Urgent Challenges for New Public Diplomacy Chief

Rolling up her sleeves should be new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine’s first act in office. For the chief of the U.S. government’s outreach to the foreign public, urgent business is waiting.

Moving into her office at the State Department on Monday, with her swearing in scheduled for April 24, Sonenshine, the former executive VP of the U.S. Institute of Peace, is reportedly ready to jump right in.

As her position holds a seat on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Sonenshine will be able to influence the BBG’s strategic planning process. This process has in recent years threatened to gut the U.S. international broadcasting services by redirecting resources from broadcasting toward Internet-only platforms, which are unavailable in many developing countries. According to the website BBG Watch, Sonenshine is planning to attend this month’s BBG meeting at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Radio and Television Marti, which broadcasts to Cuba, are among the entities targeted by the cutting knife. Sonenshine will also need to hear from Members of Congress who have taken a strong interest in the future of international broadcasting, such as Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA).

Another issue demanding attention is the challenge from China, whose aggressive public diplomacy advances are well-documented and were the topic of hearings in the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently. China is investing heavily in public diplomacy and international broadcasting, openly challenging the U.S. ideologically on its own turf. Sonenshine would do well to visit some of the 260 Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes at academic institutions all over the U.S. The U.S. is under pressure from China and others in the field of public diplomacy and communication and desperately needs to focus on outreach.

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Lots of other issues will be on her plate, but most fundamentally, Sonenshine has to answer this question: Is the U.S. still engaged in the war of ideas globally? If the answer is “yes,” then there is no time to waste.

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