Public Diplomacy: The Lodestar for 21st Century Statecraft

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
As prepared for delivery
Syracuse University
Washington, DC
October 18, 2012

Thank you for that introduction.

Let me begin by saying how delighted I am to be at Syracuse University—a communications and public policy hub of academic activity and a place that brings together a diverse array of experts and great thinkers around the humanities. I am delighted to be part of the fifth Annual Public Diplomacy Symposium.

I know that Dean Steinberg could not be here. He is attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs, which is all but compulsory for PA Deans. So I extend my greetings to him as well.

I am excited by the range of topics at this year’s symposium. They include the relationship between public diplomacy and a politically fluid world, how dance can open up new channels of cultural understanding, and whether or not digital and social media are changing the way in which citizens engage politically.

These are timely matters – and they all fit into the great rubric of public diplomacy.

Obviously, the domestic politics of other countries are critical to our success – and whether or not their citizens feel empowered or constrained. And dance is one of the many ways that we can share our culture with audiences abroad, and help build trust and mutual understanding.

Of course, digital and social media are central to public diplomacy. Our connective technologies and our innovation have changed the conditions for just about everything – from the way we communicate and share strategic information to the way we trade or invest. It has become the predominant mode of global conversation.

Under Secretary Clinton, we have evolved a policy of what we call 21st Century Statecraft. Now, what do we mean by this term? It’s about taking our traditional foreign policy tools – and giving them deeper reach and dimension. We do that with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft.

The result is, we can retrofit our traditional tools, methods, and practices with cutting edge technology, and we can fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.

I know that I am speaking to an audience of very smart soon-to-be PD practitioners. So I won’t delve too deeply into what I call the toolbox of public diplomacy. By that, I mean the methods and tools we are using to engage audiences. They include our social media accounts – and disseminating press briefings, speeches, media notes, videos, and online materials everywhere. And they include conducting virtual press conferences with journalists on every continent.

Suffice it to say: the State Department is out there every second, with every byte, every click, every tweet—24/7 around the world. And we are working continually to identify new and innovative ways to engage audiences.

Instead, I’d like to underline why all of these things matter to us – why public diplomacy is the best lodestar for our future success.

In ancient times, sailors used a lodestar to navigate their way through unknown seas. In these times, the unknown seas are different and perhaps even more challenging. We need a modern lodestar – guiding principles to help us understand where we are going. That lodestar is public diplomacy – and today I want to talk about how it has evolved at the State Department, and why we believe it is critical to our future success.

From the day she took office, Secretary Clinton grappled with how to make public diplomacy integral to our foreign policy – in all three ways. She knew that it had to start with making our diplomacy part of a three-legged stool – one that included diplomacy, development, and defense.

Working with USAID – our development agency – she created the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Better known as the QDDR, this wasn’t just a report. It was a process, a blueprint, and a vision for our agency’s adaptation to the 21st century world of diplomacy and development.

It arose from a basic premise that, as the world changes, we must change as well or be left behind or rendered irrelevant or marginalized.

The QDDR was designed to answer critical questions: How could we do better? How could we adapt our strategies and structures to today’s world, addressing the rise of new powers, the emergence of new threats, the invention of new technologies, and the evolution of our own knowledge about how to solve problems and produce results?

It was launched in 2010, and has become the operating manual for our diplomacy and development today. And within that rubric, my predecessor, Judith McHale, developed a strategic framework for public diplomacy.

That strategic framework has become our operating lodestar. It starts by defining the kind of telescope public diplomacy must use. That telescope has three lens settings, all working together in fluid motion.

One is the short term – what is happening right now, and how we must react on our feet. Another is for the mid term, where we build the context in which we communicate our immediate policies, help expand the receptivity of our counterparts, as well as set the stage for our long term engagements.

The strongest lens of all is focused on the long term. It is fixed on a future in which relationships between countries are changed for the better; in which sustainable networks of trust are built, citizen to citizen; and in which emerging generations grow up with better perceptions of the United States.

One of the best ways we can work to achieve all three – the short, mid, and long term – is by focusing on our people-to-people engagement.

People are key. We can’t address the challenges of the 21st century solely through the lens of policy. We have to do it with our physical and virtual engagement with people. They are the ones, after all, who will be affected by those policies. By deepening, expanding, and leveraging our discourse with them, we can help create the conditions for our policies to work. Otherwise our policies are flying blind.

Through our 21st century statecraft, we are reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people every single day, through exchange programs, roundtables, and outreach to religious scholars and NGO leaders, businesspeople and entrepreneurs, students, and educational advisors.

We know, too, that English is the world’s most professionally useful language. It can build new futures for people in critical regions of the world. So we are also providing foreign citizens with an environment in which to learn English.

They can meet and interact with American subject-matter experts, find information on study abroad opportunities in the United States, and in some countries, access the Internet where Internet access is otherwise limited or restricted.

But I want to emphasize, 21st century statecraft means that we engage face to face and virtually. 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. So we are combining the traditional with the technological, and the innovative with the tried and trusted, so we can reach key audiences.

The framework also calls for more direct conversations with our policymakers, so we could keep them better informed about what we are doing. During this time of difficult budget choices we cannot say often enough how and why PD is important to American national interests around the world. We have to tell the American taxpayers and their representatives that we are spending their hard earned dollars to their advantage. We have to show how PD is linked to our national security.

The framework also calls for us to create a robust platform from which to counter violent extremism.

Through our Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, known as CSCC, we are countering al-Qa’ida and affiliate violent extremist organizations, through public communication and engagement with foreign audiences, both online and on the ground.

As part of this effort, CSCC’s Digital Outreach Team actively engages in Arabic, Urdu, and Somali, on media websites and forums where extremists have spread propaganda and recruited followers. We do that to help defuse unsubstantiated rumors and charges by presenting facts.

For example, we point out that terrorism hurts people of all faiths – since all have been the victims. We do not expect to change the hearts of the hateful, but we can appeal to more reasonable people, the ones who watch those online spaces.

These components of public diplomacy are mutually reinforcing. 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.

These are ambitious undertakings, I know. But in the 21st century, we cannot afford to make small plans. And as I look around this room, I am so delighted to speak before an academic institution that has a master’s program in public diplomacy. You are the future of public diplomacy. You recognize the need to educate future leaders in the public, private, and nongovernmental sectors on the theory and practice of the public diplomacy and communication.

I am also pleased to see that, as part of your academic and professional preparation, you have internships and policy-oriented seminars in Washington, DC. That fluid relationship is so important – and it fits in with the long term goals I spoke about.

May this school long prosper – and let me take this occasion to extend my support and my congratulations to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. You are all part of a growing extended family that stretches from academia to government – and across all sectors.

Thank you for your dedication to this profession. You don’t just serve your own futures – you serve this country.

Now, I look forward to your questions – but first let me thank you for listening.

Thank you.