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America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

I’ll never forget my brief and ill-received show of American patriotism as a young expatriate in Beirut. It was the summer of 2010, and the city was teeming with convoys of Lebanese youth honking and waving flags to celebrate their favorite teams’ victories in the World Cup. After an exciting win by the US, I joined a group of Americans in a street celebration. But cruising down the main thoroughfare of West Beirut, our procession of stars and stripes was met with disapproving looks. The image that remains with me to this day is that of an older man standing silently with his shoe in his hand. The tattered sole was pointed directly at us, an expression of disrespect in Muslim culture. We recognized the gesture’s meaning only because a similar shoe had been thrown at the American president’s head a year earlier.

Today’s generation of young Americans, known as the millennials, has come of age at a time when America has been humbled on the world stage. Many of them have traveled extensively at a young age and experienced this diminished reputation firsthand. Their parents and grandparents believe that America has been a remarkable force for good in the world and that the country should not lose sight of its responsibility to shape events globally because of mistakes made in the last decade. But millennials seem more fixed on the limits of American power and disenchanted with ideas of American exceptionalism.

Because of these reservations, the millennial generation is often described as declinist or isolationist. I disagree. Young Americans care more than any other age group about what happens beyond our borders. Millennials tend toward multilateralism and the cautious use of force, and perhaps would be more selective in committing US resources overseas. But far from an abdication of global leadership, this prudence may prove to be the silver lining to millennials’ crisis of confidence in America’s role as, in President Obama’s words, “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world.”

 

Other generations have been disillusioned by the tarnishing of America’s image abroad. This was particularly true during the war in Vietnam. A Foreign Affairs article published in 1970 titled “The New Generation of Isolationists” contains remarkable parallels between the attitudes of young baby boomers at the time and millennials now. The 1970s youth generation saw deep flaws in American democracy, felt outrage over America’s wars and covert action, and vowed that they would not repeat the foreign policy mistakes being made by their elders.

Much as the 1972 Democratic Party convention and its presidential candidate harnessed the political voice of this frustrated generation, the 2008 presidential election, which saw the second-highest youth turnout in history, focused national attention on the attitudes and opinions of the eighteen-to-thirty-two-year-old slice of the American population known as the millennials. Amid the clamor over what it means to be a millennial, this much is clear: the current generation embraces a distinctly different worldview than that of older generations. In a 2011 Pew Research poll, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” millennials were the least likely age group to say that the US is the greatest country in the world; in fact, only thirty-two percent of them held the view.

The reasons for young people’s skepticism toward claims of American greatness that resonate so strongly with their elders are complex.

For starters, millennials’ unprecedented level of interaction with foreign cultures makes them reluctant to think of their country as fundamentally superior to others. More than simply gaining familiarity with other countries and feeling an affinity for the global community, millennials have developed bonds with foreign countries through their experiences living, working, and studying abroad. Especially throughout America’s economic recession, when many college graduates faced a discouraging lack of job opportunity at home, many have called Beirut, Beijing, Kyiv, and other places home. Recent polling data from Zogby Analytics confirms that millennials are much less likely to agree that foreign cultures are inferior to American culture than other generations have been.

Historical context is also part of the equation. Millennials have come of age during a decade when America’s image has plummeted as a result of unpopular wars, shaping their perception of the country. More importantly, they have never seen the world order come under a threat from a malign force such as fascism or communism. Millennials have read about the exceptional things America has done to benefit the rest of the world, but were never shaped by the visceral experiences of stocking a fallout shelter during the Cold War or being conscripted to fight for America’s way of life. The attacks of 9/11 might have been a seminal event for the millennials, but the resulting war against al-Qaeda has not affected as many younger people as profoundly as these previous conflicts did.

Finally, millennials perceive an awkward mismatch between ideas of American exceptionalism and the pronounced crisis of institutions the country faces. Millennials today witness partisan gridlock, economic stagnation, and growing socioeconomic inequality at home and wonder whether the US has the capability or the moral right to provide global leadership when it has such interminable difficulty putting its own house in order.

 

If millennials aren’t thinking like leaders of the free world once did, what then do they see as the way forward for the US? Isolationism is not the mainstream view among them, despite the Brookings Institution’s 2011 finding that fifty-eight percent of the “emerging foreign policy leaders” identified among the younger generation think America is “too involved in global affairs and should do more at home.” Millennials on the extreme end of foreign policy opinion—who, for example, favor slashing the foreign aid budget, which hovers at one percent of federal spending, for the sake of “nation building at home”—often overestimate the degree to which scaling back our presence globally will fix domestic problems.

But the Brookings profile of millennials may be an outlier. A greater number of studies indicate that millennials are ready to embrace a robust foreign policy with more, not less, engagement beyond our borders. A 2005 poll conducted by GQR Research, for example, showed that more young Americans believed that the September 11th attacks underscored a need for America to be more connected with the world (fifty-five percent) than a need simply to assert greater control over its borders (thirty-nine percent). Millennial foreign policy views are also not necessarily defeatist or declinist. Most young Americans believe that the nation’s best days are ahead of us and show more optimism about the future than older generations.1

The central question, then, is not whether but how the millennial generation of policymakers will preserve America’s position in the world and promote global stability and prosperity. If trends continue, the rising generation will likely be cautious in the use of force to achieve foreign policy goals and prefer diplomacy instead. (In the 2011 Pew poll, sixty-six percent of millennials thought that relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism actually leads to more hatred and terrorism.) Multilateralism is also central to the millennial vision. Younger Americans are the most likely to believe that America’s security depends on building strong ties with other nations, and think that the US should take the interests of its allies into account even if it means making compromises.2

This is no abdication of global leadership, but rather a realistic reaction to the lessons of recent history. What would be the wisdom after the Iraq War in using military force over diplomacy to advance democratic change? Where are the financial and political resources for the US to secure its interests unilaterally?

Millennials see leadership as more than a binary choice between isolationism and interventionism, and weigh the many forms of agency when it comes to how the US can shape events around the world. Though shirking a global leadership role is not an option, scaling back our commitments abroad, especially militarily, does seem to be an important priority among this young generation. Aware of America’s fallibility and the constraints upon its global behavior, millennials believe they can craft a more sustainable level of American engagement beyond its borders by recalibrating its use of hard and soft power to shape events.

Sarah Grebowski is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and a member of the 2013–14 Future Leaders Program at the Foreign Policy Initiative.


1. In the 2011 “Generation Gap” poll by Pew, fifty-five percent of those aged eighteen to thirty thought that America’s best days lay ahead, compared to fifty-five percent of those aged thirty-one to forty-six, forty-eight percent of those aged forty-seven to sixty-five, and forty-seven percent of those aged sixty-six to eighty-three.

2. A 2009 study conducted by the Center for American Progress cites the following findings: In a 2004 Pew poll, sixty-two percent of those aged eighteen to twenty-five said the United States should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them, compared to fifty-two percent of their elders; in a 2004 Democracy Corps poll, fifty-seven percent of those aged eighteen to twenty-nine  said that America’s security depended on building strong ties with other nations; and a 2009 Progressive Study Program youth poll found that sixty-three percent of young Americans thought “America’s security is best promoted by working through diplomacy, alliances, and international institutions,” compared to eleven percent who dissented.

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