03/12/2013 11:36 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

The Thing About 'American Centers'

Sitting in on a conversation with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine on Thursday, it was made clear to me that Public Diplomacy (for the U.S. at least) is that delicate art of making clear and accessible to people around the world the intentions, the values, and incredible opportunities that exist here in the United States. Thrown around in the Under Secretary's talk on America's public diplomacy abroad were commonly coined phrases like "return on investment" and "networks of good will."

It all reminded me a little of a fierce debate I had in Argentina this past summer. Sitting and having a cafecito with one prominent entrepreneur, I was made furious by the perceptions he had of my country. "I don't care if America gives all this money abroad as a part of their foreign aid -- all of it returns to them threefold." His message was clear: the world isn't fooled. Our foreign aid doesn't come entirely from a place of altruism; frankly, it's good business. Sitting in on Sonenshine's talk, I couldn't help but think: my gosh, he was right.

The cries of "where America is absent, there will be consequences" -- a cry itself echoed by Sonenshine on Thursday -- are increasingly falling on deaf ears. While I can see how the creation of so called American centers around the world -- places where we can engage foreign populations and make them aware of our culture and language -- helps our country, I'm not exactly their biggest supporter. Don't get me wrong. These centers are not a bad thing. Oftentimes, locals will go to a center to learn English or for a "safe space" to talk about something their culture might otherwise prohibit. But I wonder sometimes the extent to which these "American centers" actually encourage cultural exchange instead of the imposition of our own on another's.

Simply put, my problem is that we don't really live out public diplomacy here at home. I'm as proud an American citizen as anyone else but I do think how we define that citizenship requires reassessment. It is not OK that our country is present in so many places around the world and yet our people are turned inwards. It is not OK that we encourage others to speak English but stick steadfastly to a monolingual education and workplace here at home. It is not OK that you could ask just about any kid in India or China or Pakistan who the president of the United States is and they would know -- but if you were to do the same here, I wonder...

It's not OK.

A public diplomacy strategy that focuses on informing the rest of the world about us but that neglects to bring to Americans the stories of those around the world is not just a strategy that promotes inwardness, exclusiveness, and even that shunned strain of ethnocentrism we decry. It's bad policy. It makes our kids less competitive and it means on a very basic level that in the economy of 20 to 30 years from now in which Americans will be competing and working with people far beyond our borders, we will struggle to exercise the kind of cultural understanding, international knowledge, and common empathy needed to be not just citizens of this great country, but too this (great) world. Bottom line: we're losing out.