Tara Sonenshine

Tara Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Previously, she served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as well as Executive Vice President of the U.S. Institute for Peace.
Tara Sonenshine has written 23 posts for Take Five

Wacky Weather Woes in a Climate of Volatility

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Photo source

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Source

August is usually the month of swimming, surfboards, sand castles, and hiking in the great outdoors, but many of us wake up these days with weather woes and trepidation. Should we pack life preservers for rafting or rescues?

All of us are now well acquainted with weather warnings alerting us to the latest dangers: To date, 17 wildfires along the border of California and Oregon have scorched 180 square miles of land. Meanwhile, reports continue about hurricanes churning in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

As a result, the bills are also mounting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in 2013, there were around 17 weather/climate disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in losses across the U.S. Recent reports, including the US government Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, make clear that higher temperatures, rainfall changes, and natural disasters are linked to climate change and things that humans are doing to the planet in this century.

We need to tell people more than just today’s forecast. The World Meteorological Organization reports that 1998, 2005, and 2010 were the warmest years on record globally! Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. For the US, 2012 was the warmest year on record. For Australia it was 2013. We have to communicate these trends and their relationship to increased greenhouse emissions.

Public diplomacy offers many interesting approaches to weather, including wording and communications as well as monitoring and evaluation:

1. Let’s start by avoiding, at least in this article, the two controversial words: “climate change.” The phrase has become so politically loaded and scientifically debated that it risks eclipsing the bigger issue of bad weather. Those two phenomena are likely related, but mixing them in the same sentence gets people mad. So maybe we can just use another two words: “Mother Nature,” since she seems in charge.

2. We need more weather accountants. It is near impossible to follow the patterns, tracking and numbers of weather incidents. Adding it all up is a mind-numbing exercise. Fortunately, the White House Climate Initiative announced this year is going to do just that: thread together all the government data from NOAA, NASA, the US Geological Survey and other federal agencies.

3. Once we get the math and science right, we need to put it all this volatility into a larger context. That requires good communications. Much of the best analysis of weather lies in highly scientific and technical journals full of jargon. We need to train our science writers to speak in terms we can all understand. Concepts like “polar vortex” and “arctic blast” require stories and characters in addition to footnotes and sources. It would be useful to have national lesson plans both online and in booklet form to explain the history and current weather situation. Imagine getting a Guide to Understanding Weather when you board an airplane or step onto a bus or train. Hey—we have time to read while in motion.

Wacky weather is now seemingly a part of life. So let’s approach it with life skills from basic education to high level analysis. We could get weather coaches and climate counselors, send our kids to meteorological instead of music camps.

Or we can close the blinds, turn off the local news, and play hide and seek with Mother Nature. My guess is, she’ll find us.

 

The US-German Relationship at a Critical Public Diplomacy Moment

The U.S. and German flags. Credit: DW.de

The U.S. and German flags. Credit: DW.de

I just returned from a week in Berlin—a lively city teeming with people. There is a whiff of spring in the air and the outdoor cafes have begun to crowd the sidewalks with the European buzz that Berliners uniquely create.

But along with good cheer is a damp residue from this past year’s revelations by Mr. Snowden that the American government has been eavesdropping on conversations between German officials including listening to the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A post-NSA hangover has left German intellectuals reeling and ordinary citizens confused and angry.  Even the biggest supporters of Atlantic relations have found themselves challenged to defend a kind of surveillance and intrusion so antithetical to modern day Germany.

My trip was an opportunity to practice public diplomacy, which involved meeting with national security experts, academics, and a large contingent of students from multiple countries spending a semester in Berlin. It reinforced for me the importance of face-to-face contact and person-to-person dialogue to listen to the point of view of others.

Virtual diplomacy is great; E-exchanges are useful. But nothing beats sitting around a table, handing a physical business card to a new colleague, and chatting at coffee breaks about family and friends. Emotional setbacks in relationships have real consequences and they are best dealt with in human settings as opposed to on line.

The U.S.-German relationship is at a critical inflection point.  We need one another to confront the situation in Ukraine and to find common ground so that American-European-Russian relations do not lead all of us down a dangerous path.

In addition to Ukraine, our countries face common challenges around energy, finance, trade and the growing influence of China.  We have multinational trade deals at stake, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and monetary policies with impact on one another’s fiscal stability.  Not to mention climate change, terrorism, and the problems posed by failing states around the globe.

In the end, I think US-German relations can weather the storm.  Pragmatism tends to prevail in both countries.  A crisis often brings partners closer together, and for us, decades of close relations. But this relationship, like all relationships, takes commitment on both sides and a willingness to meet, talk, debate, discuss and disclose on the public side to deepen diplomacy.

Ukraine and the War of Words

In public diplomacy, words matters.  The situation in Ukraine is not only a battle involving troops – it is a battle over language.  All sides in the conflict will choose words that reflect their version of events on the ground.  Words can have legal meaning, political weight, and public diplomacy implications.

Key words and phrases for public diplomacy watchers following this crisis:

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For the United States, the key public diplomacy challenge will be consistency of language to build a strong public case for a “United Ukraine.” US policymakers will need to be careful to stay on message and avoid veering into dubious terrain by either invoking old Cold War language or creating moral equivalency arguments over “self determination”. For example, Chechens want to determine their own future.  Some pro-Russian Crimeans want to determine their own future. Ukrainians want to decide their own future.

In the world of 2014, words travel as fast as technology.  My best advice for the Administration: Whichever words President Obama uses should set the script for other policymakers to use. If not, conflicts over words will drive the story.

Remembering a Great Public Diplomat: David Burke and the BBG

davidburke David Warren Burke, a man who stood for the finest in public diplomacy, journalistic integrity and the independence of media, died this past Friday. America lost a great public servant.

Just a week before his death, the Broadcasting Board of Governors announced the winners of the 2014 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Awards for exceptional integrity, bravery, and originality in reporting. David Burke was the first Chairman of the BBG’s governing board, a position he was named to by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and for which he served until 1998.

The BBG award winners of this year’s David Burke journalistic prize include reporters from VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, Al Hurra, and the Office of Cuban Broadcasting – men and women who put their lives on the line to tackle tough topics like ethnic conflict in the Central African Republic, violence in Ukraine, and security challenges in Iraq.  David would be so proud of them.

The loss of David Burke is personal for me. David was my first boss, a mentor, and a friend. He attended Tufts University and always believed in giving back to your university. As Executive Vice President of ABC News, David Burke gave back to his alma mater by hiring young, aspiring journalists (who had attended Tufts)  to work for him. I was fortunate to be one of those whose career he shaped.

Ironically, later in life, I became under secretary of state for public diplomacy, representing the Secretary of State on the very board that David Burke had once chaired:  The BBG. Things come full circle. Today, I salute the man who brought sense and sensibility to news, government, and public service.  My thoughts are with his wife, Trixie, the Burke family, and the long list of David Burke admirers.

Cover photo courtesy of ABC.go.com.

Going to the Well: Public Diplomacy and H2O

shutterstock_122745145

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” said Benjamin Franklin more than two centuries ago.

Every day we read more stories about the lack of water around the world and the relationship between water, climate change, food, and energy. Already today 1/3 of the world population is affected by water scarcity.

The alarm bells around freshwater scarcity have been ringing loudly for years. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment—the first major comprehensive environmental audit of the planet, warned that nations must begin consciously allocating enough water to sustain the planet’s ecosystem.

The projections today are that 3.5 billion people will live in communities that will not be able to feed themselves by 2025 if we don’t address water shortages. Water scarcity presents us with an array of challenges from environmental to political.

One of the great challenges of 2014 will be how governments and citizens manage a resource vital to every aspect of life. To produce a calorie of food, it takes a liter of water and today about 1/3 of the world population is affected by water scarcity. Humanitarian and health crises spring from lack of adequate sanitation and shortages of clean, safe, accessible water. Future energy needs depend on an active water cycle.

We need a public diplomacy campaign about water that is consistent, and reliable. It is why projects like Planet Forward which networks young people in an active, engaged way, to tackle sustainability issues are so critical. NOW is the time to rise to the challenge and meet the world’s needs for water.

Malaysian Flight 370: A Case Study in How NOT to conduct Public Diplomacy

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, Malaysia’s Minister for Transport Hishamuddin Hussein, left, and director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, deliver a statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner on Mar. 15, 2014. Credit: Associated Press via WSJ.com

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, Malaysia’s Minister for Transport Hishamuddin Hussein, left, and director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, deliver a statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner on Mar. 15, 2014. Credit: Associated Press via WSJ.com

Malaysian Flight 370—specifically how the Malaysian government has handled the crisis to date—shows the negative side of public diplomacy, and reminds us why crisis communications matters.

From the moment the airplane disappeared from radar in the early morning hours of March 8, , the government in Kuala Lumpur faced a challenging task of communicating with its own citizens and citizens overseas. With passengers from a dozen countries on board—most of them Chinese—the public diplomacy assignment required careful, consistent, and credible information sharing.

That never happened. The result was conflicting stories, shifting narratives, and an overall picture of confusion. Now it will be difficult for the Malaysians to re-establish credibility.

The first rule of public diplomacy is to establish trust with your audience. Leaving aside the rules and procedures around an airline disaster, where victims need special handling, the basic goal of public information campaign is for government officials to disseminate information even when there is little to come by. The Malaysians needed to take hold of the situation and manage the flow of news in a 24/7 world where a cable operation like CNN might, as turned out to be the case, broadcast around the clock news about the event—dispatching reporters and cameras around the globe.

The second rule of public diplomacy is, if you don’t have an answer to a question, be candid and say, “We don’t know.” No information is better than bad information.

Lastly, be mindful of the power of the Bully Pulpit—a phrase coined by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to reflect the influence of the White House messaging platform. Deploying the Prime Minister of Malaysia needed to be strategic. There was no reason to put Prime Minister Najib Razak in the position of informing families that their loved ones were gone forever absent any wreckage of the plane to prove it.

To compound the error, the Malaysian government used social media incorrectly. It sent a text message to the families that read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.” Without a debris field, the message seemed hollow.

Now, with the help of Australia, there is a chance to get Malaysia’s public diplomacy back on course. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott just met with the Malaysian Prime Minister and one hopes they will improve the information flow about the ongoing search and investigation.

In the end, the answer is training. We need to train government officials on how to communicate before, during and after a crisis, and how to use public diplomacy effectively. In a world of citizen journalism, news, and global information, the alternative is chaos.

Study Abroad’s Time Has Arrived

A study by the SIT Study Abroad and Graduate Institute shows that participants of study abroad programs often make life-long commitments to education, healthcare, and globally conscious efforts that solve problems. Credit: gapyear.com

A study by the SIT Study Abroad and Graduate Institute shows that participants of study abroad programs often make life-long commitments to education, healthcare, and globally conscious efforts that solve problems. Credit: gapyear.com

Finally, after too little attention, the concept of study abroad is making the news. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof champions the issue in a March 15 column announcing a winner for his 2014 contest to highlight neglected places in the world by sending a student overseas.

Kristof’s article followed news by Tufts University that it will help defray the costs for students to take a gap year abroad. All this comes on top of the annual Open Doors report on international educational exchanges which finds that the number of American students studying abroad for academic credit has increased 3% and that the number of international students in the U.S. is up 7% over the last recorded year. Together with yet unpublished data by SIT Study Abroad of World Learning, the case is strong for sending American youth on educational programs overseas.

Study abroad (and student exchanges writ large) are a critical tool in the backpack of young people if they want to be economically competitive, culturally enriched, and good global citizens and leaders. Data compiled by Marianne McGarrity, a graduate student researcher at SIT Study Abroad and Graduate Institute, shows that participants of study abroad programs often make life-long commitments to education, healthcare, and globally conscious efforts that solve problems.  Alumni with international experience find positive use for foreign languages and overseas experiences in their careers.

In short, study abroad is life-changing in the best of ways. I did it in 1980 and credit that time overseas as a build block for a life in media, academia, and public service.

Good public diplomacy includes people-to-people engagement and the ideal scenario is to have more youth coming to America and going overseas.  That is a global vision we should all subscribe to.

Tribute to a Wonderful Public Diplomat: Ambassador Sam Lewis

“Hello Schmuel,” I used to say to Sam Lewis, which made him laugh. The former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (1977) was not Jewish, but he remained a lifelong friend of Israel and of Jews and a friend of Palestinians—the ultimate public diplomat. He was a peacemaker—a man who bridged cultures, religions, histories and believed deeply in the power of negotiations to end stalemates and deadlocks. He devoted his life to the Middle East and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and he understood the power of people to move policies.

Moshe Dayan, former Foreign Minister of Israel, greets U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis at the New Year (Rosh Hashana) reception of the President of Israel for the Diplomatic Corps, September 9, 1977. Credit: Jerusalem-Korczak-Home.com

Moshe Dayan (right), former Foreign Minister of Israel, greets U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis (left) at the New Year (Rosh Hashana) reception of the President of Israel for the Diplomatic Corps, September 9, 1977. Credit: Jerusalem-Korczak-Home.com

Sam Lewis died today at the age of 84. He was born October 1, 1930, in Houston, Tex. He received an A.B. degree from Yale University in 1952 and an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University in 1954. He joined the Foreign Service in 1954 and served as consular officer at Naples. From 1955 to 1959, he was a political officer and acting principal officer in Florence. Sam went on to great heights—Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, head of State Department Planning, and then President of the United States Institute of Peace where he remains a revered figure.

What I will miss about Sam Lewis is not just his gift of diplomacy and his ability to reach out to publics across divides. I will miss his smile, his laugh, his wit, and his wisdom. To me, Sam Lewis remains “Schmuel,” — a Mensch and a mentor—and will be sorely missed. My heartfelt sympathies to his wife, Sally, and his family which includes many nations and people.

The Power of Film

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via NYTimes.com

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via NYTimes.com

The power of film is as unimaginable as the characters within the movies. As an under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs I tried to talk about film diplomacy but only now, reading Ron Suskind’s article in the NY Times do I truly begin to understand it.

It is a personal essay about his autistic son but it is much more than just a personal story—it is a public call about how we approach those with disabilities and how the movies can be so much more than entertaining.

Ironically, while on public diplomacy missions I tried to address the issue of disabilities as part of the American value of inclusiveness and reaching out to those with physical and cognitive disabilities. But I did not understand the linkage between film and those with disabilities until this article which opens the window onto the human mind, human emotion and how through film and books we change the human being.

I urge my TakeFive readers to read every word of this piece. Try not to cry. Or do.

Culinary Diplomacy: Power to Unite or Divide

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit: Naharnet.com

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit: Naharnet.com

Cultural diplomacy is a source of uniting or dividing people. The White House decision NOT to participate in the Sochi Paralympic games for athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities is a reflection of the crisis in Ukraine which has divided cultures and now cuts American participation off.

The Ukraine situation is a cultural breakdown between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and other groups who struggle with cultural issues like language and history. Sports can be a part of positive diplomacy but is also a way to signal dissent with another country as is the case here. Cultural diplomacy – be it sports or other forms of so-called “soft power” is influential.

Recently I wrote about a form of cultural diplomacy known as culinary diplomacy where food is the source of bridging cultures.Taught and promoted at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, food diplomacy is taking off in the United States as well, in part due to an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Chef Corps which uses the power of chefs to teach slow cooking, agriculture, the business aspects of food, etc.

From Iran to Africa, from Haiti to Korea, from Ukraine to Uganda—food and sports are ways to motivate people: hopefully in a positive direction.

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