This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.
In discussing the issue of American engagement in the world, one cannot escape the question of the generational divide. As Millennials and "Generation Z" begin to enter the ranks of both American politics as well as the expert community, will they share the same assumptions about the role of the United States in international affairs and the same understandings of what constitutes the national interest? In the immediate aftermath of the midterm elections, which saw a record number of newcomers enter the Congress, I speculated on how the generational divide might open up when it comes to matters of defining national security and setting priorities.
Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann, in looking at the trendlines of American politics, believe that we may be on the cusp of a major discontinuity. Writing in The Atlantic, they note:
We do believe that a generational division is growing in American politics that could prove more important than the cleavages of race and class, which are the more traditional focuses of political analysis.
Ferguson and Freymann focus on domestic issues, and in so doing, make a startling prediction:
By the mid-2020s, if a preponderance of young voters support an issue, the Democratic Party will probably have no choice but to make it central to the platform. Today, 43 percent of self-identified Democrats are either Gen Zers or Millennials. By 2024, by our calculations, this figure might rise to 50 percent. If the Democrats are not already the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they will be soon.
Will this carry over into foreign policy?
One prediction is that it will not: that younger members of Congress are inculcated in the "church of Atlanticism" and accept the basic premises of the "bipartisan consensus," which calls for a leading role for the United States in maintaining the liberal world order, including the need to maintain alliances and extend free trade pacts to build up zones of peace and prosperity. On the other hand, the next generation may be more willing to shift the focus away from the traditional emphasis on Europe toward the Western Hemisphere and the Asia-Pacific basin; may be less sanguine about the efficacy of American power to effect change; and may be more inclined to support retrenchment.
Right now, the jury is out. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, does not maintain a dedicated "foreign policy" section among her critical issues (Congress, economy, energy, education, health, veterans, Green New Deal) on her congressional homepage, although foreign policy enters into those questions via the backdoor. There is a renewed rhetorical focus on the importance of democracy in the world and support for democracy, but with less specific details as to what the United States should be doing.
Would a way forward for the next generation be to rally around an international Green alliance—pooling together the efforts of like-minded countries to move to new forms of energy and to reinforce human rights, while trying to isolate authoritarian states and traditional energy producers? To what extent will American power be harnessed to push for human rights in other countries—or will the next generation be more prepared to accept the arguments of civilizational diversity? Finally, what will be the role of the U.S. military? One interesting development that has been noted is the number of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans now in the Congress. How will those experiences shape policy?
It's too early to say with any certainty, but it does appear that the emergence in policy-making circles of people with no memories at all of the Cold War and whose rise into political maturity was framed in a post-9/11, Iraqi and Afghan context, may begin to take U.S. policy in a different direction.