Kirkland: What would millennials fight for?


William Kirkland, Columnist

Whether sitting in the back of Harris 107 listening to political science professor Jonathan Caverley talk about the state of the U.S. Armed Forces or scanning CNN headlines, we’re constantly reminded of the country’s status as a superpower. In 2011, 20 percent of the U.S. federal budget went toward defense and security spending, totaling $718 billion; dwarfing the defense budgets of all the potential challengers to the United States. That year the United States spent more on defense than the next 13 highest-spending countries combined.

With all of this power comes the inevitable question of what to do with it. Since the end of the Cold War, when the United States became the world’s lone superpower, four American presidents have grappled with this huge question, each choosing a slightly different foreign policy path. Both Bush presidents used American firepower to wage war against Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime, while former President Bill Clinton used it to intervene in humanitarian crises in places like the Balkans and Somalia. But in his first five years in office, President BarackObama seems to be charting a somewhat different course.

A recent article in The Economist posed the question “What would America fight for?” making the case that under Obama, the United States has inched back from its highly involved role as the global policeman just when that role is most needed. The article points to recent events in Ukraine, the South China Sea, Syria and Libya as instances of American reluctance to overcommit, with the result of emboldened autocrats like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad carrying out their personal agendas unchecked by American power.

The article got me thinking about our own generation and the kind of foreign policy that most resonates with us. By and large, I think that Obama’s response to that question actually mirrors the response that we might give to the question “what would millennials fight for?” So I decided to come up with a biased, completely generalized and unscientific list of things that I think we millennials care about most when it comes to foreign policy, as a means of answering that question.

Human rights: Human rights concerns are central to millennials’ foreign policy considerations. We closely follow stories about the civil war in Syria, the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria and human rights abuses in China. We tweet, post, discuss, decry and debate about America’s moral obligation when it comes to humanitarian intervention.

Military de-escalation: When it comes to actually discussing what that intervention would look like, our generation is for the most part cautious about direct military involvement. Having grown up with the United States simultaneously fighting two vast and costly wars, we’re fairly averse to the idea of starting up another war or intervening in an ongoing one.

Social justice: With more stridently liberal views on issues like same-sex marriage, gender equality and racial equality, we want the United States to improve its own record and to be a force for social justice abroad.

The American economy: We want jobs and iPhones. This is a huge factor in our foreign policy considerations, leading us to favor a world order of free trade and globalization. We were born into a decade of relative peace and prosperity while enjoying the fruits of a booming 1990s economy, and want to maintain the economic interconnectivity that has produced the material comforts that so many Americans enjoy.

Positive American image abroad: We want the United States to be seen as a positive force, in addition to being one. At Northwestern, we make friends from all over the world and want our country to represent a force for good, neither overly arrogant nor jingoistic.

Climate change: By and large, most millennials see the looming threat of climate change as a massively important problem. We want to see real international action on the issue and want the United States to be a world leader in combating it.

So where does this leave us? Given these considerations — which of course aren’t necessarily unique to our generation — the answer to the question “what would millennials fight for?” closely resembles Obama’s actual foreign policy. We want to sanction Russia, for example, for its violation of international law and its treatment of LGBTQ Russians, and we want to the stop bloodshed in Syria. But because our formative years overlapped with the peak of two simultaneous wars in Asia, I think we are too wary of overcommitment to argue for military intervention. In the end, whether or not we agree with his domestic politics, I think our generation would agree with the idea, as Obama outlined in a recent interview, “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

William Kirkland is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].