Chicago Council and CKF Study: Millennials Less Likely to Embrace Military Intervention than Predecessors

 American foreign and defense policy could soon be headed in a different direction, if the Millennial Generation has anything to do with it.

According to a new report by the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), members of the Millennial Generation, who were born between 1981 and 1996, are much less alarmed by the perceived threats facing the United States and, therefore, are much less likely than previous generations to embrace military intervention and massive defense buildups.

The study, which was compiled using survey data compiled by the CCGA since 1974, was released today and was co-authored by CKF Vice President for Research and Policy Will Ruger.

Six generations currently make up the U.S. population: the Greatest (or GI) Generation, born before 1928; the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945; the Baby Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980; the Millennial Generation; and Generation Z, born in 1987 or later. The report focuses on the opinions of the four middle generations.

Each generation since the Silent Generation has expressed less support than its predecessors for taking an active part in world affairs, as measured by the CCGA’s survey question, “Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?” In the CCGA’s most recent survey, 78 percent of the Silent Generation said it would be best for the United States to take an active role around the globe compared to 72 percent of Baby Boomers, 62 percent of Generation X, and just 51 percent of respondents from the Millennial Generation.

In particular, the Millennial Generation is highly skeptical of military activism. Only 44 percent of millennials think it’s important that the United States maintain its role as the world’s superior military power. That compares to 70 percent of the Silent Generation; 64 percent of Baby Boomers; and 54 percent of respondents from Generation X. Additionally, only one-quarter of millennials want to increase U.S. defense spending. Almost half of the Silent Generation thinks the United States should increase military spending.

While millennials don’t place a premium on military power, they also don’t necessarily want the United States to disengage from the world. For example, Millennial Generation voters are just as likely as their predecessors to support international cooperation and free trade. Specifically:

  • All Four Generations Believe Free Trade Helps Them. When asked if international trade helps consumers like them, 82 percent of the Silent Generation said it does. Eighty percent of millennials and 78 percent of both Generation X and of the Baby Boomer Generation agreed.
  • The Millennial Generation Favors Free Trade Agreements. Millennials are more likely than their predecessors to support free trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • Millennials, Silent Generation in Sync Regarding Diplomatic Agreements. When asked if they support multilateral agreements to address certain policy matters, the numbers were nearly identical for members of the Silent Generation and members of the Millennial Generation.

A final reckoning about the patterns of generational similarities and differences, and whether they will persist, must wait for additional research. With this report, however, it is fair to conclude that younger Americans’ attitudes and preferences differ from those of older Americans and that these gaps could have important ramifications for U.S. foreign policy for years to come. For example, as CKF’s Ruger said at an event on June 25 at the Cato Institute, “[W]e could see a much more mixed foreign policy elite in the years to come.”

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