The Doorstep: Generational Change in Government, with YPFP's Aubrey Cox Ottenstein

February 26, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello everyone and welcome to this issue of The Doorstep podcast. I'm your co-host, a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you, Nick, and good morning. I'm Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow at Carnegie Council, and co-host of The Doorstep. We are excited to welcome Aubrey Cox Ottenstein today to look at how Gen Z might be shaping foreign policy, a passionate issue of mine.

Aubrey joins us from the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), where she is the executive director. Prior to joining YPFP in September of 2019 she served as the lead for youth programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). In this role Aubrey elevated the role of youth in peace building and increased the inclusion of young people in peace and security processes. Aubrey has spent most of her career working on issues of inclusion, peace, and security. Prior to joining USIP Aubrey worked in a double bottom line impact investment fund focused on financial inclusion at Accion International.

I actually wrote about Accion in Forbes, and I am so excited to welcome you today for all of your experience and all of your research. What we want to hear from you is about how Gen Z and Millennials are being integrated in foreign policy today and importantly how this is impacting how we view our day-to-day lives. I think that is really important here at The Doorstep, how we make international and foreign policy real to the American public. Today we would love to speak with you about that with respect to Millennials and Gen Z.

I would like to start out by asking you: What do Millennials and Gen Z think of the new world order? We have an op-ed that came out in USA Today this morning that talked about how Biden needs to focus on making foreign policy and domestic policy integrated. I love the Twitter feed: "If you have ever wondered what foreign policy has to do with your life, this one's for you."

What does foreign policy have to do with Gen Z and Millennials? How do they view it? What is your point of view as the executive director of YPFP? What do you see? What do you hear?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: What I see and what I hear is that young people and this next generation of Americans has never been so interconnected. Young people have never known a world where they can't open their phone and with a few clicks, taps, or scrolls they can access somebody in any country anywhere. I think that leads to this feeling of global connection and relying on each other as global citizens.

This experience leads to a feeling of interconnection and reliance on each other to solve some of the world's most critical issues, whether it's COVID-19, climate change, or economic recovery. I think young people see these things as global issues that one administration and one nation will be unable to address thoroughly.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We look at the global world order, and it used to be that America was the giant, America was the leader. Do you get the sense that this generation continues to see the global world order that way? One of the interesting things about that piece was that it said it's not about war anymore.

Does this generation even talk about war? Do they even care about the fact that we're still in Afghanistan? What is the sense of their idea of what America should be in the world?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: That's a great question. I would be interested to see and learn how it changes in the next four years. I think the last four years really shifted the way that Americans and the international community understand America's role.

I will say that demographically speaking there is going to be a huge shift. In many countries 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and those countries are not the United States or our Western allies. Those are countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia. As this young generation comes to age, the vast majority of the world's population is not going to be in countries that have traditionally held these leadership roles.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting that you say that because one of the focuses I think of the G7 meeting last week was the G7, which is very Western-oriented, wouldn't you say, Nick? It was so heavily focused on talking about the leadership of those countries, totally missing out on the countries that you are mentioning. Do you see any particular countries from sub-Saharan Africa or Asia rising, aside from China?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: Yes. I think Nigeria in Western Africa and Kenya will be leaders in sub-Saharan Africa. I think India will be a huge player in the next generation of leaders, and the same with Brazil in Latin America. These demographic shifts are huge, and the response to the international community will have to be to reshape what it means to be representative and inclusive, and who are the priority partners that Western leaders or the U.S. president need to be engaging with for issues of national security?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think those are some interesting points you have raised there, and certainly the countries you identified in Africa tie in with some of the comments that on a previous Doorstep Ambassador Charles Ray was alerting us to.

I wanted to pick up on something you mentioned just as a point of departure, that in some of these countries 70 percent of the population will be under 30. This year is the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so increasingly we are dealing with people for whom the Soviet Union and the Cold War are ancient history. It's not even in the course of their lifetime. Yet we certainly have a president who entered the Senate in 1973.

An interesting piece that Peter Beinart did a few weeks ago essentially says that the people that the Biden-Harris team generally has around them are people whose experience is shaped by these events of 30 years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, American unipolarism, and America at the center, but also still defined by dealing with the end of the Cold War and America's emergence.

How is that shaping with the people in Young Professionals in Foreign Policy when they are interacting with the older generations, as it were? Are they trying to steer them? Is the older generation saying, "These are the things that matter, and so this is what has to matter to you," or are you seeing the first steps toward, as you said, reconceptualizing America's role in the world, reconceptualizing who America's partners will be, and even reconceptualizing the tools that we use—nuclear throw-weights may be less important in the mid-21st century than breaking through new green energy technologies? Are you seeing a sense that there is going to be evolution in policy and in the generations, or do you see it more that the Cold War generation is not changing fast enough to deal with these new realities?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: I think there is a lot of hope coming out of the Biden administration about his priorities, including climate, that are really aligned with the fears and the focus of the next generation. The fear that Biden's generation was raised with about communism and the Cold War, like you said, that's ancient history. A fear of communism is not even in the back of young people's minds versus capitalism and the economy.

What young people I think are really concerned about are climate change and the crises that come with that and jobs, and that is across the globe. What we are seeing is that young people, because of the access that they have through media and technology, are able to use their voices and advocate for what is important to them. So you see people like Greta Thunberg or Malala or Shamma Al Mazrui, who is the youth minister from the United Arab Emirates at the age of 23. There are these loud, strong voices on critical issues.

But what you don't see are the hundreds of thousands of other young people who are also critically engaged and working to address these global challenges. I hope and I believe, judging by the Obama-Biden administration, that young people and engaging youth globally will be a huge priority for this administration. The Obama administration invested in young people in an unprecedented way through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program, through the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) program, and even at home in the United States. So I think young people and youth will be a priority issue to the Biden administration once damage control is done and the dust begins to settle.

TATIANA SERAFIN: To that point, we have seen a lot of movement on gender in some of the Biden-Harris administration's appointees. Do you see that same movement in terms of youth, aside from Pete Buttigieg?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: That's a great question. I will say that the Biden administration has made remarkable advances in inclusion in government. Government has never looked the way it does with people from different backgrounds, genders, and identities holding the highest seats, so it is a huge advancement.

That said, I think it is really tough for young people to have agency in government. That is because credibility and access often come with years of networking, education, and experience. Unless you are Greta Thunberg or somebody who is really in the limelight you are not going to have access to the table.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Your point about education is so interesting. One of the things I have been looking at is the decline in students studying international relations and foreign affairs. What do you see in your role in Young Professions in Foreign Policy? Are you seeing the same decline? How do we support that? How do we get youth more engaged in policy so that they know that they have to network, get access, and do all these things?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: That's a great question, and I really do believe that the last four years has had an important impact and has made a change in the way young people see the role of government and their role in government. I think that a lot of the divisions that we are experiencing in the United States has pushed people away from wanting to be in public service, and fewer students are registering for programs like the School of International Service or the Foreign Service, which is a real shame.

I think it is our goal in YPFP—but also it should be the goal across government and across the international community—to bring as many young people back in and to make careers in public policy or government or international organizations accessible and interesting to them, and by interesting I mean that they know what it means to be a public servant and they know what a nine-to-five would look at the State Department or at the Department of Defense. I think right now there is a shift where young people are more focused on joining the private sector and less interested in joining what seems to be a divisive and often unpleasant arena.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Despite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: She is one of those young people who has the voice. She is one of the youngest congresspersons we have ever had, and she is everywhere. Whether you agree with her messages or not, that is an incredible role model for young people to see that they can run for office, they can make change, and advocate for what is important to them.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of making change, you mentioned climate as one of the important issues. I do a news brief with my students every week, and I am so interested to hear what they read. They brought to me a story that I had not heard, about the oil spill in the Mediterranean that is impacting 95 percent of Israel's coastline. It was so fascinating to me, hearing what you were saying about climate, that their main key story of the week was the oil spill off Israel, which had gone completely under my radar.

In addition to climate change what other issues should we be looking at that this generation is looking at that maybe policymakers are not because of their war-and-nukes talk. I don't mean to denigrate the war and nukes; I mean that we need to elevate other issues. What might there be in addition to climate?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: In addition to the trifecta that we talked about earlier—COVID-19, the climate, and economic recovery—I think young people are really passionate about social justice in the United States specifically. For example, my staff was adamant about YPFP immediately putting out a public statement condemning police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. Young people are vocal, engaged, and they are not afraid to call people out.

So my hope is that this younger generation will take their energy and passion about things like climate change and social justice and join government and join public policy careers so that they can put their passion to work. That is one thing we are working towards, helping young people find careers and develop communities in the field of foreign policy and government.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that's an important bridging point that you have made there. We had an earlier Doorstep this year talking about protest movements and about the energy of protest movements, the problem being that protest movements and activist movements can harness energy, and then it dissipates. You have a lot of energy, a lot of flash, and then someone actually has to do the hard work of translating that energy into policies. Policies are not going to be attractive. Working on policy is not glamorous. Working on policy involves compromises to get things forward, and then people walk away from that process.

You have already alluded to the concern that young people who are interested in international affairs are gravitating towards the private sector rather than the public sector, and for good reason, as you point out. Watching public servants having to testify before Congress, particularly in this last administration, and then the associated legal fees that can generate—no one wants to take a job on the National Security Council staff for policy planning and then have in the back of their minds that they need to be able to come up with $50,000 or $100,000 for legal fees. But again, the sense of bridging, that there are these interests in equity, in climate, and in moving things forward.

I guess I come back—this is where I am more of a pessimist to Tatiana's optimist—to the sense of people being captured by institutions that "I want to go in and make change," and then they come in and you get a whole set of priorities, and suddenly it becomes, as you put it, Tatiana, instead of climate and pandemics it becomes "war and nukes."

We are already I think seeing some of this back-and-forth in Biden's China team between climate change and transnational global issues versus those people who want to make this about great-power competition, and "Let's go back and relive the experiences of the Cold War." Do you think that we can have this fundamental transformation, or are people going to look back at this period as a flash in the pan—there was discontent, and then we all went back to the old way of doing things?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: We are seeing women and younger people run for elected office in ways that we have never experienced—as you mentioned, AOC and Pete Buttigieg – and people are winning. I think that is really promising, that people can be elected despite having fewer years' experience or a history of other elected offices but by the inspiration that they create and the movement that they build around key issues.

I hope that young people continue to run for office and that young people continue to join government because I do think that with youth comes a certain amount of idealism and the belief that you can really create change. I hope that while these people are transitioning into government they bring that and they learn from peers and colleagues who have been in those seats longer about how you get from the ideas to the action and how do you get from your protest to the policy? So it will take an intergenerational collaboration and relationship-building, but I do think there is hope that young people are engaged. Despite the current situation in the United States pushing people toward the private sector, there are still a number of young people who are invested in the United States government and our role in the world.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of role in the world, we have spoken on several Doorsteps about this idea that the United States used to be this beacon of democracy and that we have sort of lost that beacon. What is your sense of this generation? Do they have the same vision of "Democracy with a capital D" that my older, post-Cold War generation has, or is it a more of an expansive view of what this idea of democracy is?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: I would guess that it is very different than what democracy meant in the post-Cold War era. This generation has not really experienced the United States going abroad to help build democracy in the same way that older generations have and being the steward of democracy for the world. I think that this generation is more focused on individual freedoms as those relate to democracy, like free and fair elections.

After this last election, young people have really experienced what it means to have a vulnerable election process, and to watch the election be targeted for false information and being undermined by doubt of the validity of the outcomes, so I think for the first time this generation is seeing what it means to have a fragile democracy. I don't think Americans as a whole ever expected that to happen to us as the world's shining light of democracy. But it is a different understanding because now for this generation it's personal, whereas I think with the last generation it was the United States helping other countries become more democratic and strengthening democracies abroad.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In a sense that seems more as if we are going to become more internal-looking than external-looking, and yet we have this idea that you mentioned at the top of our talk of interconnectedness. How do those balance out, this idea of, Oh, no, we have to focus more on home because we're screwed up, but I'm watching a show filmed in France that uses 10 languages? As we saw in that article we are watching more foreign content than ever, so we are more interconnected than ever.

Those two do not seem to balance. They seem to maybe be divisive. I don't know. What are your thoughts?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: While this generation is more connected than ever and somebody can open their phone and with one click access someone in France or in Iraq, they can also do that and access somebody down the street. I think this hyperconnectivity is the reason that we are seeing more social movement and engagement around key issues like social justice. That connectivity and coalition- building using technology, paired with this generation's willingness to call people out and say that the status quo is not enough is showing a new kind of political engagement on domestic issues and international issues that we have not really seen.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's talk about technology. It's great and it's awful. Facebook in Australia, that's all I have to say.

Facebook is acting like a government. I know my students don't care that they have given away their privacy. They're like: "Yeah, whatever. My life is out there."

Should we be worried that the younger generation isn't being more thoughtful about the power of technology, the fact that Facebook is making political decisions? In Myanmar they shut out the military because, "Oh, no, it's against democracy." Why does Facebook get to decide who is speaking and who isn't speaking, and/or for that matter, Twitter? Is that a concern? What are you hearing from your constituency?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: That's a great question. It is mind-blowing that these digital natives, myself included, will scroll through legal documents that are probably 10 to 15 pages in 30 seconds and then click "I accept." That is the younger generation, but it is also now commonplace. Everyone does it, and you don't know what you're signing onto, and you don't know necessarily the dangers or the implications associated with those decisions.

I think that technology—Facebook, Twitter—and engaging politically is a slippery slope. I wish that these companies would figure out how to position their corporate social responsibility in a way that minimizes divisiveness, division, and violence before governments have to step in and bring them to testify in front of Congress.

But in reality these are companies, and often the most divisive content is what is viral. I think it's a challenge that is going to face this next generation in a way that we still have no idea. We have seen the tip of the iceberg, and it is only going to get more complicated and complex.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do have a problem with the tech companies in terms of all of their algorithms and curation: Who gets to decide what you see? So again, there is that push-pull of we're interconnected yet we are only seeing the same things that our bubble has told us to see. What do you think of that? How can we work to go beyond that? Again: "I saw a headline. Now let me have an action and connect it to policy." What are some things that you think we could encourage the next generation to do more of in terms of more thoughtful engagement with platforms and with news and policy?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: Those bubbles are so real. Coming from Norman, Oklahoma, which is a very different place than Washington, DC, where I live, I never felt it so distinctly than recently, like this last election. It really stood out. The news that my dad sees or that my community at home sees is completely different than the news I see, and we are both accepting these platforms as the news despite the fact that they are polar opposites, often showing totally different stories.

What I hope for this next generation is that we can educate users on responsible consumption. By that I mean fact-checking, reading multiple outlets, and knowing the difference between opinion and news.

My dad and I will watch shows that we call "the news" that are actually 100 percent opinion. I think being able to look at what you're consuming and analyze it using critical thinking is a skill that this next generation is going to need more than ever. We all need it, but it is something that should be included in the curriculum.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I'm working on that.

I want to thank you so much for your time today. Nick, do you have any follow-up questions?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Perhaps at the end, just for listeners who may be interested, if you could give us a brief description of YPFP and how people can join. I understand you have chapters in a variety of places, so maybe you can tell us where listeners of the Doorstep, particularly those from our growing number of listeners and people in universities that are using our podcast as part of course material, if they are interested in finding out more, where should we send them?

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: Great question. YPFP is a membership organization that aims to elevate young people who are building careers in foreign policy or in international affairs. We are headquartered in Washington, DC. We have global programs, especially now during COVID-19, so all of our programming currently is virtual and accessible to anyone anywhere. We do have branches in London, Brussels, San Francisco, and Toronto. When we resume in-person activities, people listening in those cities can check out our branches there and the work that they are doing.

We work to elevate young people in foreign policy through trainings, through opportunities to write for publication, and through curated events where we feature young people and their expertise. We recently hosted the G7 Youth Summit, which is called the Y7, and that connected young leaders with people from the White House, G7 country ambassadors, and sherpas. We are doing a lot of that bridge-building and simultaneously working to help our members build a network in the field of foreign policy, because as we know a lot of times finding gigs and learning about careers it is often who you know.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today, Aubrey. This was really fun.

Thank you, Nick.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Until next time.

AUBREY COX OTTENSTEIN: Thank you all for having me.

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