Connecting Dots – Tara, Policies and People

April 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

For some time I’ve been contemplating how to connect the dots in public diplomacy. In an interconnected world, most everything is connected. Since class for the semester finished last night, let me try my hand with observations for this week.

I’ll start with the dinner for Tara Sonenshine on the eve before her swearing in ceremony as the new U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Seems like I had been hearing about “Tara” for weeks. The first name basis everyone was using appeared to capture her spirit. She entered the room with a burst of energy, enthusiasm. Very personable. And, definitely ready to go, which is exactly what she will need.

Which brings me to the first link in connecting the dots this week. On the same day that John Brown’s PD blog carried the full text of Tara’s remarks at her swearing-in ceremony, including the great quote: “Policy is about people. Without a deeper understanding of foreign publics, our policies are just flying blind”  …

… there was Al-Jazeera news lineup featuring the Arabic translation of James Petras’ book, Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack.

The combination of Petras’ credentials (distinguished academic, 64 books, etc.) and the book’s theme of the U.S. track record of supporting unpopular dictators who support US interests are formidable.  Petras made a compelling case for U.S. underhanded and confused efforts to protect its interests over the interests of the people. The article shared the book’s highlights with point by point clarity. Two dots that just made Tara’s job a little harder.

Another dot to connect to the theme of counter American narratives to the US public diplomacy narrative is van Buren’s book We Meant Well.  While the style of Van Buren’s writing is entertaining, his message is sobering. When it comes to winning hearts and minds, the real audience doesn’t appear to be skeptical foreign publics —  who are all too aware of the situation on ground. Instead, it’s the policy makers back in Washington who want results and who control the budgetary purse string. On-the-ground realities versus Washington realities. Public diplomacy gets caught in the middle.

The immediate reaction may be to try to isolate and discredit these and other works that tarnish the U.S. image, sully U.S. policies and make U.S. public diplomacy efforts that much harder.  That’s normal, understandable and a short term option. In the long term, it may not be the optimal solution for addressing U.S. public diplomacy’s perennial woes with certain publics.

What I personally like about Tara’s original quote is the idea that people do matter in  U.S. policy. In U.S. public diplomacy “foreign publics” often seem as abstract as the goal  of “informing, influencing and engaging.” However at the people level, it is not that abstract or complex.  When people are negatively affected by U.S. policies, U.S. public diplomacy suffers.  U.S. policies communicate.

This was the critical lesson in Battles to Bridges.  A major failing in the U.S. grand strategy of U.S. public diplomacy was that it tried to separate U.S. communication strategies from U.S. policies. When U.S. public diplomacy failed it was not the policies, but the communication strategies — or those responsible for communicating the policies.

Trying to operate in today’s environment using an intransigent, rather than an integrative grand strategy sets the new U.S. public diplomacy head in the same position as her predecessors.

If Tara can bring her policy-people message or even the more basic message that “Policy communicates” to U.S. policy makers and begin to integrate public diplomacy into the policy realm, she will have a greater chance of disconnecting the dots that damage U.S. public diplomacy.  And, her tenure will likely be stronger and longer.

§ One Response to Connecting Dots – Tara, Policies and People

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