President Barack Obama announced on Friday his intention to nominate Tara Sonenshine, currently the executive vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), as the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy.
Prior to joining USIP, Sonenshine was a strategic communications adviser to the International Crisis Group, Internews, CARE, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the International Women's Media Foundation. She also served in former President Bill Clinton's White House in various capacities, including as director of foreign policy planning for the National Security Council and as special assistant to the president and deputy director of communications.
"With her years working in the media and her keen understanding of foreign affairs, she is eminently qualified for the position," said USIP President Richard Solomon. "I know she will bring the indefatigable energy for which she is known here at the institute to her new work at State."
Sonenshine's nomination came as a surprise to most of the public diplomacy experts and officials we spoke with today, but there was general support for the selection and plenty of praise of Sonenshine to go around.
"This is an outstanding appointment," Douglas Wilson, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told The Cable today. "This is great news for those who care about public diplomacy. Tara Sonenshine brings a multiplicity of talents to this job and if she is confirmed I for one would be delighted to have her as a colleague."
Wilson had been one of the people rumored to be in contention for the job, along with Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock, who had been serving as acting under secretary since the July 8 departure of former Discovery Channel CEO Judith McHale. A large part of the budget and programs in State's public diplomacy effort go to educational and culture exchanges, such as the Fulbright program.
Jim Glassman, a former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy during the Bush administration, told The Cable today that, if confirmed, Sonenshine could represent a shift toward using the State Department's public diplomacy arm to focus more on advancing near and medium-term national security goals, rather than on a long-term reshaping of the U.S. image.
"[T]he most important part is the part we spend the least money on, which is helping to achieve national security goals through strategic communications in an open way. The military's involved but the State Department should be in charge of it," Glassman said. "It really requires someone with serious policy or national security experience and she seems to have that. Some of the people who previously held this job have not."
One area that Sonenshine will probably not have control over is public affairs and media relations, which is technically under her office but has never really been part of the undersecretary for public diplomacy's portfolio. That office is led by acting Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer.
"In real life, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs works directly for the secretary, so the under secretary has very little day-to-day influence over what goes on there," Glassman said.
Multiple U.S. officials told The Cable they hoped Sonenshine would add some consistency and clarity to the office of the under secretary of public diplomacy, which seems to change its focus with each new leader.
"This office has been vacant 30 percent of the time since it's been established and each time they put someone in this job, it's a radical departure from the last person," one U.S. official said. "We have what seems to be confusion over what is this job supposed to be."
The thousands of public diplomacy professionals who work for State at diplomatic posts around the world will also be looking to Sonenshine to represent their interests in the interagency process, and fix the bureaucratic problems at State that often prevent the most appropriate people from being assigned to public diplomacy posts due to strict seniority rules.
"Is she going to be a proponent for the public diplomacy corps? Or is she going to take the approach of a media person," one U.S. government official said. "The question of whether she is qualified for [the position] depends on what do you want the job to be. The question is: what is the role of this office, which is not well defined, not well understood, and not well appreciated?"
Another official told The Cable today that Sonenshine "understands that the key to public diplomacy is revitalizing the morale of the people who serve in it, and she understands that public diplomacy practitioners have talents and need to be empowered to do things they are not empowered to do now."
This official said that Sonenshine would be an improvement over McHale, because at least "she knows what she's doing."
Obama also nominated Anne Richard for assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, replacing Eric Schwartz. Richard is currently vice president of government relations and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. From 1999 to 2001, she was director of the office of resources, plans and policy at the State Department. From 1997 to 1999, she was deputy chief financial officer of the Peace Corps.