Millennials Chart a Different Foreign Policy Course
Policy + Politics

Millennials Chart a Different Foreign Policy Course


As the U.S. wages war on ISIS, seeks to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program, and challenges China on trade, a new study suggests that an important group of young Americans constituting a quarter of the population favors a significant shift in U.S. policy. It is one that includes improved relations with China and other global rivals and less urgency in confronting Middle Eastern terrorists.

The study published this week by the libertarian Cato Institute offers compelling evidence that millennials are coming into their own as a political and economic force. The 78 million people born between 1980 and the turn of the century perceive defense and international affairs much differently than their elders whose worldviews were shaped by wars — hot and cold — and the advent of globalization.

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Millennials grew up in a period that spanned the Reagan and Clinton eras, the development of the Internet and the run-up to the 9-11 attacks that triggered more than a decade of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. With many of these people now reaching their mid-30s, politicians and policy makers have begun to pay closer attention to their views.

With the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign likely to be settled by a few percentage points, this substantial bloc of young voters could tip the balance. The study, “Millennials and US. Foreign Policy: The Next Generation’s  Attitudes Toward Foreign Policy,” was written by A. Trevor Thrall, an associate professor of government and international affairs at George Mason University, and Erik Goepner, a retired U.S. Air Force commander who saw action in Afghanistan and Iraq..

Among their main findings:

  • Millennials perceive the world as “significantly less threatening than their elders do,” and they view foreign policies to deal with potential threats to the U.S. with much less urgency.

  • Millennials support international cooperation more than prior generations. For instance, they are more likely to see China as a partner than as a rival and they believe that cooperation makes more sense than competition.

  • Finally, millennials are far less supportive of the use of military force than their elders are and are disenchanted by the lengthy U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Many of these young people have internalized a “permanent case of ‘Iraq aversion.'”

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As a result, the authors claim that this generation could change public expectations and increase support for a more restrained “grand strategy” of foreign policy tactics and initiatives.

Calls by GOP defense hawks like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to send in ground troops and step up air strikes against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq, for example, are rejected by many millennials.

Tough talk about adding even more sanctions against Iran unless it agrees to shelve its nuclear program might not win much support from younger Americans. And President Obama’s incessant warnings that the U.S. must challenge China for supremacy in trade is a discordant note for many millennials.

“To the extent that U.S. foreign policy winds up reflecting millennials’ attitudes as they currently stand, the United States will migrate towards a more restrained grand strategy that is less reliant on unilateral military force and more engaged in cooperative ventures with allies,” according to the report.

The report drew on a raft of polling research by Gallup, the Pew Research Center, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and other sources.

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Compared to older generations of Americans, the study found that millennials are more liberal, more ethnically and racially diverse, more steeped in technology and the Internet, more supportive of government action to solve problems and better educated.

At the same time, they are far more worried about the impact of global warming than many other older Americans.

All of that said, millennials resemble other age cohorts in many important ways, including partisan differences of opinion over both threats and policy priorities, according to the report. They do not march in lockstep on many key issues. And there is no reason to assume that when they finally take the levers of power they will be any more effective at forging a coherent “grand strategy” of defense and foreign policy than their predecessors.

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What’s more, even as they voice skepticism or outright opposition to aggressive U.S. policies overseas, many of these Americans, imbued with youthful optimism, idealism and perhaps more than a trace of naïveté — are capable of rationalizing overseas intervention if they believe it is for a just or humane cause.

“In the absence of a unifying security threat, these partisan divides ensure that U.S. foreign policy will feature as much debate and dissensus in the future as it does today,” the study concludes.

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