Center for Strategic Communication

Yesterday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine on Bottom Line Diplomacy: Why Public Diplomacy Matters. She discussed the ongoing Public Diplomacy activities of the State Department and made a case for their continued attention and funding.

Explaining the need to seek “dividends from engagement”, Sonenshine reminded attendees of the benefits America receives from such programs. Highlighting a key aspect of traditional public diplomacy methods, international exchange, Sonenshine explained there are 765,000 foreign students in the U.S., who contribute $22.7 billion per year to the US economy.

Expressing concern about the austerity of the current fiscal situation, Sonenshine emphasized that the State Department must get down to “bottom line diplomacy.” Allocation of resources is a reality, and the justification of expenditures is necessary. As a result, she contends State Department must fuse public diplomacy and economic statecraft. Inclusive economies produce better democracies, protecting many American interests abroad. Sonenshine also mentioned Senator Lindsey Graham’s reference to America’s diplomatic efforts as “national security insurance”, and went on to say that we need a more cohesive public diplomacy policy that is cognizant of local populations and audiences. She said, “Policy without people is policy flying blind.”

Courtesy of the State Department

Courtesy of the State Department

Much of Sonenshine’s time was focused on the diplomatic engagement of youth, and the incredible benefits to be gained from expanding State Department focus on younger demographics. She called for aid to aspiring leaders in other countries, citing the success of exchange programs, such as the Fulbright Program. For example, on one trip to Georgia, Sonenshine met with 19 Fulbright scholars who cited their time in the U.S. as a significant motivation to improve Georgian civil society and government. Additionally, 57 Nobel Prize winners have participated in Fulbright programs, showing the utility of traditional State Department initiatives.

Social media is obviously a contemporary gateway to many international discussions. Sonenshine made specific reference to the importance of the 850 American Spaces that the U.S. has overseas. Not only do these spaces partner with locals, but they provide a location to conduct public diplomacy.  This local empowerment technique employed by the American Corners has a unique advantage because of the local emphasis it places in its partnerships. Though youth interest in the United States around the world is strong, Sonenshine pointed to the need to boost American interest in people and cultures overseas, calling for efforts to “wet the appetite here to learn about others,” by increasing efforts to educate Americans.

Responding to questions about the U.S. image abroad, Sonenshine agreed with an audience member that diaspora communities in the U.S. can be better used to achieve strategic effect. Though certain aspects of the Smith-Mundt Act have restricted America’s ability to do this, she noted that recent reform of this legislation may make it easier to do so.

She also contended that public diplomacy done well is an investment in security, and keeping a positive reputation of the U.S. is a long-term effort, requiring long-term strategy and initiatives. Sonenshine reminded attendees that public diplomacy cannot be judged on single programs or events, but that it is a “cumulative effect of American gestures.”

Soneshine successfully reiterated the need for Public Diplomacy, and continued efforts to understand countries abroad. Metrics measuring public diplomacy are growing in importance, especially since austerity measures continue to be implemented. As ASP’s Matthew Wallin suggested in The New Public Diplomacy Imperative, Sonenshine touched on the importance of finding better metrics with which to evaluate the efficacy of public diplomacy efforts.

Finally, Sonenshine closed with the reiteration that public diplomacy done well is an investment in security. Creating partnerships and relationships abroad protects national security interests, and public diplomacy is, and should remain, a key component of U.S. foreign policy.