Americans younger than age 50 have spent more than half—in some cases, all—of their adult lives with America at war. This group, who will constitute more than half of eligible voters in the 2020 presidential election, grew up in a time when America was involved in such a large number of overseas conflicts that even some American lawmakers didn’t know where the U.S. military had boots on the ground. Lengthy, largely unsuccessful military interventions in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria didn’t end with victory parades; in fact, some haven’t ended at all.
These Americans—Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z—grew up with the incoherence of spending billions of dollars to prevent terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic ideologies while doing nothing to stop those inspired by white supremacy and related ideologies at home. They’ve entered adulthood during a time in which America has had no great unifying victory—too young to understand the end of the Cold War or the significance of putting a man on the moon and not alive to witness the United States lead the world to establish peace and unity after World War II. Instead, and particularly in the last two years, they’ve watched the United States lose influence on the world stage; undermine its credibility as a leader on human rights; and fail to live up to its own ideals on civil liberties, privacy, transparency, and accountability to the public. The most visible government investments in their lifetimes have been in attempts to solve problems overseas rather than at home.
It’s no wonder these generations are skeptical of establishment American foreign policy. According to a new study based on groundbreaking polling and focus groups published by the Center for American Progress, there are strong—and growing—generational divides on U.S. foreign policy. But these divides aren’t just between what threats different generations fear and which foreign policy tools they favor. The poll shows an increasingly important gap between what role earlier generations think America should play in the world and what later generations think the country should be trying to accomplish. The poll also indicates that the aims of today’s foreign policy are neither generally well understood nor aligned with what young Americans want—and 2020 candidates should take note.
Younger voters don’t connect with the language and narratives of today’s foreign policy
One problem contributing to this divide may be that the language and narratives of the foreign policy community are inaccessible and couched in a historical narrative that younger Americans don’t recognize. Whereas Millennial and Generation Z focus group participants were able to define what “America First” means to them, other foreign policy narratives, such as “maintaining the liberal international order” and “promoting democracy and democratic values around the globe,” are poorly understood, notwithstanding the importance of what they convey. Even though younger generations are more likely than older generations to disapprove of how President Donald Trump is handling foreign policy, they at least have a sense of what he is trying to accomplish. If other candidates want to challenge an America First foreign policy, they will need to offer a clear alternative that is accessible to Americans and that reflects understanding, rather than stale assumptions, about what they want from U.S. foreign policy.
Younger generations are also less likely to embrace many of the traditions that have underpinned classic foreign policy narratives. CAP’s findings reveal that younger Americans are less likely than older generations to rank terrorism prevention and border strength at the top of their foreign policy priorities. They are ambivalent about the United States maintaining an active military presence in other countries and are less likely than older generations to think that America is stronger when it takes a leading role in the world.
Perhaps because they have experienced more fear from personal economic insecurity than from geopolitical conflict, these younger groups are more supportive than older generations of prioritizing economic and diplomatic efforts rather than military action to achieve foreign policy goals. They are also more likely to view efforts that combat global climate change and protect jobs for American workers as the most important priorities for U.S. foreign policy in the next five years—neither of which can be accomplished by military might. Put simply, younger Americans prioritize foreign policy issues that require collective rather than unilateral action and diplomacy rather than force—and that has serious consequences for the political narratives that resonate with them.
The lesson and message for 2020 candidates is clear: For younger generations, appeals to American exceptionalism and military supremacy may be less effective than other arguments for U.S. engagement around the world. Young Americans are ready for a new vision for American foreign policy—one that resonates with how they see the world. This vision is neither interventionist nor isolationist; it favors collective over unilateral action and recognizes that the United States achieves more in partnership with other nations than it ever does alone; it focuses on investing in the American economy and the American people, rather than only the American military, in order to be strong abroad; it isn’t wrapped in the flag or dependent on American global dominance; and it isn’t zero sum.
America’s current foreign policy does not embody that vision. It’s up to candidates to offer something better in 2020.
Katrina Mulligan is the managing director for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Blaine Johnson is a former policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center. Abigail Bard is a research associate of Asia Policy for National Security and International Policy at the Center.