Public Diplomacy's Role at Various Stages of Conflict Resolution

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
The Stimson Center
Washington, DC
June 6, 2013

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here today, with a good friend and colleague, Ellen Laipson, who has done so much to advance international affairs, not only through The Stimson Center, but from the White House to the Foreign Policy Advisory Board to countless other boards. Thank you, Ellen, for your friendship and your contributions to American foreign policy and for this unique opportunity to talk about the civilian-military space and its relationship to public diplomacy.

This is not an easy subject but it is a timely subject, as you will soon hear about in the panel discussion later this morning. Russ Rumbaugh, who directs your Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense, will talk about the interaction between DOD and our civilian corps and Alison Giffen, who often collaborates with our own Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, will discuss ways we can enhance our civilian-military capabilities to support conflict resolution.

My thesis today is that public diplomacy is critical in extending civilian-military power. It combines soft and hard power to make the kind of “smart power” that is necessary to succeed. Public diplomacy is inextricably linked to key U.S. foreign policy goals of preventing deadly conflict, managing conflict when it occurs, and building civil societies out of the ashes of conflict.

Before I go any further, allow me just a bit of history.

At the State Department, I sit in the office once occupied by George Marshall—a man who understood a thing or two about strengthening our civilian-military continuum and about how to repurpose the aftermath of war into the new math of peace and prosperity.

The Marshall Plan set the precedent for a kind of transformative and collaborative capability. As former Secretary of State Clinton put it so well, and I quote, “The allies won the war with guts and valor, and the Marshall Plan won the peace with bricks and mortar.”

But the Marshall Plan went much further than bridges and buildings. It created an infrastructure for economic growth, which helped to create an alternative scenario to the biggest threat to our mutual freedom at the time: communism. The proof of success is in the story of the post-Marshall Plan era and how we, and our allies, came to choose paths that led to periods of peace and prosperity and alternatives to the communist system.

This theory of change that we can create alternatives to violence — that is the crux of the challenge of the military-civilian, civilian-military hyphen, in conflict prevention and post-conflict settings: How to create an alternative scenario to violence, destruction, division, hostility, and the danger of more deadly conflict.

It is also the challenge of public diplomacy—creating alternative scenarios using a variety of tools and approaches that have immediate and sometimes not so immediate impact.

The first thing to recognize is what I call the telescope settings for public diplomacy: these are the short term, the midterm, and the long term. Public diplomacy always operates with its hands busy in the present and the mid term, but its eyes always on the future – not unlike what our soldiers and civilians have to do.

There are situations where conflict erupts or an unexpected situation unfolds and we have no choice but to react in the short term, whether we are working in conflict reconciliation, or we are helping people cope – as we did in Haiti – with the consequences of an earthquake. The military will step in, as it did in Haiti, and sort through the rubble and civilians will stay long after to rebuild. And throughout both periods, our messaging, our narrative, and our public diplomacy matter. It has to work together.

Then there is the midterm, where we are working, through our public diplomacy programs and educational exchanges, to offer alternative scenarios to the world’s growing cohorts of, for example, economically disaffected youth – some of whom become radicalized and turn to violence.

Many of our programs for youth around the world offer English language training, job skills, an education. As President Obama put it in his recent speech at National Defense University – these efforts address the “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” Public diplomacy is also in the conflict prevention business.

In the long term, public diplomacy is also about building community and mutual understanding, and civil societies so that, our own economy stands to benefit from emerging trading and strategic global partners. We are also in the post-conflict arena.

Public diplomacy cuts across all sectors and timeframes. It enables governments to do their work by creating an environment of trust and respect, and by seeding the ground – planting the habits of democracy.

Public diplomacy often focuses attention on what animates people’s lives: education, work, safety, health, and their children—those children who want to study overseas or have better access to the Internet at home; those children whose lives can be improved—or destroyed—depending on the things the public diplomacy can deliver and how we can counter the negative perceptions and realities of life in difficult places.

In the past decade, we have learned to build a more vibrant continuum between our civilian and military agencies, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan and to integrate public diplomacy into the equation.

We have learned to build organizational models of transition, as soldiers hand over operational capabilities to civil society actors, police trainers, experts in rule of law, cell phone tower engineers, conflict resolution experts, Peace Corps volunteers, and so on. We have trained soldiers as community leaders. We have dispatched diplomats to work directly for generals as political advisors – or POLADS – so that we strategize and devise tactics together.

In the military, over the past few decades, we have employed female engagement teams to reach out to, and help rebuild, communities wracked by violence in Afghanistan. When women reach out to women in this way, we create strong links with the community’s most vital and committed organizers, conveners, and supporters.

The same is true on the civilian side where we are training Afghan women to convene and use their talents to devise laws, improve education and health, and be part of the peacemaking process. As with Iraq, where the decline of a military presence can lead to a flare up of tensions, the absence of soldiers in Afghanistan must be filled by strong civilians who continue the work.

Civilians and military do work hand in hand. In the wake of Japan’s triple disaster, our military immediately stepped up with Operation TOMODACHI, which means “friend” in Japanese. More than 20,000 Americans from our military and other U.S. agencies took part in this major disaster relief operation. When the immediate needs were met and the military operation was winding down, Ambassador Roos and our Embassy team in Japan launched The TOMODACHI Initiative. This public diplomacy continuation of our military operation comprises exchange programs that build on the TOMODACHI concept and strengthen our relationship with Japan.

One of the most important bureaus working on conflict—before, during, and after violence is the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations – or CSO – which is so engaged with civil society and NGO leaders on the ground and across continents. CSO has taken the mission of conflict prevention and mitigation to a new level.

Syria is a good example of where CSO is quietly active. The civil war in Syria is not just playing out on the ground where the fighting is, or in traditional diplomatic closed meetings. It is playing out on the airwaves and online as part of a wider messaging, information and propaganda war. And radio has emerged as an important conduit for conveying information of all kinds.

CSO is identifying, training, and providing equipment to independent radio producers so they can offer alternative programming and more practical news and information for citizens. That is good public diplomacy.

We are not only providing tools for vital information to reach Syrians during the conflict. We are also working to ensure that, when political transition occurs in Syria, there will be a diversity of independent broadcasters capable of reaching the Syrian public with reliable news and serving as a vehicle for free expression.

Difficult as the situation is, we are also using public diplomacy to reach refugees, communicate with diaspora around the world, and help Syrians inside the country, and we also explain, for example, what we are doing on the humanitarian assistance front.

In addition, we are using cultural diplomacy efforts to identify heritage sites and artifacts of Syrian history that may be looted and trafficked out of the country. We have learned from Iraq the importance of monuments, museums and elements of a nation’s identity to its identity and future.

But let me close by telling you about a new arena where public diplomacy works in a civilian-military capacity—and that is online – in countering violent extremism—especially focused on groups like al-Qa’ida and others who spread vicious lies and half-truths.

We created our own Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication – or CSCC. This is an interagency operation that includes officers from State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community.

Its mission is to coordinate, orient, and inform Government-wide public communications activities directed at audiences abroad and targeted against violent extremists and terrorist organizations, especially al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents.

CSCC gives public diplomacy a one-two punch capacity. On the one hand, we are using the resources and assets of our intelligence and military interagency colleagues to aggressively address rumors and falsehoods in the public space. On the other, through our more traditional programs, we are offering alternative scenarios to the same young people targeted by the likes of al-Qa’ida.

Now the complex part comes in avoiding the trap of confusing public diplomacy—open and very public outreach to communities with covert actions or psychological operations or so-called strategic communications. When CSSC goes out with a video or a message—it is transparent and clear that it is the U.S. Government.

In Syria, by the way, we have taken a very active role in countering extremism. CSCC is highlighting incendiary actions by all terrorist groups that are destabilizing Syria and the region, so that Syrians can clearly see that we are not playing favorites and that the United States is fundamentally opposed to all forms of violent extremism and extreme sectarianism in that conflict.

Our active efforts to undercut extremist propaganda in Syria and other critical regions are meant to illustrate my big picture point: We live in the age of hyphenation, in which previously unconnected entities can come together in pursuit of shared interests and a greater good.

We are active everywhere in the civilian-military space because the times demand it. As long as military conflicts continue, we have to do all we can to end such conflict and establish sustainable peace and economic vitality.

And we can use the best of our military and civilian powers and assets to do that. But we can’t only be reactive. We have to enter zones of pre-conflict, as well. We have to support NGOs and new generations of citizens committed to democracy and peaceful and prosperous global partnerships, so that wars are less likely to break out again, and so understanding and cooperation are more likely to replace enmity and distrust.

The man for whom your institution is named – Henry L. Stimson – believed that progress toward peace is only possible through practical steps and strong U.S. engagement in the world. I believe his philosophy is integral to my thesis today: Conflict and violent extremism thrive on a lack of alternatives and on cynical exploitation. Public diplomacy is about finding a dynamic linkage between our civilian and military assets so that we can deepen and expand our engagement. When we do that, we can build viable alternatives to cynicism and conflict. We can set the foundations for sustainable peace.

Thank you.