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The Clash of Generations and American Foreign Policy

29 Aug 2018

A. Trevor Thrall, William Ruger, and Erik Goepner

Does the rise of the Millennial Generation spell doom for
America’s global leadership? To listen to thosewho support America’s continued deep engagement in the world the possibility is
all too real. Recent polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows 47
percent of Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) think the
United States should “stay out” of world affairs and
only 51 percent think the country should “take an active
part” in them. This is compared to well over 70 percent of
the Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and the Silent
Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945), who favor an active
role for the United States.

Today, with the midterms looming as a referendum on President
Donald Trump, the nation’s most powerful Baby Boomer, several
commentators have noted that Millennial turnout could very well
dictate the composition of the next Congress — and their
electoral weight will only keep growing. In 2016, Baby Boomers
made up 31 percent of voters compared to the
Millennials’ 27 percent. But with Boomer numbers declining
and Millennials more likely to vote as they age, these young adults
could overtake their elders at the ballot box in 2020.

For all the concerns about Millennials, however, the story
behind America’s attitude shifts on foreign policy is more
mixed than many realize.

In short, since World War
II successive generations of Americans have become less hawkish and
want a more cooperative U.S. foreign policy.

Though there are real signs of global leadership fatigue,
younger Americans are not opposed to engagement with the world when
it is mutually beneficial. In fact, younger Americans remain quite
committed to international life in their own way. However, as our
recent study published with the Chicago Council
on Global Affairs reveals, the United States is experiencing an
intergenerational shift in attitudes about the proper goals and
tools of foreign policy. Relative to their elders, younger
Americans are much less supportive of the use of military force
abroad, but they are equally or more supportive of international
trade, cooperation, and diplomacy.

For example, in our study, just 44 percent of Millennials and 54
percent of Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980)
believed that maintaining superior military power should be a very
important foreign policy goal of the United States, compared to 64
percent of Baby Boomers and 70 percent of the Silent Generation. In
that same survey Millennials were also the least supportive of
conducting airstrikes against Syria or the Islamic State, as well
as coming to the aid of Asian allies like South Korea and
Japan.

Why Millennials express different foreign policy preferences
continues to be debated. Two of the more frequently advanced
arguments focus on age and current events. As people age, the
reasoning goes, they become more interested in foreign affairs, see
value in American leadership abroad, and hold the power of military
force in high regard. Since Millennials are the youngest
generation, they are the least interested in military intervention
as a way to solve problems. The reality, however, is that younger
people have not always been less internationalist than their
elders. In fact, public support for international engagement grew
from the Lost Generation (those born between 1893 and 1908) to the
Greatest Generation (those born between 1909 and 1927) and peaked
with the Silent Generation. Each generation since the Silent
Generation, however, has exhibited slightly lower support for
international engagement at the same ages as the one before it.
Simply put, though aging appears to have a moderate positive impact
on people’s preferences for international engagement,
Americans will not age their way out of this trend.

The second argument emphasizes the power of current events, more
formally referred to as “period effects,” as the reason
Millennials appear to have different preferences from other
generations. According to this line of thinking, America’s
unsuccessful use of military force in the 17-year-old war on terror
has dampened all Americans’ support for militarism, not just
that of the Millennials. Similarly, when a war starts, Americans
rally around the flag and express high support for military
intervention. No doubt there is some truth to this explanation. In
2002, as the war on terror had just gotten underway, a majority of
all generations expressed support for an interventionist U.S.
foreign policy, just as they did in early stages of the Vietnam
War. Period effects, however, fail to explain why Millennials
consistently express less support for military force than their
elders even as their preferences shift in response to current
events.

Instead, while acknowledging that both age and period effects do
help explain some of the change in foreign policy preferences, our
current research points to a third explanation: the enduring
influence of events experienced during a person’s formative
years. At the heart of this argument is the “critical
period,” a concept first offered by the influential sociologist,
Karl Mannheim, nearly 70 years ago. The hypothesis holds that the
state of the world and transformative events that occur during
young adulthood produce outsized and permanent effects on
people’s attitudes.

Since each American generation has come of age in a world that
looks very different from the one their parents and grandparents
confronted, the critical period experiences distinguish each
generation’s way of thinking about the world from that of its
predecessors. This argument explains why the Lost Generation, which
came of age during World War I and the Great Depression, had a more
skeptical view of military force and U.S. adventures abroad as
compared to members of the Silent Generation, whose critical period
was influenced by the decisive victory of World War II and a time
of unequaled U.S. economic and political hegemony. It also provides
insight into why Millennials, who grew up during the Great
Recession and unsuccessful war on terror, express preferences so
similar to those of the Lost Generation.

Younger Americans have spent their formative years and early
adulthood witnessing lengthy, unsuccessful wars and military
intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They did not
experience the heady aftermath of World War II when the United
States enjoyed incredible economic and political dominance. And
with the oldest of them born in 1981, Millennials weren’t all
that aware of the role military strength played in the successful
containment strategy of the Cold War. If they were aware,
they’d have also noticed that the United States rarely used
military force after the Vietnam debacle and still won the Cold War
in 1991. Simply put, to young Americans, war has looked like a poor
strategy. As a result, they do not share their elders’
confidence in America’s ability to use military force to
pursue national interests effectively.

Younger Americans also see the world as a less dangerous place
than do older Americans. Millennials simply worry less about most
potential threats, whether the issue is North Korean or Iranian
nuclear weapons, international terrorism, or cyber conflict. This
may follow from their lack of confidence in the utility of military
force: If you don’t trust the hammer, maybe nothing looks
like a nail.

At a more fundamental level, younger Americans have also become
increasingly less likely to express support for American
exceptionalism. In our study, for example, just half of Millennials
responded that the United States is the “greatest country in
the world,” compared to three-quarters of Baby Boomers and
the Silent Generation. Four years ago, the American National
Election Study similarly found that while 79 percent of the
Silent Generation consider their American identity to be extremely
important, only 45 percent of Millennials do. As a generation less
wrapped up in the flag than their elders, Millennials are more
likely to cast a jaundiced eye towards the United States flexing
its military muscle across the globe.

However, even as they express greater skepticism about using
military force, younger Americans remain committed to cooperative
forms of international engagement. Millennials support
international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal at the same
rate as older Americans and they are the most supportive of free
trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Millennials are also the most likely to view globalization
positively.

In short, since World War II successive generations of Americans
have become less hawkish and want a more cooperative U.S. foreign
policy. The result is a new generation of Americans ready for
Washington to chart a new course in foreign affairs that shows
greater realism about the challenges in using military power and
more hope for mutually beneficial engagement like trade.

As 2020 presidential contenders begin mapping their potential
paths to victory, they should target the under-40 electorate with
proposals that will both garner votes and make for good policy.
Ripe possibilities include bringing the troops home from
America’s 17-year war in Afghanistan, negotiating a way back
into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and finding a peaceful way to
advance U.S. interests with adversaries like Iran, North Korea, and
Russia.

A. Trevor
Thrall
s an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy
and Government at George Mason University and a senior fellow at
the Cato Institute. William Ruger is
the vice president for research and policy at Charles Koch
Institute and a veteran of the Afghanistan War. Erik Goepner s an
adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and doctoral candidate at
George Mason University.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal