Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Boston, MA
February 27, 2013

Thank you, Nick. I want to begin by thanking you for your public service. From the White House to the State Department, from NATO to Greece, and other assignments in-between, our country has benefitted from your service. Harvard today gets to benefit from your leadership and I am delighted to be here and speak to you all, particularly the students.

Today’s talk is part of the lecture series, “Future of Diplomacy,” and no one should take heed of the future more than you. You stand to gain the benefits and bear the consequences of policy and public diplomacy today.

And I must thank Harvard professor, Joe Nye, whose important work on the interdependence among nations in the modern age, and on the importance of soft power, has become a principle of President Obama’s foreign policy – and the way many of us understand the world.

Today, I want to talk to you about some amazing places around the world that we call American Spaces and to tell you where they are, what they do, and about the public diplomacy that happens in them – and why they are so important to our prosperity and security – and everyone’s futures in this room.

I am glad to speak to you today about American Spaces, knowing that they are already getting traction and attention here. Harvard University recently collaborated with the American Security Project to create a fact sheet on the facts and figures, and the impact, of American Spaces – and that is released and distributed this week.

So let me begin by quickly reviewing public diplomacy today—that nexus between communications and foreign policy. It is about engagement with people around the world, whose lives are inextricably linked with our own, by virtue of globalization, economic interdependence, climate change, terrorism, and all the transnational issues that demand collaboration and cooperation.

Public diplomacy is about recognizing that, in foreign policy, people are key. We can’t address the challenges of the 21st century solely through the lens of policy. We have to do it with our physical and virtual engagement with people by deepening, expanding and leveraging our discourse with them to create the conditions for our policies to work. Otherwise our policies are flying blind.

When America is absent, especially from the dangerous places, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer and our security at home is threatened. So that is public diplomacy in a nutshell.

One place where we can practice public diplomacy is in an American Space. What is an American Space?

In the days of President Eisenhower, and until pretty recently, we had American libraries abroad—traditional libraries with books and card catalogs. But in a rapidly changing world, powered by social media and instant information, those traditional libraries are evolving into dynamic community spaces.

What’s the difference? People find information about the United States, sometimes through books and journals, but also on touch screens and e-readers or have global online interchanges with people in the region or the United States or visit an interactive science corner like the one we have in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, that is a full-fledged interactive science museum, complete with an astronomical observatory and a standing dinosaur model.

American Spaces are extension cords for public diplomacy, extending our reach overseas directly to people.

At a time when so many of our embassies are forced by necessity to protect our diplomats, it’s critical that we can go outside our compounds so we can engage in what Edward R. Murrow called “the last three feet – one person talking to another.”

An American Space is not always physically large. In the former Soviet Union, an enterprising diplomat in 2001 set up American corners in libraries and universities, literally just a corner of American culture and history in a sea of Russian content.

Recently in Japan, I went to a Japanese library which was opening an American shelf—really just a few bookcases of books in English for the thousands of Japanese visitors who frequent the National Library.

An American Space is not always a fixed location. In the Philippines, our American Spaces are mobile–literally America on wheels– pulling into rural areas with materials about the United States. In Madagascar we use a Mobile Cultural Center – a 20-foot structure packed with iPads, Kindles, and Wii’s that we fly or sail to the country’s most remote regions.

Some American Spaces are big, such as in Indonesia where a large, modern, high tech video immersion facility is situated on the 2nd floor of a popular shopping mall. Our American Space there is called @America and you can visit it online.

Last week I visited our American Center in Mexico City called the Benjamin Franklin Library. It is a stand-alone facility—not in a university or library or embassy. It has existed for seven decades, and provides an open and airy place, with shelves full of American literature and history plus Internet access and computer screens alive with U.S. content.

A large, colorful mural with Mexican and American presidents adorns the Space. Everywhere I looked were teenagers learning English, or consulting educational advisers from the State Department about study abroad programs. Or simply meeting to talk about America.

In Latin America, many of our American Spaces are known as binational centers where we collaborate with teachers and community leaders, primarily to teach English. One of our most innovative ideas is a sophisticated, interactive video game pioneered in Brazil at our binational center, Casa Thomas Jefferson. I urge you to check it out. It’s called Trace Effects.

What you should also know about American Spaces is that they are not only in big cities like Tokyo. Among the most exciting centers I saw was in Fukuoka. Often we reach deep into cities and towns where no U.S. Government facility exists.

Sometimes we are in the middle of a crowded capital like in New Delhi which has two floors of meeting space for English classrooms, for screening American films, and for talking. I met there with young people to discuss issues that affect both our countries, including the difficult and controversial subject of rape – a topic some of them find hard to discuss at home. And I got to answer questions and address misperceptions about the United States.

In countries where there is a critical security element, the American Space offers a forward-deployed and non-military way in which we can engage people. In certain cities in Afghanistan, for example, the American Space is the only place that parents will allow their daughters to go–other than school.

We offer them a haven in which they can feel safe to find out about anything they want – whether it’s information about the feminist movement, life in Muslim communities in America, or an Oscar winning movie. This is where they can dare to dream.

How many of these American Spaces do you think we have around the world? How about 853 American Spaces in 169 countries - in neighborhoods, schools, and cultural institutions in all shapes and sizes?

What makes these spaces so important to us, as Americans, is that they enable us to reach people and to engage in dialogue so that we can listen to others and share our own story and narrative.

In some parts of the world – there is misinformation, distrust, and hatred. Those voices find fertile ground where there is a lack of economic opportunity. But when we provide opportunity to engage, we empower people – including girls, women, and religious and ethnic minorities – who are often denied the right to speak and live freely.

We’ve seen the power of young people as they fought for democracy in the public squares of Tunis and Cairo, using tools of social media to bring down repressive regimes in strategic ways – and to include democratic supporters all over the region and the world. We see both the positive and the negative paths that people take.

In Pakistan, we saw what happened to a young woman – Malala Yousafzai – who demanded the right for girls to have education. And how she has become a rallying cry for education and equality.

If we want to turn the tide in our favor, we have to weigh the costs and consequences of inaction against the costs and benefits of participation.

If we don’t engage with critical audiences, we will lose the chance to explain our values and our policies and leave that role instead to undesirable voices. We will risk losing many young people to the influence of extremists and syndicates.

But if we do engage, we can nurture and enlist generations of emerging leaders and potential economic and global partners who are more likely to embrace democratic principles, demand freedom and work with us to generate productive change in the world.

In this time of budget uncertainty and scrutiny over government spending, I want to underscore the strong return on investment that these American Spaces give us.

The majority of our spaces are partnerships – (those American Corners I mentioned) – that give an ambassador or other embassy staff a platform to reach out and engage their key foreign audiences in places where we can't afford to have an embassy or consulate.

For a start-up investment of about $25,000, we get a permanent presence on the ground. The ambassador can engage local officials, students, and civil society. The Commercial Counselor can meet with business leaders outside a capital. And our public affairs staff can advise students how to apply to U.S. universities.

American Corners also demonstrate to the local population that the United States is committed to a strong, lasting relationship with their country.

As Americans, we also need to remember 95 percent of the world’s customers live beyond our borders. By creating networks of goodwill, and empowering emerging leaders, we improve the possibilities of more productive economies abroad – and that brings opportunity for trade, for foreign investments, for global partnerships of all kinds, and for our citizens to participate in the global economy.

We also improve the chances of creating countries predisposed to peace and minimize the chances of our young men and women having to lose their lives in conflicts abroad.

Let me share another number with you – the smallest number there is. Does anyone here know the percentage of the entire federal budget that we spend on foreign policy? It is one percent. That’s not just for our diplomatic operations around the world, it includes foreign aid. And our spending on public diplomacy is just a drop in that bucket.

When we consider that foreign students who study in our colleges and universities bring in $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy – yes, $22.7 billion – we must surely conclude that public diplomacy is a pretty smart investment.

There are so many great stories to tell about the impact we are having around the world:

  • How in South Africa, high school students mob our American Corner in the Mamelodi Township as soon as school is out. Or how in Rangoon, 175,000 visitors flock to our American Center every year.
  • How in Russia, where the idea of American Corners first began in 2001, and where we operate in eight different time zones, Ambassador Michael McFaul engaged a packed room in an American Center in Moscow with his perspective on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.
  • Or how in Cairo, through our embassy information resource center, we partnered with high-level Egyptian Government officials to lead strategic management workshops for local business, government, and civil society leaders. As their country undergoes an uncertain transition towards greater democracy and freer enterprise, programs like this are critical.

But sometimes showing is better than telling. So, to close this speech, I asked my staff to put together a quick montage of some of the many images of American Spaces. This was a bit of a last minute request so excuse the less than Oscar winning quality but I hope it gives you a visual sense of the vibrancy and power of what these spaces can bring to ordinary people.

Thank you. And I look forward to your questions.