USIP's Tara Sonenshine, nominated to lead the U.S. State Department's office of Public Diplomacy, discusses how to maintain America's core values but embrace the change occuring around the world.

Engaging a World in Transition

This past year offered fresh proof that the world we live in is ever dynamic. Fundamental change can come from something as extraordinary as a fruit vendor’s act of defiance in Tunisia to popular revolts by reform movements across the Middle East. At the same time, a decade of war and the weak U.S. economy dictates that there must be new ways to think about the role the U.S. will play in the world in the coming years. We asked USIP leaders, from board members to senior staff and experts, to explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during a time of tremendous challenge – and opportunity. USIP’s Executive Vice President Tara Sonenshine has been nominated to become the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy.

As she awaits word from the U.S. Senate on possible confirmation, she shared her views on the state of the world, America’s role in it, and what USIP is doing on the ground to help build peace and stability. Sonenshine, a former contributing editor at Newsweek and editorial producer of ABC News’ Nightline, also served in various White House capacities, including transition director at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. In that position, she was responsible for coordinating an interagency process to review foreign policy goals and priorities for that administration’s second term. Prior to that, she served as special assistant to Clinton as deputy director of communications for the NSC. She has also served as a communications adviser to a number of international organizations, including the International Crisis Group, Internews and CARE International.

America confronts a world in transition at a time of great peril but also a moment with enormous possibilities. All of this comes at a time as leaders here at home tackle profound domestic challenges. How do you see this and the next years unfolding?

2012 will be a time of intense global uncertainty in terms of domestic politics and international economics. Financially, the United States and other nations face issues of mounting debt and high unemployment, which can exacerbate conflicts and constrain interventions overseas. Politically, there are uncertain transitions in many parts of the world including the Arab Spring countries and the wider Middle East. Although the military part of the Iraq mission has ended, the challenges of Iraqi politics and civil society building are enormous. In Afghanistan, American and NATO military operations continue against a backdrop of political unrest and tensions between Pakistan and the U.S. At the same time, a leadership change in North Korea is underway, China will be going through its own leadership shifts and Russia is experiencing political upheaval. There are also new issues in places like Sudan and Syria that sit on the horizon.

Taken together, the picture is one of global plates shifting in ways that challenge all of us to gear up for uncertain times. But as we ponder change of such magnitude, we have to remain optimistic about America’s core values. Our country’s moral standing in the world is inextricably tied to the appeal of our ideas and ideals. We must maintain that standing no matter what we do.


You were recently nominated by the White House to serve as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and you are now awaiting Senate confirmation. Talk a little about this new assignment.

I am truly honored that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have the confidence in me to assume this role. For me, this is an enormous opportunity to merge my experience in foreign policy and communications at a vital time in our nation’s history. Public diplomacy is really about the intersection of information technology and international affairs at a time when the global public square has increasing influence on real time events as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring. Public diplomacy is really about extending America’s reach and security by influencing how individuals around the world come to know and understand us. It is about the advancement of our foreign policy goals through people-to-people connections in a complex, global, networked society. So I am excited, if confirmed, about the possibilities of taking what I have learned from my work at the Institute and using smart power and innovation to further the goal of peacebuilding.


Some would argue that this is a hard time to be making the case for a well-resourced foreign policy at a time when some believe the U.S. is losing power and status. Do you agree?

I don’t accept the view of those who see America in decline. I think we are a strong nation based on strong principles and purpose and that our strength lies in our individual resourcefulness and resilience. Hundreds of thousands of citizens from every country want to come to America and many study here every year. Our ideas contribute to improvements in health, science, technology and every facet of life. We are an inspired and inspiring country—diverse in culture and outlook. We have shared values of inclusiveness and we contribute enormously to the global community of which we are part. I think we have to be proud but not prideful; strong but not strident, and never afraid to share our values of tolerance, respect, and open access to information with other nations and citizens. This is a time of incredible transition in the world and we can leverage the power of technology and increase the understanding of American values around the world in ways that benefit the U.S. and the global community.


But this is a time when many are calling for cuts in our aid and development to countries that depend on the U.S. Others say that we need to recalibrate our expectations of what we can achieve overseas. What is the impact of reducing our financial commitments around the world?

The U.S. only spends about 1 percent of our budget on diplomacy and development. In my view, that 1 percent, is a small but critical investment in our own security and prosperity. By helping other nations meet their own challenges and grow their own economies, we are strengthening our own country. Our global engagement is critical to opening markets, promoting our security, unleashing the power of entrepreneurs – particularly young people and women— and by empowering others who are safeguarding our position in the world. If we cede that ground, we let others define our path. I also think we have to stay engaged in the world to remain competitive in the marketplace of ideas and to help diffuse the conflicts that cost lives and treasure. By investing in the world, we invest in ourselves. It is just that simple.


After more than 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan—many are weary of overseas engagement.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of the critical role of building civil societies because, in the end, a peaceful state is a more prosperous state—and that is what we are striving for around the world. Our security at home is bound up with security around the world and what happens in one part of the globe affects another. So we have to be training a new generation of leaders on the civilian side in these conflicts and continue to use tools of global engagement to shape the environment.


Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to wind down, we still seem to live in an age of what some call “persistent conflict.” What does this mean to you? And do you think peace is still achievable, or must we redefine our concept of peace?

“Persistent Conflict” is a very good way of describing the frustrating cycle of violence that accounts for why may conflicts are solved, on paper, through peace agreements but then, sadly, fall apart in the aftermath—which is the case in about 30 of the 38 most recent conflicts. My own view is that having more women represented at the peace table would help ensure that the peace is kept once the ink on agreements is dry. As for the term “peace,” I am one who likes the term “peacebuilding” which feels more active and dynamic. But the result is the same: an absence of persistent violence that enables human beings to live in safe and secure environments. If anything, that goal is even more important today in a world where civilian power and non-governmental actors are often the solution to war and persistent conflict. So, I enter 2012 believing passionately in the power of peacebuilding and the importance of American engagement as never before.


What issues and regions do you think will be important in 2012?

There will be no shortage of hot spots over the next year. Iran will certainly be an important challenge. What happens inside that country is important and what happens in Iran’s neighborhood is also critical—particularly in Iraq where we have invested time and resources. The Middle East will still capture our attention. Of course, there is no doubt that the transitions in Egypt and the Arab Spring countries will occupy time and energy as will the unfolding drama in Syria. Clearly, South Asia is vital and we will have to manage the Afghanistan situation as well as our relations with Pakistan, India and the region. The US-China relationship will also be a front-burner issue. As a Russia expert, I always keep a close watch on political developments inside Russia and our relationship with this major country. We can’t overlook the importance of the US-Russia relationship. But we also have major issues beyond the obvious ones. For instance, we can’t lose sight of Sudan and the broader array of challenges and opportunities throughout Africa—politically, economically, and in terms of energy and resources. There are also functional issues to focus on. I think we will continue to wrestle with issues surrounding religious and ethnic divides, competition over scarce resources and global economics, and the overall growth of non-state actors in building civil societies and democracies from Latin America to Asia.

In short, this is an exciting time to be involved in international affairs.

Explore Further

  • Global Change, Peacebuilding and USIP
    USIP leaders explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during atime of tremendous challenge - and opportunity.

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