America's Best Export

The United States is unique in its commitment to volunteerism and service. It is part of the fabric of our society and integral to how most Americans access the services they need to improve their lives. This tradition of citizen activism is as old as the republic. Federal Income Tax laws encourage it. Government promotes it. The Corporation for National and Community Service and the Peace Corps are vivid symbols of our commitment to social activism, and tens of thousands of private organizations in every state harness its power every day. Interest in volunteering has swelled among America's youth, and President Obama has promised to make service a "cause of his presidency."

Today, as America looks for ways to engage the world -- and not compromise its core values in the process -- promoting our culture of volunteerism and service stands out as a promising avenue. The State Department recently invited over 100 leaders from 97 countries to participate in a leadership exchange program called "Volunteerism: United We Serve." This group of dynamic civic leaders and activists from around the world met with counterparts in over 50 US cities A particular highlight was their visit to California, which has a cabinet level official dedicated to volunteerism and service. The group was particularly excited to be welcomed to San Francisco personally by Mayor Gavin Newsom and to meet with California's First Lady Maria Shriver, both strong advocates of civic activism to address social challenges.

This group was so motivated by their experience in the US, and the opportunity to share best practices with each other, that they wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton and committed to build a network to keep them and their US partners in sustained communication about the issues they discussed during their visit. This "knowledge network" represents a breakthrough on several levels. First, it validates the notion that, while views of US government policy ebb and flow, there is universal admiration for our commitment to civic engagement and self improvement. Second, it shows the value of a leadership exchange where all parties in the exchange can participate, learn from each other and share a common goal. The best public diplomacy is actually the alignment of people towards a shared outcome in which everyone has a stake. Finally, it ushers in a new type of international exchange where face-to-face engagement can be sustained through the use of new media and technology.

I am pleased to say that my organization, Meridian International Center, a Washington-based NGO, managed the program for the Department of State and is actively engaged in the development of this knowledge network known as "VOLiNTEER." Mobilizing this network and working with leaders in the field such as the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Institute will be an important part of a major national conference next week in New York, where these two organizations will convene experts and activists from all over the United States.

This year's focus will be more global and include some of the very same leaders who were so inspired by the State Department international visitor program. Mayor Bloomberg said, "It is fitting that New York City will host the National Conference on Volunteering and Service. New Yorkers have proven time and time again that they step up and do even more during times of crisis. Simply put, service is ingrained in our city's DNA."

Our foreign policy leaders would be wise to elevate this theme for even further outreach to the world. Yes, it is important that people understand the history of the United States and the American experience. What better way to do it than to share a common cause with citizens from other countries who also must build hope for youth, provide constructive opportunities for marginalized citizens and care for those who are sick or elderly. This common thread of humanity should not be underestimated.

Democracy is a concept we hold dear. It represents the best hope for inclusive governance. But it is civic engagement, and strong non-governmental institutions, that sustain those who seek value and meaning in their societies. As we deal with myriad global challenges that require immediate attention, it is worth considering the powerful connections and scalable impact that can be achieved by promoting a culture of volunteerism and service. These ideas may end up being America's best export.