05/20/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2013

Foreign Policy Begins at Home: Fact or Just Rhetoric?

"America's foreign policy begins at home." This is an often-quoted statement by policy leaders in recent times, from Secretary John Kerry to Richard Hass, to describe the direction of contemporary U.S. foreign policy. But is it mere rhetoric? For hosting the largest number of international diaspora in the world, America should indeed focus more attention to these millions of its residents who act as natural agents and bridges between the U.S. and their countries of origin. In fact, America's foreign policy ought to begin at home.

The Global Diaspora Forum

While I have previously written about the broadened role and engagement of the global diaspora through an example of my own initiative -- Educate Lanka Foundation -- I believe the just-concluded third annual Global Diaspora Forum (GDF) deserves recognition and coverage to educate a wide spectrum of change leaders about America's focus on this often overlooked communities. Organized by the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), a public-private partnership by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Migration Policy Institute, GDF exemplifies the notion of American foreign policy and diplomacy starting at home.

Initiated under the tutelage of Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2011, the forum has continued to evolve and advance through improved resources and strengthened relations with the global diaspora communities and organizations. This year's forum, focused on the next generation of diaspora leaders and youth, attracted members from more than 100 countries and took place in five major cities simultaneously, demonstrating its reach beyond the closed doors in Washington, D.C.

Beyond Carrots and Sticks

While the U.S. government has often been criticized for its bureaucracy and red tape, it has also surprised us on more than a few occasions with bold, unprecedented initiatives launched mainly through its major executive pillars, the State Department and USAID. Two weeks ago, I attended the Unreasonable@State Conference at the State Department organized by its Global Partnerships Initiative (GPI) -- the same arm that organizes the GDF. The conference, hosted in partnership with the innovative Unreasonable Institute, brought together 15 of next-generation global entrepreneurs who had just returned from a 100-day journey around the world on a ship as part of its Unreasonable at Sea initiative. For many, entrepreneurship and innovation are the last things that come to mind when thinking about the government agencies for international diplomacy and development. However, the State Department and USAID, through initiatives such as Unreasonable@State and Global Diaspora Forum, have managed to do what is unthinkable to many.

What is also more encouraging is that these are not the only initiatives and resources that the government has offered to its citizens and communities to promote development and diplomacy around the world. The Global Partnership Initiative at the State and the Global Partnerships and its Global Development Alliance at USAID are examples of steps in the right direction beyond the usual carrots and sticks approach. These initiatives bring private sector, public institutions, and civil society together in meaningful ways to empower them with resources, capacity, and guidance that the U.S. government is capable of and uniquely positioned to provide. The initiatives such as the African, Caribbean, and Latin American Marketplace business plan competitions and the Development Innovation Ventures grant competition are some of the pioneering sub-products that push the boundaries beyond the traditional roles of these government agencies.

Soft (Smart) Power

Recently, my previous professor and current dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins, Vali Nasr, talked about why it is wrong for the U.S. to continue to lead its foreign policy mostly with its military. He stressed the importance of the American soft power, the core behind the once "indispensable nation." The incoming dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, the NATO Commander Admiral James Stavridis, talked about how America must not deliver its security solely through the barrel of a gun, but through strategic "smart power" led by strengthened dialogue and empathy across borders and cultures. This is exactly why initiatives such as GDF are timely and of high importance. It is heartening to see Secretary Kerry believes and resonates with previous Secretary's vision of improved engagement and focus on the global diaspora as part of delivering America's foreign policy.

Still the Land of Opportunity

Amid global economic woes and diminishing super power, it is often questioned whether the United States is still the land of opportunity. While the world dynamics and power paradigms will continue to shift and adjust, I personally believe that the U.S. still has the capacity and the aspiration to remain the nation of opportunity for generations to come. During my journey as an immigrant over the past 12 years, this country has empowered and challenged me to broaden my thinking beyond the boundaries of my identity and nationality to focus on addressing the pressing global issues in our times. That is precisely why initiatives such as GDF should be commended and encouraged so that many more like me will continue to be empowered to do the same. As immigrants, we are truly global citizens. As much as it is America's duty to engage us in shaping its policies, it is also up to us to ensure that we use those opportunities to build bridges and break walls so that we could leave this planet a better place for our future generations.