More broadly, for millennials, the meaning and impact of 9/11 appears to have become entangled with the U.S. response to it. A majority of millennials, like other generations, view the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a mistake, but millennials are also three times more likely to believe that Obama’s foreign policy is too aggressive and the least likely to believe that using military force is the best way to solve problems.
This is why polls show that millennials are the only generation in which a majority believes that the United States probably did something to provoke 9/11. Millennials don’t view 9/11 as evidence that the world is a dangerous place as much as they see it as evidence that aggressive U.S. military action is counterproductive.
As a result of this discomfort with the war on terror, many millennials have internalized 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 too little gain. But millennials experienced 9/11 and the U.S. response during their “critical period,” when sociologists argue that people form their lifelong attitudes and worldview. So, while the effects of the war will be temporary for older Americans, the Iraq Aversion is likely to be permanent for millennials.
What will millennial foreign policy attitudes mean for 2016 and beyond? Some have worried that the millennials’ preference for military restraint signals a shift toward isolationism, but we believe that instead millennials are adopting their own approach to engaging the world.
Polls consistently show that millennials are the generation most supportive of cooperating on global issues, including working with the United Nations, collaborating on international treaties to deal with issues like climate change, and accommodating the views of allies in the pursuit of U.S. interests.
China serves as a prime example of the millennial view. Millennials are the only generation in which a majority sees China more as a partner than a rival and is far more supportive of cooperation with that nation than confrontation. So in contrast to charges of isolationism, millennials favor cooperative rather than military engagement around the world.
It’s important to note, however, that the millennial generation is not monolithic. Despite their tendency to gravitate toward cooperation and to reject the use of force, millennials remain politically polarized in many of the same ways as their parents, which inhibits agreement on many foreign policy priorities.
Longer term, American millennials will have to find ways to engage constructively with other millennials in the Middle East and around the world, as the latter are becoming increasingly influential in their countries. For global millennials, like those at home, the United States’s war on terror, including military operations in five Middle East nations over the past 15 years, has left an indelible mark on attitudes toward war and foreign affairs.
Given the levels of anti‐American sentiment generated by U.S. efforts since 9/11 and the turbulence of the Middle East, the millennials are likely to be dealing with the aftermath for a lifetime. How millennials eventually meet that challenge will be a defining element of future U.S. foreign policy.