American Millennials and the World

By A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

The 9/11 attacks have been the defining event of the American millennial generation. The article discusses how American millennials, the largest generation of Americans as of today, can influence not only the 2016 US elections, but also the worldly affairs.

The Millennial Generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 1997) is now the largest generation of Americans. More than 75 million strong, Millennials are poised to have a big impact not only on the 2016 elections but also on the future of American leadership in the world. The oldest Millennials, now turning 36, have begun to occupy important leadership positions in the public and private sectors.

Coming of age around the time of the 9/11 attacks, American Millennials have watched the United States engage a tumultuous and violent international arena, often with the use of military force. They have seen their presidents pursue an expansive war on terror, witnessed the Middle East descend into chaos and civil war, and followed the news as Russia and China have flexed their muscles in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

These events have made deep impressions on American Millennials, influencing their attitudes on a host of important issues concerning international affairs. At the same time, of course, young people in other regions of the world have also been shaped by the events of the past fifteen years. How American Millennials decide to engage with their generational counterparts around the world – especially those in the Middle East – will shape international relations for decades to come.


The Millennial Shift in American Foreign Policy Attitudes

In our recent study, published by the Cato Institute and based on an analysis of a wide range of polling data, we found that Millennials share a distinct set of foreign policy attitudes compared to older Americans. Surprisingly, despite the fact that 9/11 is the defining event of their generation Millennials see the world as a less dangerous place than their elders. Polls reveal that they view even the specific issues of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism as less critical threats when compared to other generations. Millennials are also far more averse to the use of military force, more sanguine about the rise of China and waning American hegemony, and more supportive of international collaboration and diplomacy.

To understand why Millennials are different we need to look at the state of the world during their “critical period”, the time from about age 14 to 24 when sociologists argue that people form their lifelong attitudes and worldviews. Unlike their parents and grandparents, Millennials grew up after the Cold War, without the spectre of nuclear holocaust fuelled by a decades-long superpower confrontation. As a result, Millennials view terrorism as a threat, but it does not ignite the same existential fears for younger Americans that the Cold War did for older generations. Thus 9/11 did not spur Millennials to adopt hawkish views about dealing with terrorism that many of their elders have.

Millennials are also twice as likely as the oldest Americans to view diplomacy, rather than military strength, as the best way to ensure peace.

Many people find this millennial attitude shift hard to believe, especially since 9/11 spawned such an intense response from the United States. It is important to remember, however, that many Millennials were simply too young either to remember the events of 9/11 or to process them from an adult perspective. The 9/11 attacks did not have the direct emotional impact on those Millennials that they did for many older Americans. More broadly, the meaning of 9/11 appears to have become entangled with Millennials’ negative views toward the US response to 9/11. A majority of Millennials, like other generations, views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a mistake. But, Millennials are also three times more likely to believe that President Obama’s foreign policy is still too aggressive, and they are the least likely to believe that military force is the best way to solve problems. Polls also show that Millennials are the only generation in which a majority believes that the United States did something to provoke 9/11. Thus, although Millennials certainly view September 11th as evidence that the world can be a dangerous place, they also see it as evidence that aggressive US military action is counterproductive.

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As a result of this discomfort with the war on terror, many Millennials have internalised what we call an “Iraq Aversion” – a significant reluctance to support the use of military force abroad. Others have argued that Americans of all ages have become more cautious in the wake of too many casualties and exorbitant costs for little gain. But the majority of Millennials have experienced the US war on terror during their most impressionable years. Though the attitudinal effects of the war will be temporary for older Americans, the Iraq Aversion is likely to be permanent – in some form – for Millennials.

Some have worried that Millennials’ reluctance to support the use of force foreshadows a retreat into isolationism. On the contrary, however, polls consistently show that Millennials are the generation most inclined toward global cooperation. They are more likely to support a wide range of international treaties, to favour working with the United Nations, and to accommodate the views of allies in the pursuit of US interests. Millennials are also twice as likely as the oldest Americans to view diplomacy, rather than military strength, as the best way to ensure peace.


How Much Do Millennial Attitudes Matter?

It is clear that American Millennials’ preferences for engaging the world look very different from the preferences of the people who run American foreign policy today. Nowhere is this more obvious than in respect to the Middle East and the war on terrorism. But in order for those preferences to translate into new policies, American Millennials must confront the legacies of 9/11 and the war on terror both at home and abroad.


 American Views of the Middle East1

What is your overall opinion of [country]? Is it very favourable, mostly favourable, mostly unfavourable, or very unfavourable?


As the figure above indicates, American Millennial foreign policy leaders will have to grapple with a public that takes a dim view of the Middle East. The attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror, along with the emergence of the Islamic State, have prompted widespread distrust of nations in the region and kept fears of terrorism circulating. These sentiments offered fertile ground for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to create a database to keep track of Muslims in the United States. Trump’s success in the primaries (and the tight race in the general election) illustrates just how challenging it will be for Millennials to change course on foreign policy on the home front.

The most important thing Millennials can do is to learn about each other. Ignorance is a terrible launch point for making foreign policy.

American Millennials will also have to confront their Arab Millennial counterparts. And if you think Millennials are a big deal in the United States, they have nothing on Arab Millennials, who comprise a majority of the population in several nations and account for about 40% of the Arab population overall. Arab Millennials are also more politically engaged than their American counterparts; young people were a large motivating element of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and many are fighting in the civil wars taking place throughout the region.

Make no mistake: the United States’ war on terror has left an indelible mark on the attitudes of Millennials in the Middle East. In the past fifteen years the United States has invaded two countries, toppled three regimes, and conducted military strikes in seven nations – all of which were Muslim-majority states. As the figure below shows, the response to American foreign policy since 9/11 in Arab and Muslim-majority nations has been extremely negative. Moreover, the American war on terror has also taken place during the Arab Millennials’ critical period, making it likely that any negative attitudes will persist for many years to come, playing a huge role in shaping the policies of Arab nations towards the United States.


How can Millennials Make a Difference?

Not too long from now Millennials will get their chance to run the world. The question is whether they will do any better than their parents have done so far. In light of the challenges facing the world it is imperative for Millennials to find pathways to constructive political action. Though there are no easy solutions, there are several ways Millennials can help promote international understanding and cooperation.

The most important thing Millennials can do is to learn about each other. Ignorance is a terrible launch point for making foreign policy. On this score, American Millennials have a long way to go. In 2012, a Pew survey found that only 50% of Americans could identify Syria when it was highlighted on a map of the Middle East, and just 42% could identify the crescent and star as the symbol of Islam. A good place to begin, at least for Americans, would be to start following world news more closely.

Beyond this, Millennials need to develop an appreciation of the experiences that have been shaping their counterparts’ attitudes. Even if American Millennials feel traumatised by the past fifteen years and distrustful of the Middle East, they need to understand just how horrific the violence and trauma have been for Middle Eastern Millennials, and the linkage many of them have made between the violence and the United States. Many Arab Millennials believe that the United States is bent on dominating the Middle East for its own benefit rather than acting out of self-defense.

It is clear that how Millennials around the world engage with each other will help determine the course of international affairs.

To move past simple nationalist narratives and negative attitudes Millennials should take advantage of their status as the first truly global generation. Thanks to the Internet and especially social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, young people can connect more easily than ever with their counterparts in other countries. But whether through travel, studying abroad, language education, or surfing the web, strengthening cross-cultural appreciation and understanding will be critical to help the next generation of leaders avoid the biases and stereotypes that often drive today’s political debates.

Another imperative for Millennials is to stake their claim in the political process. Historically, young people tend to be far less likely than their elders to vote or to engage in the political domain. For many young people, politics is something old people do in far away places, with little obvious impact on their lives. The reality, however, is that thanks to their numbers Millennials already hold the power to initiate social and political change. In 2008 American Millennials showed this when they turned out in record numbers to vote for Barack Obama.

Making predictions, especially about the future, is hazardous. We can, however, safely predict that the worldviews of future leaders will have been deeply impacted by 9/11, the war on terror, and the events in the Middle East since the turn of the century. Further, it is clear that how Millennials around the world engage with each other will help determine the course of international affairs. The question on both fronts is: How? Will the world follow what appears to be the emerging American Millennial model, with greater emphasis on diplomacy and less military intervention? Or will Millennials allow enmities and resentments from years of American intervention, terrorism, and conflict prevent them from finding common ground? Only time will tell.


About the Authors

A. Trevor Thrall is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His research explores the intersections of international security, political communication, and public opinion. Thrall holds a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Erik Goepner is a PhD student in public policy at George Mason University. His research interests include terrorism, trauma, and civil war. His work has appeared in U.S News & World ReportNewsweek, and Parameters. Erik is a retired colonel from the US Air Force, with service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

1. Gallup Poll, February 3-7, 2016. Accessed September 13, 2016 at
2. A: Global Indicators Database, Pew Research Center
B: 2011 Arab Barometer accessed September 13, 2016 at page 54
C: Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014.
D: 2016 CIA World Factbook accessed September 13, 2016 at

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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