US foreign policy in the Millennial age: Less militaristic, just as interventionist

An age-old proverb says "men resemble their time more than they do their fathers."  Millennials, the roughly 87 million men and women born between the years 1980 and 1997, who represent about 25 percent of the U.S. population, are next in line to lead.  What will U.S. foreign policy look like under their leadership?

Studies show that Millennials are generally firmly against the past 16 years of provocative U.S. foreign policy and military interventions.  Millennials' worldviews and opinions are also shaped heavily by what they perceive as moral or just.  We can comfortably predict that American foreign policy under Millennial leadership will be marked by multilateral diplomacy as opposed to unilateral military interventionism. However, this does not mean that the U.S. will be free from foreign entanglements or military conflict under Millennials' leadership.  Millennials' penchant for peace, human rights, and justice may push the U.S. into a different kind of interventionism.

Millennials did not experience a major world war like preceding generations (the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, and Generation X).  World War II and the Cold War were particularly important in pushing the U.S. into its current status as the world's sole remaining superpower.  But this delicate balance of power has been shifting before our eyes, and this shift will especially impact Millennials' perception of the world's political landscape.  Millennials experienced the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  From a young age, they watched the Global War on Terror unfold.  These events are crucial in shaping Millennials' attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, the U.S.'s role on the global stage, and who and what constitute a threat to U.S. national interests.

Unlike older generations, who grew up in the shadow of World War II and the Cold War, the majority of Millennials do not view the U.S. as indispensable to the modern world order.  In fact, they reject the notion of U.S. primacy.  Millennials are generally less apprehensive when it comes to foreign policy and perceive the world to be much safer than older generations do.  As such, they are far more restrained in what they believe the U.S.'s role should be in managing threats.  The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that between 2002 and 2014, all generations (Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation) increasingly thought the U.S. should stop policing the rest of the world.  Of the four generations, Millennials were almost consistently the most likely to agree with this sentiment.

Millennials watched as the U.S. spent the years following 9/11 squandering tax dollars and manpower on foreign entanglements in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.  During this time, U.S. foreign policy often seemed to destabilize these rather than secure their countries – or ours.  According to a 2015 Pew poll, two thirds of Millennials surveyed said "relying on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism."  Be it U.S. action in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya or perceived U.S. inaction in crises in Yemen, Palestinian territories, and Syria, Millennials are critical of U.S. foreign policy more than any other generational cohort.

Millennials, however, are not necessarily "non-interventionists" and far from realists in their view of international relations.  While they favor restrained foreign policy when it comes to the military, they have consistently been strong supporters – far more than their predecessors, of liberal intervention.  For example, they would hypothetically support the U.S. intervening militarily against the possibility of genocide or other humanitarian crises where lives or human rights are threatened. In addition, Millennials support multilateralism and international cooperation more than their predecessors.

Millennials are optimistic about the world.  With their aversion to military adventurism, it will be interesting to observe how the U.S. tackles pressing national security issues like Iran, North Korea, and international terrorism with Millennials heading the Defense Department, Congress, and the White House.  On the other hand, their activist and protectionist instincts coupled with their concern for fairness, peace, and human rights may easily trap the U.S. into as many interventions as past generations have led.  The U.S. may rely less on its military prowess but still be compelled to respond to any and all signs of injustice or crisis abroad.  Thus, we should not find solace in less U.S. military aggression when Millennials may take an equally profligate foreign policy approach with equally disastrous implications.

Belinda Nsuami earned her B.A. in international studies from Louisiana State University.  She is currently an independent analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area, focusing on foreign policy and defense research.