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Letter highlights need for public diplomacy champion at State Department

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2013

A group of influential retired diplomats urged the Obama administration to move carefully in filling a key State Department post focused on growing interactive programs with the citizens of America's allies and adversaries around the world.

In a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry and National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, 27 former ambassadors and other retired high-level diplomats called for the position of undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs to be filled by "a career foreign affairs professional, with years of overseas and Washington experience."

A former official familiar with the letter said that its authors were not critical of Tara Sonenshine, a former executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has held the position since April 2012. But with Mrs. Sonenshine slated to step down in mid-July, longtime members of Washington's diplomatic corps were eager to point out that no one in the post over the past 15 years has been "a career Foreign Service officer," the former official said.

It's a situation that Friday's letter said may explain why turnover for the public diplomacy post has been so high, noting that the position has actually "been vacant more than 30 percent of the time since it was created in 1999."

While the activities of the public diplomacy chief often fly under the radar of major media coverage, the State Department's website notes how vital the position is intended to be for the rubber-meets-the-road implementation of American foreign policy.

Specifically, whoever holds the post is tasked with pursuing the sort of careful overseas public relations that "enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics."

But it is a job not easily done well if those tapped for it end up sitting in the post for too short a time. "It is challenging to direct and energize public diplomacy if the leadership has brief tours or vacancies are lengthy," states Friday's letter to Mr. Kerry and Mr. Donilon.

Prior to Mrs. Sonenshine's 15-month tenure, the previous four individuals to have held the post "served, on average, nearly two years," according to the letter. "By comparison, the previous four [undersecretaries], all career professionals, served, on average, nearly three-and-one-half years."

John R. Beyrle, former ambassador to Russia; Robert Finn, former ambassador to Afghanistan; Brian Carlson, former ambassador to Latvia; Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel; and Thomas R. Pickering, former undersecretary of State for political affairs, were among those who signed the letter.

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