Since the end of the Second World War, two distinct periods have defined U.S. foreign policy: the Cold War, which saw the U.S. locked in existential competition with the Soviet Union, and the Global War on Terror, in which the U.S. sought to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups around the world.

Virtually every aspect of U.S. diplomatic and military service was tailored to meet the demands of these new distinctive eras. This included the rapid creation of youth exchange programs explicitly targeted in areas where our soft power could have the most significant impact.

The most well-known example is the Fulbright Program, passed in 1946 before the Cold War began. Once it became clear that our rivalry with the Soviet Union would be the preeminent challenge of the post-war era, the U.S. promptly established the Foreign Leader Program (now known as the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP) in 1949. 

Both programs helped ensure that the next generation of international leaders would understand and appreciate American society’s cultural and civic pillars. The IVLP invites individuals who are likely to go on to hold significant positions to reside in the U.S. for a funded stay and counts a staggering 338 current and former chiefs of state and heads of government among its alums. 

With over  400,000 alumni Fulbright is a more comprehensive exchange program and was critical in expanding and solidifying American influence during the Cold War.

A year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program. It was explicitly crafted to support U.S. soft power objectives in the Global War on Terror by recruiting high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to complete a year of education in the U.S., enabling them to experience American culture and perspectives firsthand. The program has brought in over 15,000 participants since its inception.

To date, the U.S has not established an exchange program to address its current central foreign policy objective: maintaining the upper hand against China in their competition for global preeminence. Such an exchange program specifically targeted toward youth populations will be critical.

Soft power deficits

The U.S. hosts over a million international students annually, many  Chinese or Indian. The Diversity Visa Program also reaches countries with otherwise low levels of migration to the U.S., particularly African countries.

Still, none of the current programs specifically target the Generation Z cohort countries that are most likely to fall into China’s sphere of influence. The closest such program is the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Professional Fellows Program (YSEALI PFP), limited to 25-35-year-olds.

None of the existing programs are designed to capitalize on Gen Z’s digital fluency and social media proficiency.

The U.S. should design its next exchange program to compete with China regarding demographics, geographic areas, and social media, where the future of our soft power advantage is most uncertain.

A new Pacific Rim plus exchange program

The new exchange program should focus on populations in the Pacific Rim and its periphery, stretching from Indonesia to Argentina. This vast and culturally disparate expanse is the most proximate to Chinese economic and political influence and is comparatively overlooked by existing exchange programs. The program should specifically focus on Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Southern Cone, where China is making inroads in public opinion.

According to a survey conducted this year, China now narrowly outpaces the U.S. as the preferred strategic partner among Southeast Asian countries. This trend is especially stark in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos,  where China’s Belt and Road Initiative has played a significant role.

While U.S. presence in Oceania is more robust, some troubling signs remain. A recent Gallup Poll found that among traditional U.S. allies, 59% of Australians and 57% of New Zealanders disapproved of U.S. leadership–significantly exceeding the 48% median disapproval rating among European countries. 

The poll also found that the countries with the lowest U.S. approval ratings in South America are the Southern Cone nations: Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Another poll conducted by Latinobarómetro found that this trend holds in Latin America’s 15-25-year-old age bracket. The only countries where less than 50% of young people preferred closer ties to the U.S. than China were either in the Southern Cone or on Latin America’s Pacific coast.

All three regions are increasingly vital for trade, navigation, and security. Southeast Asia is home to critical sea lanes and the world’s fastest-growing economic region.  Oceania is a lynchpin of U.S. security strategy and essential for its refueling. Trade traffic through the Strait of Magellan in the Southern Cone has increased by 83% since 2021, and a strong presence there also enables increased influence in Antarctica.

Enhancing U.S. soft power in the digital age

The U.S. offers several exchange opportunities for emerging leaders who are college-aged or young professionals through Fulbright, the IVLP, and other J-1 exchange programs.  A new exchange program could supplement these programs by targeting high-school-aged young people in the aforementioned regions. 

The closest approximation to this proposed program is the EducationUSA Academy, which is primarily self-funded and focuses on preparing international students for higher education in the U.S. 

The proposed program should also capitalize on Generation Z’s social media fluency by prioritizing the recruitment of rising influencers. Specifically, it should target young people in these countries with large followings on American-owned or trusted social media companies such as YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat.

As a part of the application process, their social media content will  be evaluated based on a demonstrable and sincere interest in American culture. Acceptance into the program is contingent on applicants’ agreeing to  continue producing content for their followers documenting their experiences in the U.S.  

Ample evidence suggests that Generation Z trusts the information it sees on social media at least as much as traditional news outlets. Their opinions and behavior are also especially susceptible to peer influence. Without a strategy to compete with China in this regard, the U.S. will increasingly be in a position of long-term disadvantage.

Other corners of the Western alliance are already exploring this approach. At the recent 2024 NATO Youth Summit hosted in Miami and Stockholm, young influencers from NATO countries had specially designated place to produce content from the panels and communicate them to their audiences back home, racking up hundreds of thousands of views on their platforms. A new exchange program could scale up this approach and magnify the reach of American influence to an even greater extent.


Soft power remains an inherent U.S. advantage in the competition for global influence. Still, for policymakers, U.S. preeminence is often taken for granted.

New forms of technology and communication will continue to heavily shape the attitudes and outlooks of the first generation of digital natives. The U.S. should move decisively to solidify our influence in these mediums by allowing young people worldwide to use them to connect with the United States beyond their screens.