an idea into a billion-dollar business. Mission Pakistan worked with 19 universities to arrange group viewings and participation in the videoconference.

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

Collaborations like these foster networking; and they ensure teambuilding so that one great idea is socialized with others and improved upon. We can move from one way dialogue to two-way dialogue to multidirectional dialogue.

There’s a book by Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault – it’s called “Moving from Monologue to Dialogue to Collaboration: The Three Layers of Public Diplomacy.”

In it, they say – and I quote – “projects, networks, and partnerships… have value because they breed social trust and foster norms of reciprocity, and create stores of goodwill that can prove invaluable during times of crisis.”

Building goodwill. Breeding social trust. Fostering norms of reciprocity. All of those things contribute to the gold currency that public diplomacy deals in. In other words, collaborative diplomacy helps us achieve the key goals of public diplomacy.

Now there are some downsides to collaboration. You have to avoid group-think. You have to avoid an endless circle of conversation with no conclusion. You have to resist the temptation to simply reinvent the wheel with a re-tweet, a re-posting of someone’s great idea, or the pure amalgamation of lots of good ideas which add up to nothing new under the sun.

We don’t want a recycled public diplomacy.

At the end of the day, what we want out of collaborative PD is national and international idea-sharing. That is in our self interest and furthers our own national security.

Former Governor Tom Kean and Former Congressman Lee Hamilton co-authored a bipartisan op-ed in 2008 which explained why public diplomacy and study abroad are so vital to America. “Ignorance of the world,” they wrote, “is a national liability.”

When I look around this room, I am very encouraged. You, as students and practitioners of communications, public policy and public diplomacy are part of a huge movement. And that movement is a burgeoning field which stands at the nexus of information and global affairs and recognizes the town square as a global town square – with a giant swirling dialogue and conversation. You are part of the generation to help change that ignorance to awareness.

Now, one of the chief tenets of public diplomacy is that we move from one way conversations to multi-conversations. We have to be listeners. The whole point about public diplomacy is not about talking in one direction. It’s about listening in all directions. Hearing other points of view. Understanding our differences. People around the world – especially young people – want to know they are being heard, that their voice matters, and that we are responsive to their concerns.

So without further ado, I want to open things up for your thoughts and questions.

But not before I thank you first – for listening. Thank you.

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