American Millennials are overwhelmingly global citizens first, American citizens second.
As opposed to previous generations, Americans aged 19 to 35 are much less likely to be waving American flags from the rooftops, and much more likely to empathize with people from other parts of the world. According to a 2014 Pew study, only 49 percent of Millennials say “patriotic” describes them well, compared to 64 percent of Gen X, 75 percent of Baby Boomers and 81 percent of the Silent Generation.
“Millennials don’t have much sense of American exceptionalism,” said Senior Campaign Manager at Democracy for America Robert Cruickshank in a video conversation hosted by Reinvent.
Why is patriotism on the decline?
The Millennial generation is racially diverse, and includes a significant percentage of immigrants. Due to increased global connection—through international travel and study abroad, and through the Internet—Millennials are more likely to be influenced by a broad range of perspectives. Millennials also came of age in the middle of two messy, protracted wars in which the face of American foreign policy was militaristic intervention. The heightened global consciousness stemming from the combination of these factors will have significant implications for American foreign policy over the next few decades.
More Diverse, More Likely to Be Immigrants, More Globally Minded
Millennials are the largest and most racially diverse generation in the history of the United States. According to a White House report (referencing 2012 Census Bureau data), 42 percent of Millennials identify with a race or ethnicity other than non-hispanic white, twice the percentage of Boomers when they were the same age. Around 15 percent of Millennials were born in a foreign country. Due to continued immigration, this generation is continuing to grow—over half of immigrant workers who have arrived to the United States in the last five years have been Millennials.
In addition to diversity and immigration, international travel can also play a role in increasing empathy and global consciousness. The number of American students who study abroad has more than tripled in the last two decades. While this international exchange may have helped strengthen ties between citizens, many Millennials (and slightly older individuals) who studied abroad encountered the far-reaching ramifications of American foreign policy decisions.
“I recall traveling abroad in college and people saying, ‘Oh she’s American, she hates us,’” said Washington Director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Margon “And having that define what it meant to be an American.”
Developing Global Consciousness By Witnessing Failures of Unilateralism
The list of foreign policy events that colored the formative years of the Millennial generation functions as a fairly grim cautionary tale. From 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Snowden revelations and the Bush administration’s use of torture, to the global financial crisis and the largely unrealized aspirations of the Arab Spring, Millennials came of age in an era replete with examples of what not to do in foreign policy.
“For those of us who are in the older cohort of Millennials, even before Bush decided to invade Iraq, he pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Treaty,” said Cruickshank. “I think that was the first big signal to a lot of older Millennials that Bush was going to pursue a unilateral foreign policy, and that there’s something wrong with that, especially facing the threat of climate change. Climate change destroys the reputation of unilateral American exceptionalism as a way to solve problems.”
According to a Pew Research Center study from 2011, only 32 percent of Millennials agree that America is the greatest country in the world, as compared to 50 percent of Baby Boomers and 64 percent of the Silent Generation. Increased diversity and decreased exceptionalism mean that American Millennials may be more inclined to look towards global, rather than unilateral, solutions.
“As the challenges become more common around the world,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, “whether it’s migration of peoples or impacts of climate change, you’re going to see more and more Internet-mediated, person-to-person, community-to-community communication that simply bypasses government.”
Making Global Connections and Broadening Horizons Through Social Media
Upworthy Co-Founder and CEO Eli Pariser pointed out the “tribal experience” of forming clans in games like World of Warcraft, and asked whether such experiences might help displace some of the nationalistic energy that fuels conflicts between countries. Today, Pariser suggested, Millennials have new options to fill the role that nations have traditionally played in crafting individual identity.
Cruickshank agreed that online communication can help broaden perspectives from national to global. “For American Millennials, social media has reduced the ‘otherness’ of people around the world,” said Cruickshank. “They are still different to most American Millennials but not quite as foreign. You can understand where someone is coming from, the concerns they face.”
An increased global consciousness means a willingness to make tradeoffs, and Millennials display a greater desire to pursue a cooperation-based, multilateral foreign policy. In Pew’s 2011 study, 63 percent of Millennials and 49 percent of Boomers agreed that in foreign policy, the U.S. should take allies’ interests into account even if it means making compromises. In the same study, 66 percent of Millennials said the best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy (as opposed to military strength), while 52 percent of Boomers chose diplomacy.
How Global Empathy Will Transform the Future of Foreign Policy
Replacing American exceptionalism with a deeper understanding of what it means to be global citizens could lead to a foreign policy future built more on diplomacy and less on military intervention.
“There’s an interest in pushing more for the normative, empathetic goals in favor of civilians than there is in the big strategic realm,” said Margon, “because I think it’s been long proven that governments that go to war with each other end up creating a terrible situation that is grinding for the region at large.”
This decreased interest in military intervention is by no means indicative of isolationism. “It’s more so that this generation wants to know exactly what it’s getting into,” said Rangel Fellow at the U.S. Department of State Stanislas Phanord. “Terror attacks in countries like Pakistan and Iraq were rarities before the war on terror, and now they’re a common occurrence. We want to know when we go in to intervene, do we have a plan to get out of there and have [the region] be more democratic than it was, or will it lead to more extremism?”
Pariser believes that Millennials are not only more empathetic, but also prepared to engage with the nuances and complexities of foreign policy. “This is a non-linear world,” Pariser said. “Actions don’t automatically create certain reactions, and one has to be very thoughtful and careful and humble about understanding the limits of our own power, and the limits of our ability to shape things.”