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The Citizen

Undersecretary explains shifts in diplomacy and public affairs

By Zach Crowley, MC-MPA’13, Staff Writer

Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department has successfully reversed the nation’s steep downward trend in foreign opinion by aggressively – listening.

In January, the Christian Science Monitor reviewed her record in an article titled “The Listening Legacy of Hillary Clinton”.  It’s the sort of counter-intuitive approach to make a man like Joseph Nye smile.

In 2007, Professor Nye co-chaired a bipartisan commission on smart power, a group whose findings have moved from theory to policy during the Obama administration.  Smart power is a term of art meant to describe a sensible mixture of hard and soft policy options, from the overt display of military force to simply talking with our foreign partners.

In the past year, Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine has been the principal implementer of one our smart power tools.  Public diplomacy is something of a natural extension of the success of the Obama presidential campaigns, where the netroots (political activism through social media) and small dollar donations fed a huge national effort.

In his first campaign, the president successfully outmaneuvered Secretary Clinton, who had been the favored establishment candidate, by moving beyond the traditional institutions of the Democratic Party and reaching out directly to individuals.

In the same way, public diplomacy aims to establish a direct dialogue with citizens of foreign countries, allowing a parallel means of communication to complement traditional diplomatic outreach.  And in the Internet age, public diplomacy has moved beyond exporting Hollywood and Calvin Klein to actual, honest-to-goodness, two-way communication.

As an Emmy-winning former member of the media establishment, Sonenshine is all too aware of how the media landscape has changed.  In response to a question of how graduates should seek communications-related work, she advised that students think “very broadly,” that communications is clearly no longer about just print or television, and that it can take many different forms.

As a result, she felt it important to think about how to make information accessible and transparent, “Information is oxygen which a society breathes.”

Her work bears out this philosophy.  In the latest entry on her blog, she describes meeting with Afghan artists.  On her active Twitter feed she shared an opportunity for the public – foreign and domestic – to ask two American ambassadors questions in real time.

I wondered about the dangers of too much transparency – giving out too much information.  Does she worry about staff blogs and tweets, Facebook pages?  Are their security concerns or worries about misstating the administration’s intentions?  Sonenshine replied that errant communications represented a tiny fraction of what is out there, and that the benefits of providing that information – the oxygen – far outweighed the possible risks.

The risks of not engaging, she said, were just too great.  People are out there talking about you and your work, and if you are not listening to, and responding to them, you are missing an important opportunity.