Millennials on Foreign Policy: More Cooperation, Less Use of Force

An American flag is unfurled at the September 11 Memorial in New York on November 9, 2014. Experiencing 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has left millennials eager for U.S. restraint abroad. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Earlier this year, the millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 1997) overtook the baby boomers as the largest generation of Americans alive today. As such, they are poised to have a big impact on the 2016 elections, and the oldest millennials, now 35, are starting to occupy important leadership positions in the private and public sector.

In our recent study, published by the Cato Institute and based on an analysis of a wide range of polling data, we find that millennials share a distinct set of foreign policy attitudes, compared with their elders. They view the world as less threatening, are more supportive of international cooperation and diplomacy, and are far more averse to the use of military force.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that 9/11 is the defining event of their generation, the data suggest millennials see the world as a less dangerous place than their elders. Compared with other generations, millennials are less worried about international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Millennials grew up after the Cold War, without the specter of nuclear holocaust fueled by a decades-long superpower confrontation. Terrorism is dangerous, but it does not fuel the same threat perceptions that the Cold War did for older generations. In addition, many millennials were simply too young for 9/11 to have had the direct emotional impact it did for many older Americans.

More broadly, for millennials, the meaning and impact of 9/11 appears to have become entangled with the U.S. response to it. A majority of millennials, like other generations, view the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a mistake, but millennials are also three times more likely to believe that Obama's foreign policy is too aggressive and the least likely to believe that using military force is the best way to solve problems.

This is why polls show that millennials are the only generation in which a majority believes that the United States probably did something to provoke 9/11. Millennials don't view 9/11 as evidence that the world is a dangerous place as much as they see it as evidence that aggressive U.S. military action is counterproductive.

As a result of this discomfort with the war on terror, many millennials have internalized an "Iraq Aversion"—a significant reluctance to support the use of military force abroad.

Others have argued that Americans of all ages have become more cautious in the wake of too many casualties and exorbitant costs for too little gain. But millennials experienced 9/11 and the U.S. response during their "critical period," when sociologists argue that people form their lifelong attitudes and worldview. So, while the effects of the war will be temporary for older Americans, the Iraq Aversion is likely to be permanent for millennials.

What will millennial foreign policy attitudes mean for 2016 and beyond? Some have worried that the millennials' preference for military restraint signals a shift toward isolationism, but we believe that instead millennials are adopting their own approach to engaging the world.

Polls consistently show that millennials are the generation most supportive of cooperating on global issues, including working with the United Nations, collaborating on international treaties to deal with issues like climate change, and accommodating the views of allies in the pursuit of U.S. interests.

China serves as a prime example of the millennial view. Millennials are the only generation in which a majority sees China more as a partner than a rival and is far more supportive of cooperation with that nation than confrontation. So in contrast to charges of isolationism, millennials favor cooperative rather than military engagement around the world.

It's important to note, however, that the millennial generation is not monolithic. Despite their tendency to gravitate toward cooperation and to reject the use of force, millennials remain politically polarized in many of the same ways as their parents, which inhibits agreement on many foreign policy priorities.

Longer term, American millennials will have to find ways to engage constructively with other millennials in the Middle East and around the world, as the latter are becoming increasingly influential in their countries. For global millennials, like those at home, the United States's war on terror, including military operations in five Middle East nations over the past 15 years, has left an indelible mark on attitudes toward war and foreign affairs.

Given the levels of anti-American sentiment generated by U.S. efforts since 9/11 and the turbulence of the Middle East, the millennials are likely to be dealing with the aftermath for a lifetime. How millennials eventually meet that challenge will be a defining element of future U.S. foreign policy.

A. Trevor Thrall is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and an associate professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. Erik Goepner is retired from the Air Force, having commanded units in Iraq and Afghanistan.