Four Lessons Learned from Serving In Government

How hard is it to do public diplomacy? This great summary of a lecture last year from Tara Sonenshine, former undersecretary of State for PD/PA.

Take Five

Public diplomacy is about communicating—including lessons learned.  So here are a few lessons I have learned from serving in high level positions in government:

1. The first is about idealism vs. realism—how to blend them. You come into government very idealistic and you go home very realistic.  But the truth is that the first and last lesson I keep learning is about BLENDING BOTH—meaning that you have to blend ideals and aspirations with what is doable.

That’s hard. As an old friend of mine, Max Kampelman once said, there is what we ARE and what we OUGHT TO BE.  Both matter.  Resources are tight in the world, but the possibilities of what we can and want to do are endless.  So the trick is how to balance both.

At as Under Secretary at the State Department, I had to balance the need to THINK BIG and the painful reminder each…

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7 thoughts on “Four Lessons Learned from Serving In Government”

  1. I really Tara Sonenshine’s perspective on what it takes to serve in the government. Her second point, that, “we cannot fix others if we don’t fix ourselves,” was obviously very timely. I think most of the time we think the government is unaware of what it is doing. She, as well as other government officials, know that shutting down the government is not going to help us in the long run. I hope to see this coming into play so that our government, which can and should be a leader in the world, can continue to do so.

    I also believe that in the realm of international politics, we need to follow her fourth point: “to lead, you also have to follow.” I see this starting to become worked in into international politics with Obama trying to follow Russia’s lead with the problem in Syria. I hope to see more of us following in the future because it makes us stronger as a nation.

  2. I think that Tara Sonenshine gave a lot of relevant advice to us as students. It’s easy to look at this and think, okay maybe in thirty years will I be in this position, but we are in this position right now. These lessons can be applied to almost any scenario and that is what I believe to be the heart of diplomacy; adaptation. I appreciated the idea she presented about blending realism and idealism and also working as a team. We saw the opposite of this with the government shutdown. At some point, idealism can only get a person so far without applying realism as well. It certainly won’t happen unless people are using each other’s strengths. Remembering these four points will be beneficial to us as we participate in the MUN because it will be how we push policy and accomplish our end goals.

  3. Government work interests me but I frequently feel as though I have no grasp of the realism of the situation. However, this article gave me considerable encouragement, particularly with her first point about balancing creativity and realism. The entire article, in fact, presented a somewhat wiser, more experienced, but very similar view of the role of government that I have myself, which leads me to think maybe I’m more on the right track than I thought I was.

  4. For me one of the biggest struggles of diplomacy relates to her first lesson, how to blend idealism and realism. Many times ideas are theoretically great, and would even work well in the real world, but they encounter obstacles that prevent them of become real. As she said, there will always be legal and administrative requirements that need to be fulfilled and things might not work out the way we wish they would. But learning how to accept things won’t always be the way we know would be best, can help us balance idealism and realism.

  5. Tara Sonenshine’s blog post provides a lot of insights into what is necessary in public service. I really like her first point about blending idealism and realism. Too often, politicians favor one far more than the other. We need balance in order for our government to work properly and for politicians to cooperate with one another.
    I don’t agree with her statement, “We can’t tell other countries, for example, to put women at the top of their governments if we have never done that” because it implies that the United States has some kind of institutional barrier to women being in the head of government. Just because we have never had a woman president does not mean that a woman cannot hold extremely important and influential government positions. The reason that we have not yet had a woman president is because the people simply haven’t elected one yet.

  6. I found this article fascinating and full of good advice, but I’m going to focus more on the question on the end. Public diplomacy is hard. I worked in the Public Diplomacy section of a US embassy over the Embassy and quickly learned that it is not the “easy” section that it seems. There is a lot going in to manage relations with the people in a country that doesn’t particularly like the US. For example, one project we worked on was a graduate college fair for the host government’s Science ministry. Our goal was to change the ministry’s culture of sending their employees to school in Europe, Japan and Australia to sending them to the US. There was idealism behind this goal, the genuine desire to help the country with better education. But there was a lot of realism behind it too. This would bring in money from the country to the United States. It would cause some people who would eventually move into the higher ranks of the government to have better opinions of the US. So we had about a month to set a fair 30 some school fair, with representatives, speakers, recruitment materials and all sort of other things. It was actually really hard work and shows the PD is a lot more than just sending sports stars into an unfriendly country, though even that is really difficult.

  7. I greatly appreciate the insights that Tara Sonenshine presented. I found that the first, about blending idealism and realism, to be especially poignant because I think I have had trouble with that. It’s nice to hear someone say that even though it’s hard to do, it is possible. People have often told me that me wanting to change how things are is an unrealistic ideal because I obviously don’t understand how things work. I’ve always resented that sentiment. I think that just because I have an ideal of the things I want to do, does mean I forgo looking at the reality of the situation. On the contrary – I look at the reality in front of me and then see what it could be. As in all things in life, you have to balance things and so I think it’s impossible to be able to balance idealism with realism as well.

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