HARARE, ZIMBABWE — —American diplomats abroad confront a rapidly changing world brimming with both promise and peril. This reality is perhaps no more daunting than in the countries and regions — including parts of Africa, southeast Asia and key corners of the Middle East — where populations are young and the 21st century global power struggle will unfold.
More than half of the world's 7 billion people are age 25 or younger. According to World Bank data, more than a dozen African nations also feature under-15 population shares near or above 40 percent. Typical of Africa, a remarkable 39 percent of this southern African nation's population is under 15. (The U.S. share is half that, about 20 percent.)
Imagine the portrait of the United States formed in the minds of 25-year-olds in some of these developing nations. Presuming they had access to television or newspapers, at the impressionable age of 14, they saw images of the bombed Twin Towers in Manhattan. At 16, they watched the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison duringGeorge W. Bush's presidency.
By their late teens, the young adults created Facebook pages or started Twitter feeds — both brand new American social media innovations sweeping the globe. At 22, they marveled as America elected its first nonwhite president and then, a few years later, learned that Barack Obama has ordered unprecedented numbers of drone missile attacks on foreign targets.
What to make of this world's lone superpower? Beacon of democracy or bloodthirsty empire? Innovator or imperialist? Opinions could easily drift in any direction.
Two things are certain: First, the members of the global millennial generation — many of whom, if lucky, are still in school — are more connected to the outside world than their parents ever were; and, second, within two or three decades, members of this generation will be running their respective home nations. U.S. security and prosperity, which become more globally interdependent each day, hinge to an ever-increasing degree upon the relations Washington forges with these youngsters.
And that is why the U.S. State Department(which, full disclosure, sponsored my trip here and to Zambia) is preoccupied with building relations with global youth. Relatedly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (America's third woman to serve as America's top diplomat) has prioritized outreach programs for women, especially in those corners of the planet where gender parity is a notional absurdity and female subjugation is often a national tragedy.
"Young people tend to focus a lot on their future, rightfully so," says Sharon Hudson-Dean, the public affairs director for the U.S. mission in Zimbabwe. "The big problems develop in places where they can't see a future — no jobs, poor educational opportunities, death from HIV/AIDS. That is where the intersection of our foreign policy and young people is most important."
Limbikani Makani embodies the U.S. government's emphasis on both the importance of African youth and emerging technologies. Mr. Makani is founder of TechZim, a technology industry website based in Harare. As part of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative, and with a bit of financial support from the U.S. government, the 31-year-old Zimbabwean attended the 2012 Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders in Washington earlier this month.
The story of Gertrude Makurumidze is even more inspiring. An AIDS orphan who lost both parents and a sister to the disease, she and 20 other Zimbabwean high school seniors graduated last Friday from the United States Achievers Program. All 21 are headed to American universities this autumn on fully paid scholarships worth a combined, four-year total of $4.7 million. Built from nothing in 1999 in Zimbabwe by State Department educational adviser Rebecca Zeigler Mano, the program has since expanded to 13 other developing nations. Every one of the nearly 300 students Ms. Zeigler Mano has sent to the states has graduated, with an average GPA of 3.86.
Why does any of this matter? Here's why: At top diplomatic levels, the United States worries about resource-hungryChina'sdeep investments in Africa. The Chinese are building literal bridges, but the metaphorical bridges the United States builds provide a critical counterbalance in the battle for the hearts and minds of millennial generations in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.