Millennials Are Done with US Domination of World Affairs

Patient readers, I’m putting up this cross-post because the UK’s NHS — 70 years old this year! — proved too complex for me to get my arms around in the time I budgeted for posting on how the neoliberals are trying to wreck it. So, please enjoy this post instead.

As readers know, I’m very dubious about assigning agency to generational cohorts like “Millennials,” or “Boomers.” Where, after all, are their offices on K Street? And if the Powers That Be need to find enough “Millennials” willing to help them continue their project of world domination, that they will do. However, it does seem that the the series of military debacles following the invasion of Iraq has dented our sense of American Exceptionalism, and has begun to shape public opinion — for the better, so far as I am concerned. A cautionary note would be “Millennial” support for globalization (which has, after all, brought us the iPhone, along with the figure of the selfie-taking backpacker). If I were a nimble 1%-er, I’d be perfectly happy to discard American Exceptionalism as an ideology, as long as I could control the global supply chain (and had a high-altitude, remote pied-a-terre from which to manage the free movement of my capital).

By Bruce Jentleson, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University. .

Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, see America’s role in the 21st century world in ways that, as a 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 , 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 “,” as Brookings demographer William H. Frey describes them, millennials take a less extreme view of Islam. A 2015 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 , “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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

32 comments

  1. Fred

    As a boomer I tend to agree with the Millennials. We haven’t done a very good job. Maybe someone else would like a go at it.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      Bear in mind that a lot of the stuff that is addressed above has been both initiated and carried forward by “people who are a lot younger than Boomers, e.g., Obama” (and a lot older, too — the Dulles Boys and all the folks that built the machinery of imperial America are way older than the Boomer age set.)

      It is nice to have a scapegoat, though, as we all know, and a bunch of really rotten people (though no more, proportionally, than in any other age set) fall into the category of “Boomers.”

      Maybe the best plan is to identify the “policy failures” and misdeeds, and try to all concentrate on not repeating them? Playing to the identity arguments just facilitates the “divide and conquer” that cripples any efforts to compel positive change?

      Reply
      1. anon

        Truly.

        And, my kneejerk response, is that the vast predominance of those Death Initiators, such as those Dulles Boys — and those Death Carry Forwarders, such as Obomber; were not only not Boomers™, they were also elite, Meritocratic™ Ivy Leaguers.

        Maybe PEW could do some studies solely regarding Ivy League responses across age spectrums, I’d suggest it to them, but it looks like none of their phone numbers work anymore, I’ve tried a number of them, they are all disconnected.

        Reply
      2. Wyoming

        Bear in mind that a lot of the stuff that is addressed above has been both initiated and carried forward by “people who are a lot younger than Boomers, e.g., Obama” …

        Obama is a Boomer. Born 1961. Not that I want to claim him as part of my cohort. But it is what it is.

        Reply
        1. anon

          The birth years depend on which entity/Academic™ decided those year marks. Wikipedia, the only thing that generally comes up these daze in internet searches, notes:

          Baby boomers (also known as boomers) are the demographic cohort following the Silent Generation and preceding Generation X. There are varying timelines defining the start and the end of this cohort; demographers and researchers typically use birth years starting from the early- to mid-1940s and ending anywhere from 1960 to 1964.

          So, for some, Obomber is not a Boomer; but even if he is, he’s on the cusp, which is not at all the same thing as being in the center of it. , that’s not even to mention those in the middle and early parts of those years, whose voices have been utterly obscured from Polls™.

          I’m digressing above, much to my dismay, in order to prove a point. I think JTMcPhee’s wider point stands: the pigeon holing, by year of birth, is an utter crock; cooked up by extremely unpleasant (to put it far more kindly than I would like to), low life human beings (if you can even call them human).

          Reply
            1. anon

              Look up all the horrid, continued (and even increased after the horrid George Bush Jr. and Cheney Admin), droning deaths of innocent people under his watch, and the horrid 2010 ‘joke’ he made about his ease in having his daughter’s male suitors predator droned, and then get back to me, or not, I don’t really care. He deserves the moniker, among numerous other, equally unflattering monikers he’s earned.

              Operating for years in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an officially secret counterterrorism program, the drones have drawn controversy for their notoriously high civilian casualty rate, the anti-American rage they provoke in the region, and for the dubious constitutionality of assassinating foreign nationals. So when Obama incorporated a Predator Drone joke into his Correspondents Dinner routine, it raised some eyebrows:

              “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.”

              Reply
  2. Summer

    “As readers know, I’m very dubious about assigning agency to generational cohorts like “Millennials,” or “Boomers.”

    And I agree.

    But I’m probably even more of a skeptic about generational change moving postively forward.

    Reply
  3. Summer

    “Similarly, 62 percent believe that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is good for the U.S. economy – well above the others surveyed…”

    Because they heard that Trump doesn’t like it or they really, really thought about NAFTA?

    Reply
  4. StephenLaudig

    “active part in world affairs” has, since 1893, usually meant invasions and bombing.
    The US military, the costliest in history, hasn’t won a war since 1946, unless Panama and Grenada count. Korea is still a tie. Perhaps many are coming to realize that all the US population [compared to corporations and corporation owners which show allegiance only to money] needs is a border patrol and a coast guard. Not ‘our’ empire.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      “War is a racket.” And people like me were and are its thug enforcers (enlisted 1966 to “do my duty to God and my country,” in that Vietnam place…)

      Reply
  5. Romancing The Loan

    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

    They’re not counting the first Iraq War.

    Only 70% in favor of “globalization” is pretty good in light of our lifetime of propaganda. I’d be in favor of disbanding NATO and cutting the military and intelligence budget by 80%, at least as a starting offer.

    Reply
    1. Ultrapope

      I think you have an interesting point re: “globalization” and propaganda. In school (2000-2010ish) the term globalization was presented as a kind of antonym of isolationist. It was portrayed as an attitude of openness to other countries, travelling internationally, sharing in someone else culture, etc. The business/economic side was sort of introduced in high school, but even then I remember being taught a definition of “globalization” closer to “multiculturalism” than to one like “Imperialism”. Post-high school life (and the GFC) really drove home the true meaning of the word.

      To this day I still reflexively read the word globalization as something akin to “multiculturalism”, despite knowing full well that it is anything but. From discussing politics with other people in my generation I also get a sense that they are operating with this weird dual (schizo?) meaning of “globalization”.

      Any other millennials have a similar experience with this word?

      Reply
      1. likbez

        > re: “globalization” and propaganda.

        Those polls are mostly about efficiency of indoctrination. As after 9/11 we moved to the national security state people stopped giving honest answers to such polls.

        I feel that most people now distrust and are somewhat afraid of the current ruling neoliberal elite and its oversize security apparatus.

        Many are too involved in earning the living to form a coherent political opinion about international affairs. And while they have this lingering distrust of the official line they feel that it is safer to conform.

        So those pools became an echo chamber of government policies. As in letters to Pravda: “We enthusiastically support the polices of our Politburo” no matter what was the issue. Kind of “Back in the USSR” effect in action.

        Reply
    2. Ashburn

      “They’re not counting the first Iraq War.”

      RTL: Thanks for pointing that out. Our war in Iraq began with Operation Desert Storm in January of 1991. Afterwards we enforced punishing sanctions and an extensive “no fly zone” over the northern third of the country, punctuated with regular bombings of Iraqi installations. So, to be accurate, we should say that we have been at war in Iraq for over 27 years.

      Reply
  6. Don Cafferty

    The problem in that first graph is that the Millennial line may be lower than the other generational lines but from 2008 to 2016 it follows a similar track to the others. What is exceptional is the last data point (2017) where the Millennial track diverges from the trend of the other generational lines. It is this divergence that needs explanation. It is only one data point and any explanation must be approached with caution. It would be an interesting and exciting situation had the Gen X 2017 data point also diverged! What has caused the Millennial trend line to diverge in 2017 away from the others? Will it continue to diverge? I don’t know and I don’t think that the explanation is in the story.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      It might be nice to see the survey instruments too, to see what the questions were and how loaded in favor of Empire or balanced (that deadly word) they were.

      Reply
  7. juliania

    I didn’t much like being put into the group called the Silent Generation, so I went to wikipedia to see why it was called that.

    “…While there were many civil rights leaders, the “Silents” are called that because many focused on their careers rather than on activism, and people in it were largely encouraged to conform with social norms. As young adults during the McCarthy Era, many members of the Silent Generation felt it was dangerous to speak out…Time magazine coined the term “Silent Generation” in a November 5, 1951 article titled “The Younger Generation”… The Time article said that the ambitions of this generation had shrunk, but that it had learned to make the best of bad situations…[?]… In the United States, the generation was comparatively small …They are noted as forming the leadership of the civil rights movement as well as comprising the “silent majority”…

    Ah, that’s why I didn’t much like it – and that was Nixon’s silent majority, not me, wikipedia – not me! But I’ll forgive you because down below you put me in the group called “The Lucky Few” and said how many of us were Really Good People. I’ll buy that. ;))

    Reply
  8. Schmoe

    Interesting results on Millennials’ view of American Exceptionalism. I am not at all surprised by those results, and I wonder if study abroad programs are having a deep impact on young people’s political views. They are seeing in detailed fashion the utter horror of government-sponsored or managed healthcare, as well as how “socialism” in northern European has inflicted a very favorable standard of living on most of the middle class.
    Conversely, I still have to laugh at the 2012 campaign ad sponsored by Rickets of TD Ameritrade fame that described the results of “socialism” and showed post-War Europe pictures of old ladies on the side of the road. One of my parent’s friends (now in her ’80s) seemed surprised that people in Europe didn’t live shacks when shown my parent’s vacation pictures.

    Reply
  9. The Rev Kev

    It should be noted that of the tens of thousands killed, wounded or sent crazy by useless wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, most would have been Millenials. As well, they are actually on the front end of things like killer college debt, crumbling infrastructure, lack of the possibility of advancement but they can also see where the money is flowing too and who is getting it. At the same time they can see which political party supports them. Hint – none of the above.

    Reply
  10. Synoia

    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.

    The boomers came of age when the US was the epitome of making everything, and was instrumental in winning WW II.

    The millennials know that Germany, China, Japan and others can and do make things better than the US. They also know the US lost in Vietnam, to a third world country, and are lost in quagmires i the ME with no definition of the concept of “win”. Why would they have even have a notion of ” American exceptionalism?”

    Reply
    1. Mark Craig

      The millennials know that Germany, China, Japan and others can and do make things better than the US. They also know the US lost in Vietnam, to a third world country, and are lost in quagmires i the ME with no definition of the concept of “win”. Why would they have even have a notion of ” American exceptionalism?”

      Because exceptionalism is only ever defined by winning wars eh? Straight out of the neocon war hawk playbook I might add, kudos.

      Reply
  11. cm

    Huh? We can make generalizations about Millenials but not about Boomers?

    I thought the argument here was that it was class, not age….

    Reply
  12. Edward

    I expect the millennials to be in revolt because they are being shafted so completely; impossible debt, environmental devastation, wars, inequality, no economic prospects, no health care– what is left?

    Reply
  13. anon_german

    Same numbers for the 70ies, when support for US “exceptionalism” (i.e. export of fascism) was as its low-point the last time. No fear, propaganda and huge media budgets for patriotism will heal everything.

    Reply
  14. Scott1

    There is no mention of the UN. Globalization implies a one world set of laws and treaties that provide a fair shot for Americans along with those of the same class throughout the world.
    What Globalization has really meant is the mobility of Corporate money that translates into Corporate Rule.
    The support for Bernie Sanders amongst Millennials shows that they can be aroused to show up and cheer and maybe even vote.
    It’s their world and their time and it was a major set back of them as well as all the rest of the world for the Trump Administration to have gained power. The Administration is bought by the fossil fuel industry. The mental and physical climate is bad.
    As I and my friends have lived as well as we could, so will they. What is horrific is that the prosaic concerns that eat up most of our lives have this additional peril added on. Courage in the face of adversity is always part of the solution, but the point at which “Courage is not enough.” is flowing from what was permanently frozen and no longer is.

    Reply
  15. sierra7

    “There is no mention of the UN. Globalization implies a one world set of laws and treaties that provide a fair shot for Americans along with those of the same class throughout the world.”
    What Globalization has really meant is the mobility of Corporate money that translates into Corporate Rule.”
    Very true. I remember when the “idea” of globalization was being brought to fruition during the 1990’s and my question was “What is going to be the role of global labor?” Of course I already knew the answer: “None”. They were never invited to the table. I suffered much criticism by my contemporaries for cursing the concept but have been proven totally correct over the time period since.
    By the way: I’m part of the “Silent” ones…..born 1930.
    NATO is a “mafia” sort of conglomerate that is held together by threats just like in the gangsta movies.
    NAFTA crucified the Mexican peasant on the proverbial, “Cross of Gold” and supplementary American Blue Collar Workers.
    I’ve witnessed many changes in our world in the past multi-decades that have past. We still are caught in the crunch of history that “might makes right”; “Kill them all and let God sort them out!”; “Those that have a ‘better’ vision of our societies are demeaned and crushed. It’s all about the money. Hopefully the newest generations will see thru all this propaganda and try to really work for a better world.

    Reply
  16. Wukchumni

    Our recent nearly 50 mile backpack included about 15 miles of the JMT/PCT, and I was delighted to see so many millennials on the trail, including i’d say slightly more women than men (53/47%) which is on account of the movie Wild, or so is the claim.

    In the old days of say a decade ago, the average age of somebody backpacking would have been closer to 40, to give you an idea of the recent impact, and the ratio would be more akin to 65/35% male to female overall.

    The JMT is a perfect fit for em’, I saw quite a few with newish gear after outlaying around $500 on equipment and clothes. (you don’t need much, as you’ll be wearing the same 2 shirts, shorts & socks for 3 weeks and 220 miles, washing the off pair en route to your next sleep)

    A wilderness permit is around $25 or less, and that’s it as far as expenses go, aside from trail food and transport to the trailhead.

    And you know what?

    Everybody really gets along in the back of beyond, there’s no generation gap between ages.

    Reply

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