Recently, the Internet was set aflame over “OK boomer,” a two-word retort Millennials and Generation Z are using to encapsulate the frustration and resentment they feel when older people (particularly Baby Boomers, but really anyone older than 30) say something condescending about young people—and the issues that matter to them. After using the phrase on the floor of the New Zealand Parliament, Aotearoa’s MP Chlöe Swarbrick explained, “My ‘OK boomer’ comment in parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time.”
For the past 20 years—and probably most of our history if I’m being honest—America’s foreign policy has been dictated by old, white men who profit from the country perpetually being at war. In this regard, President Trump’s impulsive and reckless decision to abruptly pull troops out of Syria with no contingency plan and then falsely claim his decision was meant “to end endless war” was an early Christmas present for those warmongers that still make up much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lamented the “neo-isolationism” of the endless war discourse, concluding that “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.” Former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen said “the cry that America is fighting ‘endless wars” is a “canard.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board slammed the idea of ending endless wars, calling it “simple-minded isolationism.” Even Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg—who is technically an elder millennial at 37—has fallen into this trope. Early in his campaign, Buttigieg had committed to putting “an end to endless war,” but reversed course after Trump’s Syria decision, saying he now rejects any proposal to “completely withdraw” troops from the Middle East.
Think about what the last 18 years of war have given us: a war on terrorism that spans 80 countries, hundreds of thousands of civilians killed as a direct result of our wars, a Pentagon that emits more greenhouse gas emissions than Sweden, a drone program that autocrats like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are emulating, and that’s not even mentioning the financial burden these wars put on the American people.
According to the latest estimate from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, we will have spent $6.4 trillion on this so-called “War on Terror” by the end of 2020. To put that in perspective, for around $80 billion—or 1.25 percent of the amount we’ve spent on war since 9/11—America could produce enough wind and solar energy to power every one of the almost 128 million households in the United States. Or, put another way, the U.S. Department of Education’s entire discretionary budget in 2019 was $59.9 billion. Teachers are striking in the streets because they don’t have the money to buy pencils, yet military spending increased for the fifth consecutive year. And unless something, or someone, disrupts the status quo, these numbers will continue to rise indefinitely.
When (baby boomer) Vice President Mike Pence spoke to the 2019 graduating class of West Point, most of whom were barely toddlers on 9/11, he told them it was a “virtual certainty” that they would fight on a battlefield for America at some point. Around the same time, President Trump’s former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. HR McMaster (who is also a boomer) accused young people of being brainwashed by a false “war-weariness narrative” and said Americans should instead view the war in Afghanistan as essentially an “insurance policy.”
This laissez-faire attitude towards something that is literally life or death is exactly why we need to stop listening to the same people who have advocated the same status quo ideas for their entire career, and start listening to what the kids have to say about foreign policy. As The Washington Post’s Molly Roberts put it, “‘OK, boomer’ sends the message that the grown-ups have screwed up so totally, and are veering so speedily into irrelevance, that convincing them of anything is a waste of keyboard characters.”
From immigration to climate change to gun control, young people have proven that radical change is possible. Progressive think tank Data for Progress recently surveyed over 1,000 registered voters to see how they responded to progressive proposals to change U.S. national security and foreign policy. The results were staggering. Not only did a majority of the public want to see a revamped, demilitarized American foreign policy focused on international cooperation, human rights, and peacebuilding, young people (18-29) in particular supported policy ideas that just a year ago would’ve been unpalatable to the much of the foreign policy establishment.
For instance, the survey asked whether they would support a proposal to spend at least ten cents on non-military war prevention tools for every dollar we spend on the Pentagon, 65 percent of 18-29 year-olds either somewhat supported or strongly supported that idea. Fifty-two percent of that same age group supported the U.S. ending its wars in the Middle East and scaling back its global military presence, compared with just 37 percent overall. And when told about other U.S. war on terrorism policies, like the surveillance of American Muslim communities, the indefinite detention of terror suspects without charge in places like Guatananmo, and the militarization of the police, 62 percent of young people believed policies like these harm rights and liberties, discriminate against Americans based on their race and religion, and don’t actually help national security. On the other hand, 50 percent of 55-64 year-olds (and 47 percent of those 65+) believed these were “necessary tools that are effective at making Americans safer and are worth it.”
This survey isn’t just a one-off either. For instance, Eurasia Group Foundation found that people under 30 years old were the most likely to want the United States to abstain from intervening in human rights abuses, and these young people were most likely to believe “the U.S. should fix its own [human rights] problems [‘such as mass incarceration and aggressive policing’] before focusing on other countries.” Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress found that younger generations are ambivalent about the United States maintaining an active military presence in other countries, and less likely than older generations to think that America is stronger when it takes a leading role in the world.
Crafted through back-room dealings, classified briefings, and white papers from “The Blob,” U.S. foreign policy decisions have traditionally been left to an elite few. Almost two decades into a war that most Americans don’t want, maybe the only appropriate response left is to say “OK boomer,” and work toward these systemic changes that young people are clamoring for.