Richard Stengel ’77’s career in journalism included a recent run as managing editor of Time magazine, several years as a correspondent covering international news and U.S. politics, and a memorable stretch as Nelson Mandela’s biographer (discussed in a January interview with PAW). Last week, Stengel officially began a new chapter in the public sector when he was sworn in as the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Stengel explained that his new role is one of “soft power” — communicating the ideas and actions of the United States to audiences around the world. It’s a competitive environment, in many cases: Stengel and his colleagues have to go head-to-head with counterparts from other nations. He spoke specifically about Russia’s “propaganda machine” and its role in the turmoil in Ukraine, as well as American countermeasures, such as launching a social-media platform to engage Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population in its native language.
Stengel’s new position, first announced in September 2013, was delayed by the Senate confirmation process, which concluded with a 90-8 vote in his favor in February. At his swearing-in ceremony April 15, Secretary of State John Kerry, a Yale graduate, could not resist a few jabs at Old Nassau. “I think you all can tell that I am an equal opportunity hirer, because we’re hiring another guy from Princeton,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve elicited a promise from him [that] he is not going to institute any eating clubs in the State Department.” But that was just a prelude to a generous introduction outlining Stengel’s distinguished career to date. Kerry said that he and President Barack Obama “could not have found a better person to help the United States tell its story to the world in a way that people can understand and believe in.”