BBG Watch Commentary

Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Tara Sonenshine

In an emailed farewell note, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara D. Sonenshine said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, “is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities,” which include the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting ( OCB – Radio and TV Marti).

“BBG is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities. I have worked hard as the Secretary of State’s representative to the Board to suggest commission, board replacements, and other reform approaches.”

Tara Sonenshine represented the Secretary of State at BBG meetings. The Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the BBG board. Shortly before leaving office of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said that BBG was “defunct.” She would not have said that without input from Sonenshine who was believed to be disappointed and frustrated with the bureaucracy running the agency.

Working closely with current BBG members, Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, Sonenshine helped to solve a crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) caused by the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia in September 2012.

Efforts by Sonenshine and the three currently remaining BBG members led to a management change at RFE/RL in January 2013 and rehiring of some of the fired journalists.

The crisis at Radio Liberty in Russia was ignored by BBG’s managerial staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) led by IBB Director Richard Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, which may explain Sonenshine’s comment about urgent need for reform at the BBG.

Under the current legal and administrative setup, BBG members are practically unable to remove IBB officials or even to order them to take specific actions if these officials disagree with them. Despite their poor performance over the years, as shown in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and multiple complaints from employees and independent experts, IBB executives have stayed in their positions.

The firing of Radio Liberty journalists became a major public diplomacy disaster for the United States in Russia, with Mikhail Gorbachev, human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva and others expressing their strong disapproval of the actions taken by the former American management of the station. IBB executive staff kept the news of a growing controversy hidden from BBG members, sources told BBG Watch, and may have assisted the former RFE/RL management team.

With the departure of Tara Sonenshine, the BBG will see its 5th representative from the State Department in in three years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never attended any BBG meetings, but she met with BBG members and IBB executives.

A Farewell Note from Under Secretary Sonenshine Tara D. Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Thank you for all the work you do to advance U.S. national security through public diplomacy. 

This year I have seen what I always knew to be true: People matter today in ways they never have before. Thanks in large part to connective technology, they are communicating, sharing ideas, influencing others, growing businesses, and improving their lives in ways that were previously unimaginable. With this newfound power also comes the potential to leverage ignorance, miscommunication and extremist beliefs that deepen divisions.


The case for public diplomacy was never so compelling. With its unique position at the intersection of global information and people-to-people relationships, it has the potential to enhance the most positive and productive aspirations of citizens everywhere. It has impact. It matters.


This past year has given me the opportunity to see public diplomacy up close in our embassies, posts, American Spaces and out in the field. As I move on, I do so knowing that our work does what it’s intended to do: create a safer and more prosperous world for Americans at home and abroad by helping citizens abroad build better futures.


Throughout the past year, I have focused on defining the public diplomacy space, internally, and externally, and re-building confidence in PD programs and people while advancing the priorities of U.S. foreign policy through people-to-people engagement.


My approach has been to frame public diplomacy in terms of short-range, mid-term, and long-term priorities so that we both stay focused on the immediate, but remain true to the premise that the real dividends of engagement sometimes take years to materialize.


You see the results of positive public diplomacy when you meet heads of foreign countries, leaders of NGOs, influential writers, and others who have participated in USG funded programs years earlier. The people who experience our programs are often the people who solve problems, win Nobel Prizes, advance global interests, and reduce extremism. By supporting emerging leaders at a crucial time in their lives, we have made solid investments for our own country.


This year has included outreach to the PD field through the establishment of the first external public diplomacy newsletter, the posting of agreed-upon core tenets for public diplomacy, active tweeting, speeches, interviews, visits to American universities and overseas trips as well as participation in bilateral summits, strategic dialogues, and town hall meetings, and a re-invigoration of our American Spaces overseas.


Some major achievements that I am most proud of but need to be sustained:


English language learning, globally, is now centralized on a Mobile App but needs to be broadened and deepened as we need to use more mobile technology and e-platforms overseas. A new video game, Trace Effects, for teaching English, is a major achievement and is gaining ground. We have to keep elevating Education and English learning as a core pillar of our engagement.


Social media work is expanding through Facebook pages in multiple languages, content through Apps, global twitter feeds, etc. We must keep moving mobile.


American spaces overseas are in the middle of a transformation to new models and the partnership with Smithsonian must be guided and sustained so that all of our American spaces have common standards of good content, accessibility, resources and evaluative capacity. American Spaces are critical windows onto America for those overseas. They can’t be ignored.


We have followed up on a Presidential Executive Order to stand up the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC)-a center for countering violent extremism online. It is already making an impact among targeted groups, and we must continue to support it.


Monitoring and evaluation of public diplomacy is essential; we have good results, both quantitative and qualitative such as the PDI study showing that where we use public diplomacy the results are measured in the number of volunteers starting businesses, running for office. Favorability of the U.S. is up and those who participate in USG exchanges want to build civil societies.


Thanks to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Study Abroad and exchanges are recognized now as centrally important to the State Department, with an economic dividend at home of $22 billion. There must be a high level “call to action” with focus on Fulbright and other programs like YES. If we let these programs go ignored from the top leadership of State, they will fall victim to cuts or country decisions to do away with them or control them.


Women and girls must remain central to U.S. foreign policy in words and deeds and that will require close coordination between our Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) and public diplomacy. I have led the call for greater interagency participation, so we can work together to enhance those critical goals.


BBG is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities. I have worked hard as the Secretary of State’s representative to the Board to suggest commission, board replacements, and other reform approaches.


Public-Private partnerships to expand and enhance our public diplomacy have gotten much of my attention through our work on 100,000 Strong China, 100,000 Strong Latin America, and our Open Book project on Arab translations, to name a few of our initiatives. There is great potential to do more partnerships, particularly for our outreach to Islamic communities around the world.


Building a domestic constituency for overseas engagement remains an economic and national security priority which means domestic outreach. I have traversed the U.S. from the East Coast to the West Coast, and in between, to make the case for public diplomacy. This must be continued so we don’t lose momentum.


Religious outreach is a vital ingredient to good public diplomacy and we have been carrying some of the load on coordination of these activities.


I co-chaired the Global philanthropy and civil society effort which has made real inroads with the philanthropic community in creating a State Department bridge to international NGOs that work on issues related to R.


I have mentored dozens of young people interested in service and tried to be a strong voice for career development within the Foreign Service and outside it to create a good leadership track for others to follow.


So what does the future hold for U.S. public diplomacy in a complex world?


Over the coming year, we have enormous opportunities to continue what public diplomacy does best: integrate our policies into a wide spectrum of public engagement. Using all the tools in the 21st century statecraft toolbox, in traditional and online ways, we can promote inclusiveness, tolerance, diversity and democracy and reduce the risks of costly global division, extremism, and war.


Direct engagement is the key. We can connect with young people about things that directly affect their lives, including unemployment, vocational training, primary school education, gender issues, and health care. These issues are as important these days as bilateral trade, investment, security, and official delegations.


We can share ideas with bloggers at a university roundtable, meet with alumni of our exchange programs, or sponsor sports or cultural events. We can interact with citizens with disabilities, support English-language students, or engage with visitors to more than 800 American spaces around the world. And we must also venture beyond the usual halls of power and connect with citizens in rural areas.


People-to-people outreach goes beyond tweeting or texting. It involves virtual programming, disseminating thoughtful products, creating public awareness campaigns, connecting businesses through embassies, engaging religious figures, and acknowledging the work of citizen diplomats in a holistic approach.


What is the recipe for good public diplomacy?


The first step is to use convening power-internally and externally- simultaneously not sequentially. Inside government, officials who make and shape policy need to consider how the policy is communicated and understood by those on the receiving end of the policy-real people with real lives. That means convening the experts in public diplomacy while policy is in formation. It means circulating ideas to a wider group of individuals even at the risk that inclusion leads to disclosure. It means more video, imagery, photographs and story-telling.


We have to move away from the innate, unspoken notion that governments alone change lives. Civil society groups, corporations, research institutions, elementary schools, summer camps and media have as much to do with how a society evolves as policymakers. And they can’t operate without each other.


Basic assistance that goes through large bureaucracies on the U.S. end, for example, and through foreign government bureaucracies often don’t resonate with ordinary citizens. They can’t fathom how they are helped by these relationships or often don’t know that their education or health or energy or security is partly based on a bilateral relationship between governments. Without a trickle down proof of concept, the response to diplomacy by citizens is often muted or negative.


By “broadcasting” those relationships – and doing the same for policies – we can achieve and demonstrate greater impact, and even help to mitigate hostility and mistrust, opening up new channels of support and appreciation in the U.S. Congress and among our own citizens for the work we do.


More and more, citizens want to know why governments participate in their lives and to what avail. Public diplomacy can make policies tangible, real, and positive if we fully leverage the skill set. Truly integrated outreach, communications and public engagement planning has to include public affairs, media, education, social media, outreach to religious groups, women, and business leaders and aspects of society that never make it into the capitals and halls of power but move policy with their feet and their voices in the public square.


Public diplomacy can no longer be an afterthought or a “nice to have” element of diplomacy. Nor can it be relegated to the message of the day or the official statement or a simple tweet. There must be a concerted effort to add a layer of public engagement that builds out the circle of government-to-government ties and ensures that while the President or Secretary of State is doing the official work of international policy, that a representative of the government is doing the work of building public support for the same policy. In an ideal world, public diplomacy both “sets the table” for policy and amplifies the policy through the connective tissue of real people. Without that, public diplomacy remains a long-term ideal without immediate impact in a world of instantaneous reaction and its marginalization will undermine its truest value.


The response to State Department’s public diplomacy work has been enormously positive. I thank both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry and the leadership at State for their support.


And I leave knowing that the work goes on and that individuals like you will keep us moving ahead.

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