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Sonenshine on 9/11 and messaging

The many layers of messaging within the United States and how public diplomacy changed after 9/11. Fmr. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs of the US Tara Sonenshine in conversation with Charlie Firestone of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Charlie Firestone with the Aspen Institute here with Tara Sun and shine former Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs at the US Department of State so it seems like that case was an instance where the marketplace of ideas worked in the Western liberal democracy views whereas the totalitarian particularly the continent well the Communists are totalitarian view is that the press is an arm of the government and they should basically tow the government line does the now we're in a world where there's a huge expanse of information all around does the marketplace of ideas theory work today in the world of public diplomacy you raise a very interesting point about media and journalism which should be part of this and Joan I could speak Jonah is the inventor of soft power all of these tools during the Cold War we believed that journalism was not necessarily a government operation that free media or independent media was an extension of our values and so we argued that simply letting reporters report on hidden corners enclosed places was an extension of our value system whereas the Soviets believed that propaganda or news were the same reporting was to be done by the government with the government for the government and that battle which is still going on today in fact has heated up over Ukraine where once again we believe in sending out journalists as an extension of our values to unearth stories and they believe that journalism is to shape stories we're having a major collision we're both publix are getting a very different view but their view allows them to have messages and very effective messages to the public's they're trying to reach the liberal democracy view with let the thousand flowers bloom are many journalists come and cover and have whatever story they will it come there's a muddled message sometimes there's so can we really compete in that world the United States has its formal message dissemination the White House press briefing the State Department podium the Pentagon press secretary and those are very formal very clear this is to you from the United States government from the State Department we then have public diplomacy done also from the US government that we would say if we produced a video or a program somewhere brought to you with the funds of public diplomacy brought to you by us I a in the old days then we start getting a little third level we have Congress funding Voice of America Radio Free Asia radio Marty entities that are government money but somewhat distant in that they can do what they want to do confusing then we have private media and so we do have this new on sophisticated layering of messaging and it's a lot easier if you just have a totalitarian view of information and it's all housed and I guess the sophistication of American democracy with its many stakeholders and its many players that we do try to sort out what our values are but we don't believe in controlling this one single message would it be less messy yes would we want it no so in the past you talked about how public diplomacy arose after wars are during Wars and after worse our latest war if you will was an attack by a non-state actor and we have the 911 period going forward and a new look at public diplomacy so how his public diplomacy changed since 911 911 was a huge wake-up call for the field of public diplomacy and for the American consciousness about overseas we had gotten a little lacs I think leading up to two thousand one about public diplomacy for one we moved that enormous us I a machine that we talked about that had been created in the 50s and had gotten by 1999 pretty robust it was a standalone entity and although part of the US government it had a lot of cultural exchanges and a lot of music programs and a lot of art and a lot of a lot of a lot and in 1999 under a reorganization of the US government here we go again we're going to rename this and we're going to now move it back into the State Department so if you look at the trajectory of public diplomacy it's always the furniture being moved the name being changed the function being shifted so two years later what happens we have a global event that clearly reminds everyone that information matters that we are not an island that now it's come not from the Soviet corner or the Russian corner where we spent so much time in the Cold War doing our information now it's coming from this Middle East kind of region that we haven't done as much public diplomacy with so we get another rethink we get a commission and a lot of people start writing and scrambling and saying uh-oh we did this well after World War one we did this well after World War Two it did it well in the 50 we did it we won the Cold War with it and now we need to gin it up again and so you see the rise of a lot of exchange programs with the Middle East region you see a lot of media directed you see a lot of trying to work with youth and you see the birth of public diplomacy for countering violent extremism because now we begin to say wait a moment their storyline is a radical violent extremist storyline in our storyline is that that is not the way all boats rise in the world this is not going to lead to a less divided more tolerant more democratic more individualistic world again we have a clash of narratives and so public diplomacy gears up to tell the reverse to combat that violent extremism and we're going to put together a unit in the State Department that's going to take this on and we're going to meet them head-on layer it on to that in the late 1990s as the rise of the internet cable television 24-hour news and that all has to get put in the mix because it's no longer penny press or radio only now it's the a keyboard and a stroke and you're reaching millions and billions and cell phones are coming online and so we now have to marry up new statecraft new public diplomacy with a very old concept and we're also a little bit on our back feet because we are countering something this is not a very proactive response we are trying to beat back a narrative so I hope that kind of tells you after 911 we're into this decade-long now catching up on technology outfitting embassies to get in the game we've had american libraries nobody's even using libraries we've had we don't have facebook everywhere we don't have twitter everywhere but we still have an epic story struggle