On Tuesday, Tara Sonenshine was publicly sworn in as the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, making her the 7th person to hold the full position since its establishment in 1999. The appointment of Under Secretary Sonenshine is a welcome crescendo in the R Office symphony, and fills a position which has been vacant 30% of the time.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Sonenshine stated:
Policy is about people. Without a deeper understanding of foreign publics, our policies are just flying blind. We can’t depend only on conversations with political leaders. We have to connect with people, and let them know we are listening, we care, and we are working to support them.
Obviously, Sonenshine has a good understanding of the premises of public diplomacy, and these words are soothing to those in the PD realm who see listening to people as a central tenant of good PD. With a journalism background, Sonenshine also knows how to ask the questions that need to be asked and get to the bottom of issues—and asking questions is key to listening and understanding.
Yet the toughest job Sonenshine will have is absorbing the reality of R’s position within the State Department, a position which has hardly proven relevant or effective over the past decade. The previous Under Secretaries have served relatively short terms, possibly due to the frustrations of what has proven to be a very difficult job within the bureaucratic politics of State and D.C. as a whole.
Former head of the now defunct U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Matt Armstrong stipulates that Sonenshine’s “tenure will make or break an office that has never found its role or footing.” While Sonenshine certainly has the ability to “make” the office, I’m not sure she or any other Under Secretary has had the power to “break” it. It has been broken since its inception.
Given this reality, my humble advice to the new Under Secretary is to focus on the message. Don’t wear yourself out trying to make headway within the structural bureaucracy as many before you have tried. Help R build a portfolio of success that serves to justify its ascendency into relevance. You have my highest hopes.