Omnipolicy: How the Next Generation is Rethinking U.S. Global Engagement

Jan 9, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The old categories of “isolationist” and “internationalist” are less relevant in a globalized age where individuals have ties to other parts of the world, but who may disagree on the efficacy of U.S. intervention
  • The search for sustainability is replacing an emphasis on security
  • Neat categories of “foreign” and “domestic” policy are blending into “omnipolicy” especially on questions of the environment and climate
  • As the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War periods recede into history, new language for describing international affairs is needed to connect to the next generations.

In 2023, the U.S. Global Engagement initiative engaged in a series of on-campus site visits across the country. Engaging and interacting with students from Gettysburg College, Manhattan Marymount College, Texas A&M, Metropolitan State University-Denver, and The Ohio State University enabled us to take a geographic snapshot of attitudes and concerns among the 18-to-29 year old demographic, in terms of what are the most pressing global issues and how the United States ought to be postured on the international stage.

The following are some of my impressions from the dialogues our Carnegie Council program conducted over the past year.

Traditionally, the U.S. domestic spectrum for discussing public attitudes about foreign policy runs from “isolationism” to “internationalism.” Isolationists are often thought to be insular and “nativist” in their thinking and experiences, with stronger support for internationalist positions linked to greater exposure to cosmopolitan influences (such as travel). However, both demographic and technological shifts have changed these equations. Over the last 50 years, for instance, the percentage of “foreign-born” U.S. citizens has risen dramatically, from 4.7 percent in 1970 to nearly 14 percent in 2023. More Americans, even in rural and traditionally less cosmopolitan regions of the country, have direct familial or extended diaspora links to other parts of the world, which means that they are receiving news and information about what is happening in their various “old countries.” This includes receiving updates on the impact of U.S. policies—whether on trade, migration, or security assistance—as well as being kept informed about local crises (including wars) and disasters.

The rise in low-cost international travel—whether for vacation or enrichment or to meet with extended family—also crosses regional and class lines. Whereas few Americans in the 20th century held passports, some 43 percent of Americans do so today, and the figure rises to 53 percent among adults under 30. Moreover, digital technology and social media allows for communities of interest to form along virtual, rather than geographic, criteria, meaning that people are interacting across boundaries and sharing information that is not circumscribed by traditional, nationally bounded news sources. Digital proximity changes the basis for communal association and also ways in which information is transmitted.

In some cases, those experiences have generated or reinforced skeptical attitudes about the beneficial impact of U.S. interventionism, which can align or overlap with traditional “isolationist” attitudes. In other cases, our discussions generated more nuanced views of what constitutes effective international engagement, moving away from large-scale government action to more decentralized people-to-people encounters. But in all cases, concerns about U.S. involvement were not driven by a lack of knowledge or a desire to be cut off from the rest of the world—characteristics of traditional isolationism in U.S. domestic public opinion. Interconnection with the larger world is prized, but does not necessarily create support for expanded U.S. government intervention.

In part, this may be based on changes in what constitutes security. Older definitions of national security, in particular concerns that hostile powers would be able to force major changes to U.S. domestic political and civic institutions as during the Cold War, are giving way to a broader conception of what Derek Reveron has described as “human security.” In fact, there is a marked generational difference over whether the United States and China can work together to solve critical transnational issues, with older generations much more skeptical that cooperation can take place. In our conversations, we found concerns about “security” supplanted by worries about “sustainability;” the trendlines as we move into mid-century raise concerns about climate, environmental, economic, and health considerations that would impact the sustainability of their current quality of life. There are worries about the food-water-energy trilemma at work and whether climactic shifts will make parts of the world less habitable—and how these changes will affect the availability of work and the ability to retain a middle-class lifestyle. Younger generations, on average, are less concerned about geopolitical shifts that might give other countries more ability to pressure the United States and more about whether a set of overlapping transnational challenges will make their lives increasingly more difficult. Whether or not Russia or China exercise more influence in world affairs may matter less if we move into an era defined by shortages, with parts of the country becoming less inhabitable due to climatic factors, and if Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies lead to major dislocations in the economy.

In turn, concerns about sustainability as the primary focus for policy are driving a shift away from thinking about “foreign” and “domestic” as separate policy silos. As described by Politico columnist Nahal Toosi, this is the “omnipolicy” approach. Because of the growing connectivity with people all around the world—especially through digital networks—there is greater awareness that policy impacts are not contained within national boundaries. Economic, environmental, technological, and health concerns have to be addressed both at local and national venues as well as at the regional and global levels.

Of concern, however, was the consistent skepticism that the current political system can effectively meet these challenges. Student conversations mirrored research that suggests that younger Americans do not feel the political process reflects their concerns or represents their interests and perspectives. While many of our interlocutors noted that they vote, they do not see politics as responsive to newer, changing perspectives and conditions; and that when it comes to policy, older views continue to shape—and constrain—the available options.

This suggests that as the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War periods increasingly become “past history” to a growing number of Americans—with no living memory of these events—approaches to U.S. engagement in global affairs that were formed during those time periods will have less resonance and relevance to younger generations.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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