Terrorism threats always challenge people to think urgently — and clearly.

A question that we, as Americans, have to ask ourselves in the wake of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the rampage in the Middle East is simple: What happens when young people — men, sometimes women) —  reach a fork in the road, wherever the road is, and face a choice between extremism and non-extremism? How do we — the United States — help young people take a positive turn rather than the path to violence? Is it enough to counter extremist "thought," or is the task even more basic — to stop extremist action? And whose job is it, anyway?

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The question goes to the centrality of American purpose. Our interests, values and security rest on a grand notion that the world becomes more peaceful and more prosperous if we use our physical strength, our moral suasion and good international policies to promote democracy, good governance, open markets, investment and civil society through education, training and individual empowerment. We are deeply dedicated to improving lives and creating paths to freedom and we think we know what it takes: commitment, resources and staying power.

Sounds like a simple recipe.

Then why are we having so much difficulty making it work?

For one, the workload may be too big. With the breakdown of formal governments, there are too many individuals and groups to contain the violent ambitions of a few. The U.S. government is not capable of taking responsibility for every state failure. Technology, information, social change and other seismic shifts have made the job of stabilizing a society bigger and more complicated than ever before. We have more good intentions than resources or patience.

So what can we do?

The time has come to put government and non-government in the same room and make a list of priorities — places that demand urgent activity soon enough in the failure of the state to prevent chaos. (It may be too late in the case of Syria — but we have no choice but to try — and is too late in the case of Iraq — but we have no choice but to try.)

America is fragmented. We have thousands of foundations, think tanks, capacity-building institutions and well-meaning individuals, all working on different areas of the same puzzle: building local capacity, encouraging entrepreneurism, empowering youth, community development, etc. We need to identify priorities and a common public-private agenda.

We have to internationalize the peace agenda. Together with our European friends, allies in Asia, organizations in Africa, compatriots in Afghanistan, moderates in the Middle East and neighbors in the hemisphere, we have to put together a road map — not just for bombing targets but for building futures.

As a nation, we are trying to do too much inside too many places. Even with all the resources of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), America cannot provide every country with jobs, education, healthcare, social opportunity, political freedom, exposure to news and information, engagement with civil society, trade, investment and growth. Ideally, a country needs a mix of all of the above — but that effort has to be coordinated with other countries. A coalition of the willing is not enough for war. We need coalitions for peace.

Young, disenfranchised, disillusioned and angry people are out there in large numbers, but the number of citizens of nations seeking a more peaceful path is greater. What we need is an international agenda for how to best mobilize individuals and organizations to work in concert with one another instead of at cross-purposes or with duplication of effort — and we have to show results.

A good example is what the State Department does with the film industry and other countries to create international exchanges and partnerships.

Take Regina Josiah, one of 21 young people from the Niger Delta selected to learn filmmaking and to become positive role models for restive youth. Regina received an opportunity through U.S. government funding, and other sources, to tell her own story, through film, about how violence affected her and to help produce episodes for a reality TV series. Each week millions of Nigerians can tune in to "Dawn in the Creeks," which airs on all major networks in Africa's most populous nation. They are seeing examples of fellow citizens finding practical solutions to problems that might otherwise lead to violence.

Successful global projects take collaboration. In the Nigerian case, driving this effort is a board of 14 Nigerian change agents assembled by the U.S. Consulate and the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). For creative vision, the board turned to Jeta Amata, a celebrated film director who grew up in the Niger Delta. The initiative targets areas in the delta, an oil-rich region plagued by problems and grievances. The board includes influential Nigerians from the worlds of business, entertainment, advocacy, civil society and religion. Many are able to influence persons in positions of power, while others can mobilize the grass roots.

For international efforts against extremism to work, there have to be sustained efforts with young people. Again, the Nigeria case is instructive. The board of leaders will continue the work after U.S. financial support ends. To supplement the TV show, the project connects film to talk radio and social media and uses local Nigerian initiatives in the delta to decrease the recruitment of youth into violence.

America is part of an international community. Alone, we don't have the time, the patience or the resources to turn lives around before they turn our own lives upside down. As one smart woman once said, "It takes a village."

Sonenshine is a former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs and teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.