America's Next Move on Public Diplomacy

The best advice we can give Ms. McHale is to take advantage of the tools and techniques in global communications and the best lessons learned in managing international conflict.
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Judith McHale, the former CEO of Discovery Communications, has been named, subject to Senate confirmation, America's next Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy. When she arrives at the State Department, Ms. McHale will find a stack of new (and expensive) proposals on her desk from various corners of government and the private sector on how to improve America's image abroad.

Over the last 18 months, hardly a month has passed without some new set of recommendations from institutions concerned with public diplomacy. They call for everything from funding a new non-governmental organization aimed at harnessing private sector expertise to doubling the budget for academic exchange programs. Some experts want to completely overhaul the State Department and the international broadcasting operations of the U.S. government. Others want to re-invent the U.S. Information Agency, which held sway over public diplomacy for many years.

The best advice we can give Ms. McHale is to take advantage of the tools and techniques in global communications and the best lessons learned in managing international conflict:

1. International tensions are better dealt with before they escalate. Just as preventive diplomacy is effective in stemming the tide of violence, so, too, can preventive public diplomacy used to soften the ground and prepare international audiences for what to expect from the U.S.
2.Effective public diplomacy, like effective diplomacy, is about cooperating with others, locally, on-the-ground, not imposed from Washington.
3.Just as we re-build war-torn societies, we have to re-build relations and alliances around the world. Public diplomacy is an integral part of America's ability to help relieve international tensions by working with others, in a two-way dialogue, using communications and dialogue.

Ms. McHale will no doubt understand, from her experience with Discovery Communications, that the key ingredient to a successful public diplomacy strategy lies in networking and collaborating with people around the world and meeting them where they are -- on Facebook, on the web, in the public square. We have to be in listening mode: open to criticism and receptive and responsive to ordinary citizens who are joining what Ms. McHale's predecessor, James Glassman, called "the grand conversation" -- the interface of ordinary people chatting, debating, and discussing the world.

We will need a new "information corps" along the lines of the diplomatic corps or the Peace Corps -- information specialists who can deliver messages and engage publics from Embassies to American Centers to a foreign press center, that should be re-energized in the U.S.

The new Undersecretary of Diplomacy has a big job in front of her, and an abundance of options.

Now the hard work begins.

Sheldon Himelfarb is Associate Vice President of the Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Center of Innovation at the United States Institute of Peace. Tara Sonenshine is Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace.

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