Today Secretary Clinton today hosted a global town hall in Washington to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by non-governmental organizations around the world. The gathering was part of the State Department’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society 2012 Summit, which drew civil society representatives from more than 40 countries, joined online by a large number of others through video feeds from many of our Embassies overseas.

The Secretary launched the Strategic Dialogue early last year to deepen and broaden our engagement and establish a framework for involving civil society actors in U.S. Government policymaking. The Dialogue operates through five working groups — Human Rights & Democracy, Women’s Empowerment, Environment, Religion & Foreign Policy, Labor, Governance & Accountability – composed of senior Department officials and civil society representatives from around the world. The working groups produce and send to Secretary Clinton recommendations for policy action.

Events of the past year have shown that civil society is a powerful force for change as well as prosperity, empowerment, and stability. At this year’s summit the Secretary reviewed current events, emphasized U.S. commitment to the effort, and announced actions based on recommendations produced by the working groups. Her brief remarks and the interesting Q&A that followed are well worth reading here or viewing below:

As the town hall emcee noted, the Secretary has been passionate about the topic throughout her life: “She has been supporting civil society since before it was hip. She has been fearless, focused, and farsighted in her efforts.” After welcome those in attendance, the Secretary explained why she is so committed to the subject:

“[A] firm foundation for any society [is] like a three-legged stool where you had to have a responsive, effective, accountable government, and you had to have a dynamic, job-creating, free market economic sector. And then you had to have a strong civil society. If one of the legs got too long or too short, the balance would be thrown off.

“And to make the case for civil society, it’s really quite simple, because government cannot and should not control any individual’s life, tell you what to do, what not to do. The economy has to be in the hands of those who are the entrepreneurs and the creative innovators. But it’s in civil society where we live our lives. That’s where our families are formed; that’s where our faith is practiced; that’s where we become who we are, through voluntary activities, through standing up for our common humanity.

“And so as we see the explosion of civil society groups around the world, we want to support you. I think that in the United States, civil society does the work that touches on every part of our life. It really reflects what Alexis de Tocqueville called the habits of the heart that America has been forming and practicing from our very founding, because we early on understood that there had to be a role for government and a role for the economy, but everything else was a role for us – individuals charting our own course, making our own contributions.”

Those of you who regularly read my blog know how strongly I agree with that philosophy. If you have been observing or involved with Embassy programs in New Zealand, Samoa, or elsewhere, you know that we don’t view civil society as a rhetorical device, adjunct activity, or passing fancy. Rather, it is at the core of American diplomacy.

We will continue to use the Strategic Dialogue and our local activities to exchange ideas, promote new approaches, and experiment with better ways of formulating policies and projects. And, as the Secretary has emphasized from the start, broadening inputs and creating accountability are essential to those efforts.

So, please let me know if you have any thoughts about the Secretary’s remarks or the Strategic Dialogue framework, or if you otherwise have suggestions to make. I will feed your input into the Dialogue, enlist members of the working groups to share their experiences and thoughts on topics of particular interest to you, and address other questions that you might have.