The first point I want to cover is the issue of millennial voters. I don’t pretend to be an expert. But I think there are some rules that apply, not just to millennials, but rules that are really generation-proof, rules that reflect how all Americans practice their civil responsibilities. I think there are three of them. We should keep these in mind when we think about not just the best way to appeal to voters but how to govern to protect the freedom, prosperity, and security of all Americans. That said, it is also worth acknowledging perspectives that are unique to millennials, younger voters, and future voters. The hopes, dreams, aspirations, and interests of every generation make us who we are.
My second point addresses the larger issue. We need an American public that is resilient enough to sustain support for long-term competition, because structuring the United States to win long-term competition is the core of what is needed for future U.S. strategy.
A Generation Gap?
There is a real question whether millennials in their political views over the long term will really be that different than any other generation of voters. Here are three rules that I think apply to all generations.
Rule #1. Americans have always tended to address domestic and foreign policies differently. On domestic issues, they tend to align with politicians who align with their views. If a politician is advocating Obamacare, and voters like Obamacare, then they like the politician. In foreign policy, they tend to do the opposite. They trust the politicians they like and trust them to lead on foreign policy. The exception to this rule occurs during periods when voters sense an existential crisis, losing trust in the politicians and then voting with their gut: Who can pull us out of this mess? Good examples of this discontinuous voter behavior are the outbreak of the Korean War, the intense unrest from the civil rights movement and antiwar protests in 1968, and the backlash against the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina response, when voters rejected the established order. These are the exceptions that make the rule.
The bottom line is that on matters of foreign policy, like every other generation, millennials are likely to vote for the leaders they trust, not necessarily the policy positions candidates take.
“Never confuse popularity with popular will.”
Rule #2. Never confuse popularity with popular will. Popularity is how a voter feels about something at the moment. Popular will is the underlying willingness of the people to be governed. Popularity can change in a news cycle. Popular will is far more durable and matters much more in foreign policy issues. Because presidents have fixed four-year terms and enormous constitutional authorities in matters of foreign and defense policy, they don’t have to fret about winning popularity contests all that much.
The Vietnam War is perhaps the best exemplar of this dynamic. The defeat in Vietnam is often portrayed as the American people abandoning the war after the Tet Offensive; the war had just become too unpopular. Yet, they elected a president who actually accelerated and expanded military operations. The United States didn’t sign a peace treaty until 1973. We didn’t abandon Vietnam until 1975. Arguably, if Nixon had not been impeached and was still president, he could and would have resisted congressional pressure to cut off aid to South Vietnam. The United States might still be in South Vietnam today. The point is that it was seven years from when Walter Cronkite said the war was lost, turning American public opinion against Vietnam, to the end of U.S. engagement. That’s because many Americans might not have liked the war, but Americans were still willing to be governed by their elected officials, and their elected leaders kept fighting.
The United States is certainly capable of fighting long and unpopular wars, sustaining military presence overseas, and engaging in all kinds of other proactive foreign policy activities—even if they don’t always poll well at home. Wilson and FDR knew this. They both ran for election promising to keep America out of the war. They both made those campaign promises knowing full well they would not be able to keep them. Neither fretted about going back on campaign promises when national interests dictated otherwise. FDR, of course, did have Pearl Harbor, which immediately swung public opinion. Americans who had overwhelmingly opposed U.S. entry into the war before the Japanese attack continued to support the war effort through years of conflict, privation, and sacrifice.
The lesson here is that once elected, officials can largely count on the willingness of the people to be governed when they shape their foreign and security policies. Those policies should be focused on national interests, not on what polls well at a particular moment with millennials or anyone else.
Rule #3. Americans are not Hobbesian. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th- century British political philosopher, postulated that human behavior was driven by ceaseless cravings. Since we are incapable of curbing our appetites, the only way to avoid endless war and competition is to turn control over to an authoritarian ruler to discipline us and enforce rules to govern us. Even fans of freedom wondered if Hobbes might not have had a point. In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville had lots of nice things to say about the new nation and the idea of people governing themselves, but he wondered if a representative republic really could fight wars and deal with protracted security challenges without collapsing over internal squabbling over self-interests while the barbarians stormed the gates. Well over two hundred years of history, multiple wars, and incessant domestic policy debates have answered that question. Americans aren’t Hobbesian. We have governed ourselves just fine for some time now, surviving even the sternest tests, including a national Civil War over slavery.
In practice, free societies can be more resilient. This is because Hobbes was wrong. Sure, humans have cravings—no people more than Americans. Some crave material goods. Others want homes, relief from student debt, safe spaces, and participation trophies. But humans also show capacity for self-restraint. We restrict our cravings when we sense they are self-destructive and not in our self- interest—that’s why democracy works.
In this respect, I don’t think millennials are any different. I imagine many would prefer using plastic straws, but they would vote to forswear them because they are convinced that plastic straws are bad for the environment. In the same way, generations ago, people started wearing seat belts and smoked and drank less because they concluded the harm outweighed the compulsion to give into the desire of continuing risky behaviors.
This human impulse, I think, extends to politics. In the end, voters of all ages will vote for what they perceive is in their best interest—not just vote for all the stuff they want.
Where millennials (and also even younger voters) may be unique is in perceiving crises that are “generational.” That is, they recognize something as an existential threat, but other voting age groups do not. There is an argument to be made that climate change might be one of these. This is an issue worthy of addressing. The reality is, like the oceans filling with plastic, Americans are not really the problem here. The challenge is the behavior of other nations. So this really is a foreign policy issue, and if there is an effort to break the stranglehold of how millennials perceive this issue, there has to be a credible and efficacious agenda to show we are working on that.
The greater Middle East, as a contrasting example, is a less existential issue for millennials. There has been, on the other hand, a monumental shift in how Israel is perceived. That is, however, not just a generational issue. Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States in large part because the Left is increasingly willing to frame the bilateral relationship as a human rights challenge— and Israelis are not the good guys. This is another problem worth working on.
What these issues have in common is that they tend to blur the distinction between domestic and foreign policy. There is no question that millennials have a more globalist view of the world. Both human rights and climate change are examples. This breaks down the traditional paradigm of domestic versus foreign policy behavior in voters that I referenced earlier in my commentary. Younger “globalist” voters are tending to see these kinds of issues as domestic—something that affects their daily lives, not just something far away for politicians to worry about.
That is another reason not to be sanguine about how millennials and younger voters think about these issues: They may well carry this perspective with them as they age. They likely won’t grow out of it. What is interesting about both these issues is that they were manufactured by the Left—not the issues themselves, but the belief that that the issues are existential challenges that require social justice responses. The Left may not be done. They will likely create more of these. One possibility is viewing the national debt as an existential threat, not in a fiscally conservative manner but as a social justice problem.
That said, I think conservatives can counter these concerns in the way they pitch such issues to millennials. It is not that conservatives need to change their foreign policy to accommodate millennials. As with any group that disagrees with you but that you want to bring over to your side, you have to start by acknowledging that their concerns are valid. Then make the case that there is a different and more efficacious way to address the problem than what the Left is offering. This may not win over many voters, but it will neutralize the issue.
Will for the Fight?
My second comment relates to Paul Lettow’s larger point on strategy. I agree the focus should be on key regional competitions—Europe, the Greater Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific—and the goal is maintaining the U.S. core competitive advantages in security, prosperity, and liberty as we work to keep these regions relatively stable, well-governed, and economically free. This pairs with the second goal—protecting the freedom of the commons (space, cyber, seas, air). The United States has to have access to these regions to be able to protect our interests or to get somewhere to protect our interests. Satisfying these two vital concerns makes the third key interest—protecting the homeland—much easier.
Paul is right. The United States remains competitive by the prudent and judicious use of power—leaning forward, maintaining a forward presence—to demonstrate the resolve to protect our interests. But we must not waste power and become overly entangled, draining rather than enriching U.S. power.
Strategy has to be suitable, feasible, and acceptable. This gets to my second point. This strategy might be suitable and feasible, but it also has to be acceptable. To the point, for the strategy to work, Americans have to be willing to compete on the global stage for a long time.
For many conservatives, winning them over to this formula isn’t that hard. You just have to prove that it will work over time. Nothing breeds confidence like the perception of success. If conservatives see America’s power isn’t waning, they will keep confidence in their leaders and trust them to manage our foreign policy. We already see this in President Trump’s base. All he has to do to keep them is not start World War III or tank the economy.
The larger issue ties back to my point on millennials. Many in that generation don’t see competition as a good thing. Their default preference is for cooperation. Their desire to cooperate not confront is echoed in other quarters, especially in the transatlantic community. This is very different than the situation during the Cold War, when Left and Right pushed and tugged, but not over the core strategic concept to view the Cold War as a competition.
That said, there is growing convergence among the policy elites— the pandering of progressive presidential candidates aside—that the United States is in for a long competitive fight. This fight will not be a replay of the Cold War, but it will be like the Cold War in that success will mean sustaining our competitive strengths and identity over a long-term competition (the core of Kennan’s proposal in the Long Telegram).
For example, it is noteworthy that Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump all had the same top bad guy list: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. They had different ideas about dealing with them, but they agreed on the competitors. That is the most consistent threat perception among American political elites that we have seen since the end of the Cold War. I think it reflects a strategic consensus among elites that we haven’t seen since the 1950s. That’s something to build on. However, the foundation under it isn’t fully formed.
On the one hand, there are many Americans who aren’t up for competition. Some of them are opposed to the idea, some are afraid, some are lukewarm toward the idea of competing, and some are wedded to a more structuralist view of the world order. Here is where libertarians of the world fit in. On their own, I don’t see them as a rising force in foreign policy. But I do see them making common cause with others who eschew the concept of competition. This coalition of the willing might prove not insignificant—especially if foreign affairs turn south or national elections bring progressives to power.
On the other hand, there are many willing to embrace competition, especially among conservatives. The problem here is the tendency of some of our friends to frame the world in Manichaean terms. That is, they have a black-and-white view of competition that may have been appropriate for the Cold War and the Global War on Terror but that is ill-suited to contemporary challenges. The world isn’t black and white; we can’t dump countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in the “for us” or “against us” camps.
In summary, what I feel I have added to the conversation here is to suggest that (1) we should not change the strategy to gain greater acceptability—that will make our strategy less suitable and less feasible; and (2) there is no single narrative that adequately addresses how to build sustainable acceptability for a long-term strategy. I’m not sure I would try. Rather, I would pursue different narrative paths that drive toward consensus over the next six years. That is certainly a worthwhile effort.