Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, see America’s role in the 21st century world in ways that, as a recently released study shows, are an intriguing mix of continuity and change compared to prior generations.
For over 40 years the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which conducted the study, has asked the American public whether the United States should “take an active part” or “stay out” of world affairs.
This year, an average of all respondents – people born between 1928 and 1996 – showed that 64 percent believe the U.S. should take an active part in world affairs, but interesting differences could be seen when the numbers are broken down by generation.
The silent generation, born between 1928 and 1945 whose formative years were during World War II and the early Cold War, showed the strongest support at 78 percent. Support fell from there through each age group. It bottomed out with millennials, of whom only 51 percent felt the U.S. should take an active part in world affairs. That’s still more internationalist than not, but less enthusiastically than other age groups.
There is some anti-Trump effect visible here: Millennials in the polling sample do identify as less Republican – 22 percent – and less conservative than the older age groups. But they also were the least supportive of the “take an active part” view during the Obama administration as well.
Four sets of additional polling numbers help us dig deeper.
• Military power: Only 44 percent of millennials believe maintaining superior military power is a very important goal, much less than the other generations. They also are less supportive of increasing defense spending.
And when asked whether they support the use of force, millennials are generally disinclined, especially so on policies like conducting airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, using troops if North Korea invades South Korea, and conducting airstrikes against violent Islamic extremist groups.
• American ‘exceptionalism’: Millennials also were much less inclined to embrace the idea that America is “the greatest country in the world.” Only half of millennials felt that way, compared to much higher percentages of the other three generations. In a related response, only one-quarter of millenials saw the need for the U.S. to be “the dominant world leader.”
These findings track with the 2014 American National Election Study, which found that while 78 percent of silent, 70 percent of boomer and 60 percent of Gen X respondents consider their American identity as extremely important, only 45 percent of millennials do.
• Alliances and international agreements: Millennials are especially supportive of NATO, at 72 percent. In this measure, they are close to the other generations’ levels of NATO support. Their 68 percent support for the Paris climate agreement is higher than two of the other three age groups. And their 63 percent support for the Iran nuclear nonproliferation agreement is even with boomers and higher than Gen X.
• Globalization and key trade issues: Millennials’ 70 percent agreement with the statement that “globalization is mostly good for the United States” is higher than all the other age groups. Similarly, 62 percent believe that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is good for the U.S. economy – well above the others surveyed. The margin is also positive although narrower on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
These and other polls show millennials to have a world view that, while well short of isolationist, is also not as assertively and broadly internationalist as previous generations.
Millennials’ worldview and its implications
Why do millennials see the world the way they do? And with millennials now the largest generation and emerging into leadership positions, what does it mean for American foreign policy?
In my view, the “why” flows from three formative experiences of millennials.
First, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for close to half the lives of the oldest millennials, who were born in 1981, and most of the lives of the youngest, born in 1996. Despite America’s vast military power, neither war has been won.
So, from the millenials’ point of view, why make military superiority a priority? Why spend more on defense? Why not be skeptical about other uses of force?
Second, as a generation which is generally “defined by diversity,” as Brookings demographer William H. Frey describes them, millennials take a less extreme view of Islam. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll showed only 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its followers. Compare that to 47 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and a little more than half of the two older age groups.
Third, globalization infuses the lives of millennials in many ways.
“For younger Americans,” the Chicago Council study authors write, “the Internet, the steady flow of iPhones, computers and other products from abroad, and the expansion of global travel may have all contributed to a rising comfort level with the rest of the world generally, and to the acceptance that international trade is simply part of the fabric of the modern world.”
What are the implications and impact on foreign policy politics of millennials’ views?
In my opinion, even more significant than issue-specific positions is millennials’ disinclination to buy into American exceptionalism. These younger Americans show a greater willingness to get beyond the “We are the greatest country” paeans. Such exceptionalism, subscribed to more avidly by older generations, takes a rose-colored view of American foreign policy’s history and ignores the profound changes shaping the 21st century world.
In this respect in particular, we’d do well to learn from millennials’ more measured views.