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Young Diplomacy

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On a rainy morning in Moscow this May, I sat at a table listening to Russia's best students articulate, in perfect English, their concerns with the United States' anti-ballistic missile system and explain their hope for the future of Russia.

These conversations marked the highlight of a month rich in citizen diplomacy experiences that reinforced my conviction that the United States needs to invest in diplomacy for young people.

It started with my speech at the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) International Parliamentarians Conference in Istanbul where I spoke to 300 legislators from over 100 different countries about improving youth engagement and outreach.

The UNFPA and its supporters seek to raise my generation's awareness about sexual and reproductive health, prevention of unwanted pregnancies, and the development challenges posed by the world's rising population.

For me, the most productive part of the conference was a breakout session with the youngest attendees. Ideas and enthusiasm were abundant as we collectively shaped an argument for the importance of the UNFPA's work in addressing development, climate change, and equality-based issues. Seeing young people bring passion and ideas to the table impressed and refreshed many of the older participants in the room.

Passion also permeated my conversations with young Russian leaders as they expressed their frustrations with the United States' foreign policy as our delegation of American student leaders challenged them on the unfolding situation in Syria.

My visit to Moscow was the most enriching foreign travel experience I have ever had, as it opened my eyes to the role the U.S. plays in the world. It forced me to research and understand the U.S. position, defend it, and attempt to find common ground with foreign counterparts.

Yet this interaction was initiated and paid for by Russia's government rather than my own. However, it was American students Richard Portwood and Cooper Henderson who started the Center for American Russian Engagement of Emerging Leaders (CAREEL) and keep these trips happening. American students want to be engaged, we don't have the opportunity.

The United States, while maintaining an excellent exchange program, needs to focus more efforts and resources toward empowering young people from the U.S. to not just experience foreign cultures but to engage in dialogue about pressing global issues.

I found a fantastic example of this kind of dialogue the week after I returned to the United States in the G8 and G20 youth summits. The summits brought together young people from all over the world to Washington D.C. to simulate both the G8 and the G20 producing a young person's communiqué.

These summits began five years ago in Russia (by the Russian government) and have since taken on a life of their own. The summit would not have happened in the United States without Carlos Reyes and his team at Young Americans for Diplomatic Leadership.

Just like the Russian government and the UNFPA, other foreign leaders understand the need for young diplomacy. Last week at the USAID Frontiers in Development Conference, the presidents of Kosovo and Liberia opened by focusing important role that young people play.

"We have to develop today the leaders for tomorrow" said President Jahjaga of Kosovo.

USAID is preparing and implementing a youth engagement strategy and provided 30 spots for young people to attend the conference.

These four events are all part of the new focus on young diplomacy, but too much of it is originating from outside of the United States. If our country wants to continue to remain the world's leader we must take the idea of young diplomacy to heart and initiate efforts where our own young people engage on global issues.

These interactions will create solutions, build long lasting relationships, open eyes, and ensure that the United States will continue to lead the world in overcoming shared challenges.