public diplomacy

Ain’t No Sonenshine When She’s Gone…


… only darkness everyday (until someone gets confirmed, at least).

Rumors began to fly online on April 23rd, and today, April 24, The Washington Post politics blog said that Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, will be leaving her post in July. It has not been made public what her next position will be, although the Post noted she’s  “likely headed to an academic or media gig”.

Let’s recap the Under Secretaries in that position over the last 10 years:

  • Margaret Tutweiler: December 2003 – June 2004 (7 months)
  • (14 month vacancy)
  • Karen Hughes: September 2005 – December 2007 (27 months)
  • (5 month vacancy)
  • James K. Glassman: June 2008 – January 2009 (7 months)
  • (4 month vacancy)
  • Judith McHale: May 2009 – July 2011 (26 months)
  • (6 month vacancy)
  • Kathleen Stephens (Acting): February 2012 – April 2012 (2 months)
  • Tara Sonenshine: April 2012 – July 2013 (15 months)

In the last ten years, the United States has had only two presidents, but has had six Under Secretaries at the helm of what is increasingly regarded as a very important piece of U.S. foreign policy (public diplomacy). The shelf life of these people (not including Stephens) averages to less than a year and a half.  In addition, approximately 29 months of the last decade, the seat has been empty, which is maybe the saddest fact of the entire situation. And likely, it will see many more months of vacancy after July, due to the incredible hassle of confirmation in today’s Congress.

So, my question is, “What exactly is driving these people away?”.

I understand that it has historically been an appointed position (which many say is a flaw in itself), but what is it about U.S. public diplomacy that makes it so we can’t even keep someone for a single Presidential term?

Is the job too difficult because one simply can’t easily defend U.S. foreign policy over the last decade? Are the appointees, many from the more efficient private sector (including Sonenshine) too bogged down by bureaucracy? Is promoting the image of the U.S. to foreign countries a lost cause?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, nor will I opine thoughts about them. But the current level of rotation of the top public diplomacy position in the U.S. surely is not helping our cause, for obvious reasons. Internationally, it reflects poorly that people keep quitting a job that our long-held American exceptionalist ideals would lead people to believe is virtuous and done with ease. Internally, State Department officials have to deal with every newly confirmed Under Secretary coming in and mixing things around–“making their mark” in structure and programming. And for the American people, it creates breaks in the links of the PD machine, which serve to promote understanding and create security for us at home.

It would be wise of President Obama to swiftly nominate someone who he thinks will stick around, at least until the end of his term. For everyone’s sake.


About Tim Lowden

Tim Lowden is a Buffalonian, District resident, and RPCV Morocco '08-'10. He digs dried figs.


One thought on “Ain’t No Sonenshine When She’s Gone…

  1. Thank you for this fine piece.

    Posted by John Brown | May 6, 2013, 8:51 pm

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