The Kids Are Alright

By Andrew Leber

As Millennials and Gen-Z become the largest segments of the US voting age population, their views on a host of issues present new opportunities for progressive politicians and activists seeking to remake US politics – including foreign policy.

Now and again, a few commentators have noted that younger US generations seem more skeptical than their elders about a foreign-policy establishment that, in their lifetimes, did little to stop (and largely cheered on) a disastrous war in Iraq, signed off on an ever-expanding set of covert military engagements in the name of waging the War on Terror, and has trumpeted the mutual benefits of trade while overlooking the stark rise of inequality at home.   

Dan Drezner, for example, blogged about the rise of “anti-exceptionalism” among US youth at the Washington Post, with “fully 55 percent of those between 18 and 29 [in a 2019 survey] believe the United States is not an exceptional country.” He continues:

The simple fact is that an entire generation of Americans is skeptical about the conduct of foreign policy, and they damn well should be. If they cannot remember a headline foreign policy that worked, they will not and should not have faith in foreign policy elites to do the right thing. And the situation is unlikely to improve over the next year or so.

Drezner has certainly been consistent; based on the US foreign policy track record of 2001-2010 alone, he “would have to conclude that [millennials] should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.” 

How well do these cohort effects – i.e. millennials being more skeptical of US military might than baby boomers – hold up across a range of issue areas and over time? 

Looking at the most recent foreign-policy survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, it’s not hard to find points of divergence. 

On a basic question of whether the US should “stay out” of world affairs, Gen-X and especially Millennials are less enthusiastic about an “active” US role in the world – 66% of respondents from both generations think it would “be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs,” compared with 78% of baby boomers and older respondents. 

It would be easy to present that split as evidence of rising isolationism among young people, but a closer look at the data suggests not isolationism but instead greater skepticism among younger generations about the use of force in the world. 

In terms of “policy approaches that make the US more safe,” Gen-Xers and Millennials surveyed tended to break most sharply with Baby Boomers on coercive solutions, as well as restrictions to immigration and overseas basing. Thus, the youngs tend to be less enamored of what international relations scholarship would call “militant internationalism,” as Eric Goepner and A. Trevor Thrall have noted elsewhere

image (5)
Figure 1: Millennial responses differed from baby boomer responses at the p < .05 level for each of these questions, in author’s logistic regression of an affirmative outcome on the four generations.

Generational differences were muted, however, on policy approaches that were either broadly unpopular or that promoted greater international cooperation. Few Americans feel that US arms sales abroad made their country safer – just 9% (weighted to the US population). Likewise, there was little difference with respect to views on traditional alliances, foreign aid, or US participation in international organizations.

image (1)
Figure 2: Millennial responses were statistically indistinguishable from baby boomer responses at the p < .05 level for each of these questions, in author’s logistic regression of an affirmative outcome on the four generations.

This divergence is also clear with respect to policy toward specific countries – such as China. 

Of course, much as “great power competition” is the slogan of the hour in DC, most respondents (~68%) favored “undertaking friendly cooperation and engagement with China” over “actively working to limit the growth of China’s power,” with little difference between generations.

For specific policies, however, Millennials and Gen-Zers remain much more skeptical about policies that seek to punish China – especially limits on academic exchange. While it’s unclear how this will change with the advent of the coronavirus and bipartisan efforts to cast blame on China, younger generations still view the country more favorably than older Americans.

image (6)
Figure 3: Millennial responses were statistically distinct from Baby Boomer responses at the p < .05 level for each of these questions, in author’s logistic regression of an affirmative outcome on the four generations.

Regarding more cooperative proposals towards China, such as negotiating arms controls or cooperating on international development projects, we again see less of a generational divide. Millennial/Gen-Z respondents were even significantly more supportive of inviting China to participate in joint military exercises.

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Figure 4: Millennial responses were statistically distinct from Baby Boomer responses at the p < .05 level regarding arms-control (less supportive) and military-exercise (more supportive) proposals, in author’s logistic regression of an affirmative outcome on the four generations.

Could this all just be the folly of youth? Will today’s more dovish millennials become the hawkish elder generation of tomorrow? 

The 2019 poll is only a snapshot in time, but a growing body of research suggests that generational differences in US public opinion are only strengthening with the passage of time. Surveys from the truly enormous Combined Congressional Election Survey (CCES) provide some evidence that these gaps will endure even when it comes to foreign policy.

With over 30,000 respondents in 2006 and 2008, and over 50,000 respondents every other year 2010-2016, the first six CCES surveys asked respondents whether they would approve using US troops in order to:

  • Ensure the supply of oil
  • Destroy a terrorist camp
  • Intervene in a region where there is genocide or civil war
  • Assist the spread of democracy
  • Protect American allies under attack
  • Help the UN uphold international law

Combining 6 waves of surveys into a massive 280,000-respondent pool, we can look across any year-to-year public sentiment regarding the US use of force abroad to see whether any ensuing differences between generations emerge.

The clearest difference emerges regarding destruction of terror camps. To be sure, millennial respondents would still sign off on US deployments here about half the time. Yet despite the fact that millennials have grown up with decades of messaging from governments and popular media about the danger posed by terrorism, they have been markedly more skeptical for years about deploying US troops to eliminate terrorism elsewhere (Figures 3 & 4).

gen_terror_time

gen_terror_2016
Figures 5 & 6: Percent of respondents from each generation who “Approve of the use of US military troops in order to destroy a terrorist camp.” Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Width of columns in bar chart proportional to % of 2020 voting-eligible population (Millennial + Gen-Z = 37.5%, Gen-X = 24.5%, Boomer = 28.5%, Silent+ = 9.5%).

Interestingly, a noticeable difference also appears over time with respect to US alliances – something we did not see in the Chicago Council survey. The 2016 gap in responses is fairly large between Millennials/Gen-Zers (65%) and Baby Boomers (76%) – even if support for intervening on behalf of allies remains quite high, perhaps an indication that Cold War-era alliance structures hold less value for younger generations. 

gen_allies_time

gen_allies_2016
Figures 7 & 8: Percent of respondents from each generation who “Approve of the use of US military troops in order to protect American allies under attack by foreign nations.” Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Width of columns in bar chart proportional to % of 2020 voting-eligible population (Millennial + Gen-Z = 37.5%, Gen-X = 24.5%, Boomer = 28.5%, Silent+ = 9.5%). 

However, there is no similar “generation gap” regarding other justifications for the US use of force abroad. Millennials/Gen-Zers were actually more supportive of deploying troops in support of the UN and international law in 2006 – perhaps a reaction to the Bush administration and the unilateral invasion of Iraq – but little difference remained a decade later. And while overall support for interventions in civil wars or genocide has fallen in recent years (though this question combines quite different situations), members of the Silent generation (or older citizens) have been consistently less likely to commit US troops. 

gen_un_time

gen_genocide_time
Figures 9 & 10:  Percent of respondents from each generation who “Approve of the use of US military troops in order to” either “help the United Nations uphold international law” or “intervene in a region where there is genocide or a civil war.” Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

There is a lot more going on in US public opinion on foreign policy than this article can cover – we haven’t even touched on how income, education, religious beliefs and race/ethnicity can shape citizens’ views of US engagement with the world.

Yet as Millennials and Gen-Zers make up an ever-greater percentage of the voting public, these stark generational divides suggest an opportunity for activists seeking to promote a more cooperative US foreign policy centered around mutual gains rather than military dominance. More and more, politicians and candidates willing to question coercive policies risk being rewarded, rather than punished, at the ballot box.


Andrew Leber is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Government, where he studies the politics of policymaking in authoritarian regimes and dabbles in foreign-policy research.

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