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Diplomacy in Action

The Intersection of Policy and Public Diplomacy: The View from State

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Remarks at the Walter Roberts Lecture Series
George Washington University
Washington, DC
January 29, 2013


Thank you, Frank. You have been a steadfast supporter and advocate for public diplomacy and public affairs and I am proud to count you as a friend.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge Walter Roberts. Thanks to your generosity, this fine Institute can continue its great work. You have worked for USIA, for U.S. Presidents on both sides of the aisle, been an administrator, author, teacher, and public diplomacy practitioner, I thank you, and we all thank you, Sir, for your vision, leadership, and service.

Thanks to the GW staff, friends, and colleagues here today. Having spent the last few years at the United States Institute of Peace and now at the State Department, I can say, literally and figuratively, you are great neighbors.

I want to talk about neighborhoods today—global neighborhoods, and how, in these new neighborhoods, traditional foreign policy and new public diplomacy have become inextricably linked to inform, support, and enhance policy in the world through connections to people.

Imagine a neighborhood. Neighborhoods are about people. If want to address our shared challenges, we must engage with the people most affected by our policies. When we listen to people we build trust and understanding, when we support peoples’ efforts to build better futures, we can inform our policies.

When we engage in public diplomacy – in person and through social media – we are a force for peace and progress around the world.

That belief—that we are a force for peace and progress is central to our founding ideas and values, and informs our public diplomacy. And that diplomacy, in turn, is most often the best way to carry out our policy.

I’d like to tell you a story that illustrates how important it is to bridge the intersection between policy and public diplomacy.

I was in Pakistan not too long ago, speaking at an all-girls' university in Lahore. At the time of my visit, tensions were particularly high. The transit points—the so called Ground Lines of Communication —by which the U.S. gets its supplies to and from Afghanistan, through Pakistan—those transit points had become a source of irritation between the U.S. and Pakistan and things were blocked while our governments debated price and terms of passage.

Recent incidents from the Bin Laden raid to friendly fire deaths on the Afghanistan border had deepened the mistrust between our two countries and soured the public mood regarding the relationship. It was a challenging conversation and when we had finished, I invited students to come chat with me, privately. A line formed. And each one asked me quietly – how do I get on one of those exchange programs to the U.S.?

While students were critical of our policies, they still wanted to take advantage of our public diplomacy and come to a country they also revered. How we close that gap between criticism and admiration is our challenge – but I know it starts with our full, committed engagement.

I believe that because of the many challenges we face in places like Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, the world is more in need of public diplomacy than at any point in our shared history.

Public diplomacy was not always in the equation…and certainly not always at the table.

You all know about the “table”—the policy table. Imagine a table—a long “policy” table. It’s oblong, with lots of men in suits and ties around it—diplomats—talking politics, security, economics. That’s the way it was in the days of Ben Franklin. And that’s the way it was until pretty recently. Public diplomacy—where the aspirations of citizens are central to the conversation – did not have a seat at that table. It wasn’t even in the room.

But now, as Tom Friedman noted recently in The New York Times, “we live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea today is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens.”

Citizens are part of the global roundtable—and they are texting about it. They – and other non-state actors – have become an increasingly vital and vocal part of the global equation.

It is more urgent than ever that we better understand them and effectively engage with them across a far wider spectrum of issues.

That includes building environments that help them provide for their families, find economic opportunity, live with the rights and freedoms that any human wants – and is entitled to.

As President Obama said in his recent inaugural address, we must engage because “our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” "Engagement," the President also said, “can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

Secretary Clinton has described the alternative scenario. “When America is absent, especially from unstable environments,” she said, “there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened.”

Let me put a final image in your head. Imagine a good old fashioned telescope. Now, imagine three settings on that telescope: one for the short term, another for the midterm, and a third for the long term. Those are the strategic settings of public diplomacy.

So let’s apply those settings in a real setting. Let’s go back to a certain cheaply made, hateful video called “The Innocence of Muslims” that turned viral. When that film was used by some to exploit tensions, it caused outrage and anger in many parts of the world. And in some countries, including several Muslim-majority ones, there were sizeable protests outside our embassies.

So how did our public diplomacy deal with that? First of all, in the short term, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton made clear that we viewed this video as reprehensible and disgusting, and that the U.S. Government had nothing to do with it.

Our diplomats engaged media, officials, and key influencers across regions to convey our condemnation of the video and our lack of involvement in the production or dissemination of the video.

We also used social media – a major 21st century tool in our public diplomacy toolbox – to ensure our message was disseminated quickly and widely.

While decrying the film and its hateful message, we emphasized our eternal values: religious freedom and tolerance; our commitment to multiethnic, multireligious societies; and freedom of speech and expression. We also underscored that ensuring freedom of speech and expression actually enables us to respect each other’s individual beliefs. These were important nuances, and central to our mid- and long-term strategies.

There was an aspect of our midterm diplomacy that we were able to draw upon – and that was our public outreach to religious leaders. In Chad, for example, where almost 60 percent of the population is Muslim, we have long engaged community leaders in conversations about the importance of religious tolerance – both abroad and in the United States. We talk about the value of interfaith dialogue, and the dangers of violent extremism and terrorism.

Through that continuing dialogue, we were able to build trust. We also learned from our Chadian counterparts, and were able to better inform Washington in order to adjust our policies accordingly.

When the protests spread, many religious community leaders – not just in Chad but in many Muslim communities elsewhere – were helpful in lowering the temperature through their own sermons and outreach. Importantly, through our engagement with them, our diplomats heard their perspectives and conveyed their concerns back to our decision-makers in Washington.

That was an example of midterm public diplomacy working for us. It also shows the two-way flow that is so important. But I’d like to point to an even longer term example – the kind that can take effect over lifetimes.

I am talking about our academic exchange programs, and our English programs that reach out to underserved populations. By teaching English, we give young people an entrée to higher education. And by giving them access to education and technical training, we open doors for them to realize economic opportunity.

When we open avenues of economic opportunity to people – especially young people – they are less likely to participate in destroying or terrorizing the societies they now have a stake in. And that also reinforces another U.S. policy objective: countering violent extremism.

Helping people build safe, economically secure futures is a force multiplier for the United States.

When we help empower future generations of economic and political leaders who have had a positive American experience, they are more likely to become viable global partners. And that means being committed to the same things we are, including human rights, democracy, and mutual security and prosperity.

When we empower women and girls, we expand the world’s talent pool of economic, social, and political problem-solvers. And when we strengthen other societies by supporting NGOs that can build civil society, we help provide the building blocks for democratic societies.

Let me close with one other example, where our long-term public diplomacy supports our policy – in a country where we don’t even have a diplomatic presence. And that is Iran.

As you know, the United States and other countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions to censure Iran and to persuade Tehran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program. We have a policy of prevention, built on the dual tracks of pressure and engagement, while keeping all options on the table.

So, how do we engage with people in a country that is closed to us, and where our governments are deadlocked on many issues? Well, in this case, we have created a virtual embassy. We just marked the one year anniversary of our Virtual Embassy Tehran website and our Farsi-language social media platforms which include Facebook, Google-plus, Twitter, and a YouTube channel.

On the embassy website, we’ve had 2 million page hits from 4,000,000 visitors. On Facebook, we now have 456,000 followers and nearly 61,000 of them are inside Iran. We have nearly 30,000 followers on Persian language Twitter. As for the 170 Persian videos we’ve posted on YouTube? We’ve had 800,000 views.

Those are encouraging numbers by any standard. These viewers and followers are learning about our commitment to educational opportunity, freedom of expression, defense of civil liberties, and a voice for the Iranian people.

And we are countering negative regime portrayals of U.S. policy, as well as creating debate and discussion inside Iran to isolate extremists and hardliners. We are patiently reaching out to the Iranian people.

Of course, patience is not the most popular strategy to advocate in Washington. But it’s a large part of what public diplomacy is all about. No matter what the challenges, we can and must continue to engage. As we do so, we must continue to be more nimble in our advocacy of U.S. policy as we work to take charge of the communications space, so that we can be even stronger defenders of our own American values and ideals.

Thank you for listening and I look forward to your questions.

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