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Diplomacy in Action

People-to-People Engagement: Cultures, History, and Mutual Understanding Through Public Diplomacy

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
The U.S.-Islamic World Forum
Doha, Qatar
June 9, 2013


Good evening. May I ask you to join me again in congratulating the U.S.-Islamic World Forum on its 10th Anniversary.

Thank you to Martin Indyk, Tamara Wittes, and your partners the Government of Qatar, His Highness the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State Ahmad Bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud.

I extend greetings to His Excellency, President Hamid Karzai and the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. We appreciate his tremendous leadership over the last decade in modernizing the OIC and expanding U.S.-OIC cooperation. And finally, greetings to Foreign Minister Nassirou Bako Arifari of Benin.

Each year, when the conference meets, the world is a very different place.

In just three years, we have seen the emergence and the evolution of the Arab Spring. The United States has responsibly ended the war in Iraq, and we are winding down another war in Afghanistan, as we continue to build an enduring partnership with the Afghan people.

So what lies ahead? The hard work of ensuring the gains of positive change lead to permanent and sustainable political and economic foundations that provide for the people of this region – and all Muslim communities around the world.

Of course, a peaceful region is central to that.

As you know, the United States seeks to support the people of the region as they work to realize their aspirations for greater dignity, justice, and opportunity. We continue to provide assistance to the democratic transitions taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, and to partner with reformers inside and outside governments doing the hard work of political, economic, and institutional change.

The United States is pressing hard to end the devastating war in Syria through a political solution that will give the Syrian people a chance for freedom and dignity.

We have bolstered our work to help end the conflict “once and for all” between Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary Kerry is travelling relentlessly to work with partners and allies to achieve a two state solution that assures security and sovereignty on both sides.

As he recently said, “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance. So we can’t let the disappointments of the past hold the future prisoner. We can’t let the absence of peace become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

We realize that for decades these issues have built up tension and distrust between the United States and Muslim communities around the world. This distrust will not disappear immediately and we cannot engage in effective public diplomacy without acknowledging this reality. But we believe we are on the right course and making steady progress.

Public diplomacy humanizes the economic, cultural, and political relationships we are working to build. As Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I work to extend avenues of opportunity to those affected by our policy. And that is the first point I’d like to make: that people – citizens – today are increasingly driving global events, and must therefore be front and center in formulating and executing policy. You need policy and public diplomacy.

If we fail to understand that, our policies will forever be flying blind. We must reach out to one another over time, embracing our shared values, interests, and aspirations.

And when we talk to people across this region, and in other Muslim communities, it is clear that they share the same day-to-day concerns as all other people, including millions of Americans. They want to live in peace; they want their families to have access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.

The stakes are clear. More than 60 percent of this region is under the age of 30. But as so many people come of age, their career, educational, and economic opportunities are not keeping up. This is unsustainable. If they are to lead normal and prosperous lives, we must work together to support their efforts to pursue the educational and vocational paths that will help them build prosperous futures. What we do now will affect not only them but the children they raise – and the societies and economies they will inherit.

If they are to participate fully and effectively in the global economy, we need to equip our citizens with the skills and networks they need. If they are to live free lives, we need to support their efforts to build democratic institutions and broker peace.

That includes ensuring that nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. It means that governments advance and protect freedom of expression, assembly and association for their citizens, with laws that are consistent with their international obligations and commitment. Promoting religious tolerance is essential, as is the protection of all minorities, if everyone is to have a chance to contribute. And we must address the outbreaks of sectarian violence that perpetuate more violence and bring families, societies, and economies to a standstill.

The outcomes are clear: When we build inclusive economies, safeguard freedoms, invest in education, and encourage opportunity, people become more healthy, productive, democratic, empowered, and prosperous. They are more likely to become viable economic, trade, social, political, and strategic partners, enhancing security and prosperity for all.

That is why the United States has worked hard with its partners, through such initiatives as our Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund to help governments build effective institutions that can promote economic growth and provide for its people, especially youth. That is why we work in support with such groups as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, our G-8 partners and the United Nations.

The U.S. Government is committed to reaching out to people around the world, including Muslim communities, who play a pioneering role in so many fields, from science and mathematics to medicine and the arts.

I say “Muslim communities” for a reason. As a public diplomat, committed to people to people ties, I reject the notion of just talking to one entity as “the Arab world” or “The Islamic World,” or even “the African continent” or even “the American people.” We are individuals with our own faiths and beliefs and identities and histories and memories and journeys. We recognize how important it is to give dignity to all voices. That includes Muslims in Muslim-majority countries as well as Muslims who live as minority populations across the world.

Every educational initiative, cultural exchange, or Fulbright program contributes to a cumulative effect of gestures. So we listen and work with civil society groups, corporations, research institutions, elementary schools, summer camps and media, because the people in them have just as much to do with how a society evolves as policy makers.

We broker partnerships between U.S. institutions and universities throughout countries with Muslim majorities and minorities, increasing the flow of students studying in the United States – as well as American students going in the opposite direction.

We have launched entrepreneurship and vocational training programs, and expanded our English language outreach so that more young people can thrive and compete in the global economy.

With the private sector – we pair aspiring entrepreneurs with angel investors or corporate leaders; and we organize business competitions so that ideas can find forums, attract investments, and build economies.

As people converse, trade, invest, interact with social media as their central tool, we use 21st century statecraft in innovative ways, connecting with people in Google Hangouts, Skype sessions, and online forums. If we don’t join those worldwide conversations, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Through programs such as TechWomen, we reach out to women and girls, bringing women professionals in science and technology to networking events and mentorships at companies in Silicon Valley—women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Our interfaith dialogues are also extensive – from hosting the exchanges of imams and other religious leaders with their counterparts in the United States—to bringing Muslim clerics from Chad, religious scholars from Pakistan, and interfaith leaders from Yemen to the United States to interact with Americans and share experiences.

We promote active citizenship by bringing young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa for leadership development workshops including internships in California, North Carolina, and Utah.

We bring Arabic-speaking teenagers to the University of Iowa, to take writing workshops in Arabic and in English with American peers from across the United States.

As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the people of this region have made their needs clear: They are ready to live better lives through political participation and economic opportunity. But they need the support and willingness of their governments and the international community.

Transitions are still evolving and take years to play out; they are also not solely confined to the Middle East and North Africa. Tonight President Hamid Karzai spoke about Afghanistan’s transition to democracy. As President Obama emphasized in Afghanistan: “America, and many others, will stand with you. We have come too far, sacrificed too much, and worked too hard to turn back now.”

We are committed to supporting a new chapter – not only in Afghanistan but everywhere. We have stories, values, traditions, and freedoms to share. We know that Muslim communities – from the mosques in every state of the U.S., to the madrassas of Kuala Lumpur – also have stories to share.

That is why we prioritize our people-to-people programs in Afghanistan and the region. And why we have invested more in our Fulbright program in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world.

Our challenge is to bridge the yawning gap—between the government and the governed, between traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy. To make policies work for people. We do this by supporting men and women as they support themselves and build positive societies to pursue higher education, become entrepreneurs, share ideas, promote religious tolerance, create business deals, improve transparency, forge peace treaties, enhance mutual understanding, support democratic institutions, safeguard freedoms, and fulfill their potential.

In doing so, we stand with many of the people in this room: politicians, business people, and bloggers. Members of civil society. Youth leaders. You are all engaged in the day-to-day business of improving lives, so that people take the path of greater security and prosperity. May we continue to work together to find ways to build more bridges in the years to come.

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