Most millennials—a generation of those whose birth years span from 1981 to 1996—were at school the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the run-up to the next presidential election in 2004, the fabled “security moms” became one of the most talked-about demographics. These were women who acutely remembered the fear in their hearts the day they rushed to pick up their young children from school after seeing our nation attacked live on television. Many of those children being picked up at school were born during or shortly after the presidency of Ronald Reagan, so their memories are of an era largely characterized by peace and prosperity. That tragedy of 9/11 would mark the first time many of them were truly, fully aware of the dangers facing our nation from abroad.
One month after the attacks, the Harvard Institute of Politics asked 1,200 undergraduates across the country—a group including the oldest edge of the millennial generation—for their views on foreign policy and defense issues. The Harvard study, one of the first surveys in their now nearly two-decades-long study of American youth politics, found that 79 percent of American college students supported air strikes in Afghanistan and 68 percent would support the use of ground troops. Three in four said they trusted the military to do the right thing all or most of the time. Ninety-two percent considered themselves to be patriotic.
Those numbers would not last. In spring 2003, 59 percent of college students across the country supported a foreign policy of preemptive action against hostile nations, and support for the Iraq War outpaced opposition by a two-to-one margin. Two years later, the Iraq War faced majority opposition, and only one-third believed that the “U.S. should work to spread freedom and democracy around the world.” The generation that had entered political consciousness ready for American power projection shifted their opinions when confronted with the limits of that power.
“Millennials may not wish to retreat from a global community to which they are deeply connected, but they are skeptical of the use of American hard power as a tool to shape that world.”
Even setting aside the particulars of foreign policy, young people’s attitudes toward the military and America itself had become less positive. By 2011, only seven in ten considered themselves “patriotic,” and only a third said they believe the United States is the greatest country in the world. According to the Reagan Institute’s 2018 National Defense Survey, just over half of those under age 30 have a “great confidence” in the military.
Today, those high schoolers and college students are in their mid to late 30s. (One of the students who drafted the questionnaire for the Harvard study in 2001 is currently running for president of the United States.) They have grown up. They have kids, jobs, mortgages. They pay taxes. And as they have aged, contrary to conventional wisdom, they have not grown more conservative, nor have they seemed to move toward embracing a more conventional center-Right view of America’s role in the world.
Generational divides over politics and policy are not new. What is new today is that partisan differences by age cohort are significant and expanding. This matters not just because young people are taking on different points of view than their parents or grandparents, but because of the likely origins of those differences. Research suggests that political events that occur when a person is between the ages of 14 and 24 have the most powerful influence in shaping one’s lifetime political attitudes. Events occurring at age 18 have three times as much of an impact on one’s worldview as an event that occurs at age 40. For older generations, perhaps the Cold War or Vietnam or even World War II present context that informs their worldview. For millennials, however, the American response to September 11 and the perceived failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provide the most important lens through which they see other foreign policy issues.
Their younger brothers and sisters in Generation Z have followed suit. The Pew Research Center finds that Generation Z—those born after 1996—are just as likely as millennials to say that they think other countries in the world are better than the United States. It is too soon to tell where Generation Z, which has little to no memory of September 11 or even the era when the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts dominated the news, will land on foreign policy issues. But early indications suggest they will share at least some of the sensibilities of their elder peers, including their view of America’s role in the world.
Advocates of a robust role for American leadership around the globe must contend with two forces driving millennial views. Helpfully, millennials are a very globally engaged generation and are not isolationist, prioritizing things like travel abroad and being highly exposed to the lives of those in other nations, including via social media. They view international cooperation and multilateral institutions as valuable. However, millennials are also of the mind that American action abroad tends to be ineffective at best and to exacerbate problems at worst. Millennials may not wish to retreat from a global community to which they are deeply connected, but they are skeptical of the use of American hard power as a tool to shape that world.
Pew Research Center asks a series of questions about views on foreign affairs and finds these two forces at work across generations. When asked if “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home,” millennials are the only generation where a majority says yes. Other generations are more divided or lean toward saying “it’s best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.” At the same time, millennials are the least likely to say we should “follow our own national interests even when allies strongly disagree.” Far from wanting us to isolate ourselves, millennials seem to want us to engage. However, what they want from that engagement is diplomacy and cooperation, not the use of military strength. Even as all other generations have held stable over the last few decades on whether or not “good diplomacy, rather than military strength, is the best way to ensure peace,” millennials have trended heavily in the direction of diplomacy.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has also tracked public opinion on international affairs for decades, and their rich data on generational divides about America’s role in the world are illuminating. While baby boomers and Generation X became more optimistic about America taking an active role around the world as they aged, millennials have shown no such pattern, becoming even less supportive of American military engagement since the beginning of the Trump presidency. Similarly, while other generations became
slightly more focused on the importance of “maintaining superior military power worldwide” as time went by, millennials have become less focused on this as they have aged, with only 44 percent saying this is very important to them. Where generations used to be closely aligned on whether or not defense spending ought to be increased, that question is now sharply divided by generation, with millennials most resistant to greater defense spending.
However, according to the same study, millennials are just as likely as older generations to believe we should maintain or increase our commitment to NATO. They believe globalization has overwhelmingly been positive, with seven in ten saying globalization has been “mostly good.” They share the baby boomer and Generation X view that international trade has been good for the U.S. economy as well as consumers, and it is millennials who hold the most positive view of NAFTA. This is not a generation that wishes to turn its face from the world, looking inward and pretending the rest of the globe does not exist; rather, this is a generation that believes firmly in the value of America’s engagement with and connection to other countries, but strongly prefers that engagement to not involve the exertion of military power.
In the aforementioned Harvard Institute of Politics spring 2005 survey, 43 percent of young Americans surveyed listed either defense or foreign affairs issues as their top concern. By the spring 2019 study, that figure had plummeted. Only 1 percent cited foreign affairs as a top issue, and 2 percent chose “safety and security,” a broad category left undefined. One consequence of there having been no major terrorist attacks on the American homeland since September 11 is that young people today are less exposed to the dangers we face from around the globe. But young people are also less exposed to the idea that American strength can be a force for good. In that Harvard 2019 poll, respondents were asked if they believed “American foreign policy has done more good than harm for the rest of the world in the past decade.” Only 26 percent agreed. (The plurality responded that they simply weren’t sure either way.)
Those who believe that America can be a force for good in the world, including by having the strongest military in the world, have much work to do in persuading millennials to come along with this view. With foreign policy issues occupying significantly less attention in the minds of these voters today, their views are shaped by the memories of when these issues did occupy a large share of their attention: during the 2000s, when unpopular American wars dominated the headlines. That this remains the major time in their lives when foreign policy and defense were the dominant issues has only underscored the idea that when America flexes its muscles overseas, it brings great cost in blood and treasure, with nothing but trouble to show for it.
There is, however, still hope. These same younger Americans also believe that there are many issues, from climate change to humanitarian crises, that demand U.S. leadership, engagement, and economic commitment. There are still avenues through which millennials believe American soft power can play a positive role in shaping world affairs and commitments from which this generation would not like to see us retreat. Furthermore, there is extensive evidence to suggest that public attitudes on foreign policy issues are malleable and that, in fact, voters of all ages are eager to take cues about their foreign policy opinions from leaders they admire. While partisan attitudes may be fairly deeply ingrained for millennials at this point, issues that do not sit neatly along a partisan axis may still be more up for grabs, particularly when they have been relatively absent from millennial political discourse in recent years.
The children of the security moms have grown up. They are making up their minds on issues, speaking out, and voting. Their views of American foreign policy and global leadership differ substantially from those of their parents. These views did not come from out of the blue, and they are not just the product of liberal professors on college campuses. Young Americans’ adult lives have seen a host of foreign policy failures, and their generation has borne much of the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the experience of their lifetimes, it is not surprising that they look skeptically at claims that American strength can be a force for good. There is significant work to be done in making the case to this generation that American leadership—including and especially in the arena of military strength and engagement—is indispensable to a peaceful and prosperous world.