POMED Notes: “Public Diplomacy in a Changing Middle East”
On Wednesday, January 16, 2013, The Washington Institute hosted a Policy Forum luncheon with an address by Tara D. Sonenshine, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, entitled “Public Diplomacy in a Changing Middle East.” TWI Director Robert Satloff introduced the Undersecretary.
For full event notes continue reading or click here for the pdf.
Sonenshine stated that the U.S. was seeking ways to “engage fully, robustly, and creatively” with the Middle East and that public diplomacy is an essential tool for engagement with such a vital region. Sonenshine cited two significant applications of public diplomacy. First, she hopes that public diplomacy can be used to get ahead of conflict by connecting with young people. Part of this effort has been the establishment of a program to teach English to students in the Middle East. The program currently serves about 18,000 students each year and has an alumni network of over 80,000. Second, Sonenshine views public diplomacy as a mechanism for managing violent extremism. She said, “Part of public diplomacy today is contesting the communications space used by al-Qaeda and its supporters.” The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication spearheads this goal through videos and digital communications in Arabic, Somali, and Urdu. She also discussed exchange programs as a means for shaping attitudes toward the United States, building civil society in the region, and offering alternative futures for MENA citizens. These exchanges include opportunities for Middle Eastern students to study in the United States and to connect Middle Eastern citizens with American entrepreneurs and business leaders. Sonenshine emphasized the role of social media in public diplomacy, particularly as a means to connect to youth across the region and to reach out to citizens of countries in which the U.S. does not have a physical presence, such as Iran and Syria. She cited the virtual embassy in Tehran as an example of success in the application of the Internet for diplomatic purposes. She noted that full engagement, both virtual and face-to-face, is “essential to our national interest.”
During the Q&A session, Sonenshine explained that website traffic is the primary indicator of success for social media programs like the virtual embassy in Tehran. Focus groups and participant surveys are also used to monitor the impact of certain programs. In discussing the success of partnership programs, Soneshine commented that “people who participate in exchange programs have a positive view of the US.”
In further discussion about exchange programs, Soneshine noted the increasing importance of using public-private partnerships (PPP) to help offset their limited funding. She explained that about half of public diplomacy’s $1 billion budget is spent on exchange programs, but the future of the program is shifting towards PPP’s. While this will help the program survive, Soneshine noted that corporations won’t necessarily have the same message as a State Department exchange.
Soneshine closed by acknowledging the increasing security threats in the Middle East make it difficult for diplomats to get out and connect with citizens of the region, something she feels is important to help others learn about the United States. She emphasized the importance of finding a balance that ensures security while also ensuring our voice is heard by all citizens, and noted the importance of actual meetings with American diplomats. This will, as she put it, “defend American ideals and values so we can be more prosperous and secure at home and abroad.”