11/18/2010 03:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weilding Soft Power in a Post-American World

Plenty has been written about the decline of the United States vis-à-vis the rise of the rest of the world, especially the emerging economic power centers in China, India and Brazil. And while the story of our waning influence isn't new (remember our fear of Japan in the 70s and 80s) or accurate (our economy is still and will remain the largest for a while), it is clear that these emerging new players are serious and -- considering the dressing down we received from China at last week's G20 Summit -- assertive contenders.

Despite this, America is still the most natural leader in the pack, especially given its stewardship of the imperfect but still functioning and competitive global markets. Our challenge going forward will be how best to engage the citizens of these rapidly developing nations -- especially their youth -- who may have until very recently felt marginalized in the world, and who may even have pent-up resentment towards the U.S. and its motivations. Accelerating this challenge is a global population tsunami that is pushing the developing world front and center, as population in the Europe, Japan and pockets of the U.S. age and decline.

It's expected that 75 percent of new population growth in the next 20 years will be coming from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, places which historically have been marred by poverty, social instability and political repression, and with whom the U.S. has not always had the most co-operative relationships. It's imperative that we reboot our approach with these countries, and work even harder to inspire their youth -- their future leaders, voters and consumers -- with the stories and values that have shaped the American plot for centuries. This "softer" form of American power would do much more to eradicate the possibility of clashes of civilization in the future.

Apart from setting the stage for a hopefully a happier world, there is also an economic incentive to wage a soft power campaign. Mega wars -- even culture wars -- require might, and might costs. The money saved from reducing military and other hard forms of engagement could then be applied towards funding innovation both here and abroad. Additionally, pursuing culturally-respectful forms of engagement also bodes well for business. Given that these regions are home to the world's fastest growing markets, our own national performance is increasingly becoming intertwined with their ability to flourish.

The need for connection is clear, however our domestic climate is not signaling that we are open to engage. Recent controversies at home -- the clamor over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, polarizing debates over immigration during the mid-term elections -- indicate that Americans are growing even more insular at a time when it is crucial that the country be otherwise.

One of America's greatest strengths has always been its ability to create dreams and to inspire change. And while our leadership may be challenged at home, we still have not lost our influence to accomplish this in the rest of the world. What I propose is a coordinated strategy to engage youth in developing countries, or the world's "rising millennials." Think of it as a type of Marshall Plan, tailored to match the inherent energy, diversity and idealism of the global and U.S. millennial generation, with an emphasis on public/private partnerships that work to enhance education and understanding through media, technology, the arts and cultural exchange -- the "softer" realms of power which would cost a mere fraction of what we spend on maintaining our current military operations, yet with far greater social potential to reduce inequality, eliminate suffering and generate necessary good will in the long-term.

What could this plan look like? A State Department-led initiative that would also incorporate some of country's brightest young ambassadors, most influential brands, and emerging media and digital leaders, with the following action areas:

• Creating a global youth engagement office at the State Department that would coordinate a 10-year plan to inspire and motivate young people around the world. This office would be responsible for articulating and administering the monetary and diplomatic value of this approach, connecting with partners, and monitoring various initiatives around the globe.
• Creating a global task force of leaders from different industries, including youth leaders who embody this spirit of global dialogue and who are already actively involved in improving their own societies.
• Supporting educational, cultural and -- perhaps most importantly -- employment exchanges where young people in the U.S. and around the world work together to address shared challenges and opportunities.
• Reversing the retrograde immigration system that makes it difficult for foreign students to study in the U.S., and to then remain here to contribute to our economy.
• Calling upon media and entertainment executives to tap into both American and global diversity for more inclusive forms of storytelling that forsake antagonistic stereotypes, increasing their overall appeal for global audiences.
• Recruiting top brands like Apple or Dell to supply computers to schools in Africa, or Nike and MTV to fund athletic and music enrichment programs in favelas in Brazil.

These ideas are just a sampling of what an integrated, global soft-power campaign could accomplish. The broader message with an initiative such as this one is about leveraging the inspirational power around what makes our country unique to, quite simply, befriend the rest of the world. It's about looking for ways to break down barriers and create opportunities that will help us create millions of new friends who will be the influential allies, consumers, and business partners of tomorrow. By going a little soft, America can easily continue to lead in the years ahead.