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American Spaces – and the Argument for Public Diplomacy

American Spaces – and the Argument for Public Diplomacy

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@america, a high-tech American Center in Indonesia hosts a Super Bowl viewing party.

@america, a high-tech American Center in Indonesia hosts a Super Bowl viewing party.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, gave a speech yesterday at Harvard University   where she highlighted American Spaces and centers as an invaluable resource to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between foreign citizens and the U.S.

American Spaces are programs designed by the State Department to provide foreign citizens with a window into American culture and values. A rather large effort in public diplomacy, it has 849 facilities around the world enjoying over 16 million visits in 2012.

Earlier today, ASP published a fact sheet on the structure of the different types of American Spaces and their goals, highlighting their strategic importance in shaping the American narrative.

More than that, however, her speech made the argument for public diplomacy. While greater awareness of its importance is  needed, it becomes particularly compelling at a time of uncertainty, where budgets could be significantly constrained.

At the Kennedy School of Government’s lecture series entitled “Future of Diplomacy,” Sonenshine presented public diplomacy as a strategy to use engagement and communication with foreign audiences to address American foreign policy challenges and issues. More concretely, public diplomacy efforts “create the conditions for our policies to work. Otherwise our policies are flying blind,” she asserted.

And while over the last decade the challenges to the U.S. international image was a cause of concern and even confusion to policymakers and American citizens alike, public diplomacy efforts are now even more urgent.

This is not a new argument among those in the field – but in order to promote understanding and, most importantly, address misperceptions, the United States must reach out more, engage more and communicate its message and values accordingly. Retreating or being absent from debate can have serious consequences: “extremism takes root, our interests suffer and our security at home is threatened,” as the Under Secretary pointed out. That theme was also present in John Kerry’s first speech as Secretary of State last week at the University of Virginia.

The U.S. government needs to be involved in shaping the narrative before that is done in a way that antagonizes it. This outlines the relevance of public diplomacy and, as Sonenshine put it, we must “weigh the costs and consequences of inaction against the costs and benefits of participation.”

Not only a place to spread information about the U.S., those spaces have become venues for civil society to gather freely in countries and cities where that is not easily accomplished. She mentioned parts of Afghanistan where, other than school, these spaces are the only place parents allow their daughters to go to.  They are also strategically important in remote areas where it is too expensive to have an embassy or consulate, and provide platforms for ambassadors to meet with local leaders and citizens.

The positive consequences for public diplomacy range from political and cultural to economic: through public diplomacy programs such as American Spaces the U.S. can nurture emerging leaders as well as identify business partners that stimulate trade, the Under Secretary stressed. Once the argument for engagement no longer needs defending, then how to do it should be at the center of debate. The faster the U.S. government – and the American public – reach that point, the better off America will be.



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