Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Millenial's Perspective On International Politics

. Thursday, September 2, 2010

Drezner asks what today's twenty-somethings think about international politics:

As I think about it, here are the Millennials' foundational foreign policy experiences:

1) An early childhood of peace and prosperity -- a.k.a., the Nineties;

2) The September 11th attacks;

3) Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;

4) One Financial Panic/Great Recession;

5) The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.

I still belong to this group of people, albeit near the upper-bound, so I guess it's my blog-duty to share some thoughts. First of all, here's how I'd describe my foundational foreign policy experiences:

1) An early childhood of the end of the Cold War. Unlike my students, I can remember when the Berlin Wall still stood, when Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and when Bush 41 repelled Iraq from Kuwait. Even earlier, I remember Reagan's Star Wars being discussed on the nightly news. I wouldn't say that I was very politically aware at the time, but there was a palpable sense of Beacon of Light vs. Evil Empire in my youth.

2) To me, the Nineties were less about peace and prosperity and more about a serious of political, economic, and military interventions all over the world. First the political-economic reorganization of post-communist regimes, in which the U.S. played a fairly large role. Then the military interventions in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Add to that diplomatic actions in Iraq, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. Plus the expansion of trade through the shift from GATT to the WTO and the passage of NAFTA. Not all of these were profoundly successful, but none of them were devastating failures, at least for the U.S. The pattern seems to be that the U.S. should maintain a host of relationships along many dimensions in the world.

3) The venomous domestic political discourse, peaking with the 2000 recount.

4) 9/11. To me, this had a couple of effects. It was a jarring experience of course, but for some reason not especially surprising to me. The way the political lines were drawn did surprise me some. In the '90s the goal of foreign policy was to promote a secure, prosperous world through multilateral engagement. In a flash that gave way to a "let's unilaterally punish the evildoers" mentality. Multilateralism was fine... as long as that was defined as "other countries helping us do whatever we want". The "with us or against", "Axis of evil", "freedom fries" rhetoric was a marked departure from the '90s.

5) A series of financial shocks, culminating with the Great Recession but presaged by the LTCM, the Asian crisis, Enron/Worldcom, etc. These revealed that the Great Moderation was something of a myth, but also demonstrated a pretty amazing resilience of political institutions in the face of crisis. No trade wars, few "beggar thy neighbor" policies, no break-up of the EU, no military conflicts, etc. Domestic and coordinated international government interventions have been pretty successful in stopping the downturn and beginning the recovery. There are still worries of course, but compare the response to this shock -- which, in many ways was worse than the Great Depression -- to the responses to previous crises. We seem to have prevented a political crisis even though we had an economic crisis, which certainly bucks the historical trend.

Is it surprising what is not on this list? No BRICs, and little war. Why? Because the rise of the BRICs hasn't fundamentally changed much about American foreign policy. This could change in the future, but so far there have not been many instances in which China has appeared willing to directly challenge the U.S. in a major way. Yes, the Copenhagen climate change conference was held up by China, but it was very unlikely that any meaningful agreement would have come from that anyway. Even less likely that it would have been approved by the Senate. China gets scapegoated for almost everything bad that happens in the U.S., but that doesn't mean it has yet handcuffed the U.S. in any significant way.

Similarly, while the Afghan/Iraq wars have been unsuccessful by almost any reasonable definition, they have not been as draining as, say, the Vietnam war was. My generation never faced even the hint of a draft, and relatively few of our friends, classmates, and family members actually saw any combat. War is much more abstract concept to us than it was to our parents' and grandparents' generations.

I don't think my generation is isolationist. I do think it wants to see a more careful discussion of costs and benefits when considering international engagement, military or otherwise. I should probably only speak for myself, but I do not see isolationism as an option. One of the lessons from the '90s is that neglect of troubled regions is not likely to be benign. Meanwhile, the biggest perceived challenges of the near future -- environmental pressures, demographic shifts/immigration, financial and economic integration -- all require engagement. I don't think my generation is gung-ho about starting a war with Iran, say, but that's a far cry from being isolationist.

I should also note that my generation doesn't have many ideological alternatives to a broadly liberal political orientation. We all view Marxism as pretty thoroughly discredited in all the forms it has actually manifest itself. We view technocratic institutions as having a generally positive effect. We generally believe that dynamic labor and capital markets are good so long as there is a fairly robust safety net. We understand that trade is on net a good thing in most circumstances, but we don't have a utopian attitude towards cross-national exchange, often think that the first world can do more to support poorer countries, and are willing to pay some premium to make that happen. We generally view the economic crisis as something less than a transformative event, requiring marginal but not radical reforms.

Again, I'll reiterate that these are my thoughts. I'm really not sure if there is such a thing as a coherent generational attitude towards these questions. But there are some signs. Obama was hugely popular among my generation, and he campaigned on anything but an isolationist platform. (Counterpoint: Ron Paul also garnered large support on college campuses by pushing a more isolationist line, but Paul's numbers were obviously much smaller.) My generation seems to be fairly cosmopolitan in general. They travel, learn languages, watch foreign films, and love ethnic foods. Attitudes towards immigrants seem to be laxer among the youth than the elderly. They are concerned with how first world externalities affect others.

Obviously these are generalizations, and therefore imperfect. They are also subjective impressions, which are always dangerous. But I don't think it's fair to categorize today's twenty-somethings as isolationist.


A Millenial's Perspective On International Politics
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