Talking about public diplomacy mission, Sonenshine highlights impact of international exchange programs

International exchanges are essential in “bridging the intersection between policy and public diplomacy” and help “empower future generations of political leaders,” Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine told an audience at George Washington University’s Elliot School of Foreign Affairs last Thursday.

Laying out key elements of successful public diplomacy, Sonenshine compared the strategic settings of modern public diplomacy with the settings of a telescope that has short-term, mid-term, and long-term settings. Exchange programs are an example of the long-term setting, whose impact will become visible in the future, she explained:

“Academic exchange programs, English teaching programs, outreach to underserved populations, giving young people an entrée to higher education. Giving people technical, vocational training, opening doors. We may not see them walk through those doors for years but when we open those avenues of economic opportunity to people, particularly young people, kids on high school programs, we know those high school kids are not going to be able to do something immediately. But we know if we help them build safe economically, secure futures, they will be a force multiplier...Empower future generations of political leaders who’ve had a positive American experience and they are more likely to be global partners.”

Asked about how to measure success in public diplomacy, Sonenshine again laid emphasis on educational exchanges:

“I'm not going to measure how many kids were really just on a program, what I'm going to do is look up where they are five years later. And you know what? 92 per cent of the people, who go on U.S government exchanges, go on to work in civil society positions, in the parliament, or in an NGO. They are working for something positive in their country. That’s a win. When I look at Nobel Prize winners who were Fulbrights, I put that in a win column.”

Underlining her statements about the value of exchanges as a successful public diplomacy tool, Sonenshine recalled an experience she had in Lahore, Pakistan early in her tenure. Speaking at an all-girls’ university during tense diplomatic times, she was asked critical—at times even hostile—questions. Nonetheless, the students who had asked these tough questions later asked her how they could get on “one of those exchange programs to the United States,” showing how students with a critical attitude still want to take advantage of U.S. public diplomacy and are interested in coming to the U.S., and then return to help their own counties, Sonenshine said.