In a recent speech to the American Security Project, Tara Sonenshine, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, laid out her vision for her tenure in office.
“I always begin with, well, what is this nation about?” she said. Most people hesitate to go there, presumably for fear of offending this group or that, or because in a nation as diverse as America definition is not easy. However, reaching for a definition based on ideas and national principles, Sonenshine gave U.S. public diplomacy a basis for a strong mission statement:
I’m going to try. America is a nation with strong principles and purpose. We’re a country whose strengths lie in individual resourcefulness and national resilience. We tend to proceed from the notion that each individual has the potential to achieve his or her individual dreams or desires, while also contributing to the common good. We believe in unlocking human potential through access, rights, and the human freedom to imagine, to innovate, to inspire, to achieve peace and prosperity. We believe in interests, values, and security.
In a 2009 Heritage report, “Ideas Matter: Restoring the Content of Public Diplomacy,” Robert Riley, former director of the Voice of America, argued that without a strong sense of purpose, U.S. public diplomacy has lost its way.
Numerous studies by think tanks and experts have described deficiencies in U.S. public diplomacy, including lack of knowledge of other cultures, intergovernmental cooperation, and proper training. Riley, however, focused on the lack of core message about America as the primary problem:
The primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad. This objective goes well beyond the public affairs function of presenting and explaining specific policies of various Administrations. Policies and Administrations change; principles do not, so long as the United States remains true to itself.
In her remarks, Sonenshine also promised a greater emphasis on professionalizing the various programs of U.S. public diplomacy and better informing the American public about U.S. outreach abroad—both worthy goals. However, she could have her greatest impact in reestablishing the centrality of “the American story” in U.S. public diplomacy—and taking a look at Riley’s excellent paper would be a good start.