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Who’s Zooming who? What Gen Z really thinks about foreign policy

Our youngest voters aren’t a monolith, but one study finds they have one thing widely in common and it revolves around war.

Many of the estimated 68 million Generation Z Americans —  more commonly referred to as Zoomers — have reached voting age and are entering the workforce en masse. Not surprisingly, their habits and interests have become subject of much speculation, including how this group — ages 6 to 24 — views the major foreign policy and national security issues of our day.

As someone who is considered the very youngest of millennials or the very oldest of Gen Z — a so-called “cusper” — I appreciate the attention and fully support the infusion of fresh perspectives into the debate.

Most Zoomers don’t have vivid memories of September 11th. We don’t remember George W. Bush’s “bullhorn address” where he decried, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” But as grade school kids in 2008, we absorbed the shock waves of  crisis as the economy tanked, along with employment and 10 million people losing their homes. We were told constantly that as a generation, we couldn’t expect to achieve the same financial security as our parents. In 2020 we captured everyone’s attention after we shattered youth voter turnout records. 

Every generation inherits the disarray from the decisions of those who came before. As “How Gen Z Will Shake Up Foreign Policy,” a study recently published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, “Gen Z will be forced to walk a policy path that it did not chart and repair damage that it did not create.” But if the findings here are any indication, Gen Z isn’t interested in maintaining the status quo when it comes to America’s interests abroad. 

Not everything Generation Z has to offer is contrary to existing foreign policy strategy. The Center for American Progress in its “America Adrift” survey, found that there is “broad agreement” amongst generations about making America stronger at home in order to be more competitive abroad. In fact, 63 percent of Generation Z thinks the United States “should do more to take care of key domestic needs, not just increase military and defense spending.” It’s reassuring to know that Zoomers don’t believe in throwing more money at a problem in order to solve it. 

More importantly, Generation Z/Millennials differ from their predecessors in one crucial area: military action. Sixty-four percent of Zoomers & Millennials favor prioritizing economic and diplomatic efforts over military action. That single statistic is a cause for celebration. We can see a future where our gut reaction to send boots on the ground as an intimidation method is a thing of the past. 

Of course every preceding generation has been put under a similar microscope, and as with these snapshot assessments, there’s plenty of broad brushing. Carnegie presents some fairly non-controversial Zoomer opinions, such as, “America has tremendous capacity for doing good but equal potential for botching its overseas endeavors,” and, “Ours is the most globally connected generation in history — with little interest in carving up the world or forcing allies to pick sides.” But, because it is extracting from poll numbers, the paper also oversimplifies an entire generation’s worldview, with little room for nuance. 

The study’s findings seem to suggest that climate change is of utmost concern to younger Americans by citing that, “Nearly half of Zoomers say U.S. foreign policy should prioritize combating climate change; while only 12 percent say it should focus on countering Chinese aggression.” Fair enough. But climate change is at the forefront of Zoomer consciousness because their exposure to that issue is far greater than their understanding of complicated U.S.-China relations. And this is due, in part, to none-other than 2019 Time Person of the Year, climate change activist and Zoomer herself, Greta Thunberg. It is no surprise that Zoomers do care more about this issue than Baby Boomers, but let’s not overlook the other dynamics at play.

When polling fellow young Americans plugged into the foreign policy space, not one of them mentioned climate change as something they are “most worried about.” Again, asking around myself, I find that Zoomer concerns run the gamut.

Sam Peak, an immigration specialist at Americans for Prosperity told me, “My biggest concern would be the increasing capabilities for cyber warfare and China’s growing AI dominance.” Meanwhile, 22-year-old-year-old Daniel DiMartino, a senior contributor at Young Voices and PhD student at Columbia points out that Carnegie, while focusing on climate change as a long-term threat, emphasizes very “little on the immediate security threats and human rights violations abroad that American can champion.” 

It is true when Carnegie claims that “Eight in ten Zoomers say promoting democracy and human rights should be priorities for U.S. foreign policy,” but even the very phrase “promoting democracy” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It could mean regime change and nation-building. Or it could allude to funding programs that support civil society around the world, but at a distance. 

Possibly the most damning revelation is how little confidence Zoomers have in America’s ability to use military force appropriately and effectively. And quite frankly, that is okay, being skeptical is the first step toward restraint. Trevor Thrall, an associate professor of international security at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute argues that unlike their parents and grandparents, Millennials and Zoomers “are ready to ditch the frequent military intervention that has dominated American foreign policy during their lifetimes and instead embrace a foreign policy of restraint.” 

We can thank the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for that significant shift in generational thinking. We have never seen real accountability or leaders take responsibility for their policy failures, or the devastation that their wars have created. There have been no lessons learned, so young Americans fear that more unnecessary conflict is always just around the corner. 

Zoomer Tahmineh Dehbozorgi, 22, an opinion columnist for the OC Register, expressed to me that she is most concerned “about U.S. involvement in more endless wars.” She went on to argue, “we face consequences of foreign policy decisions that we did not have a vote on and eventually, we had to pay the price with our lives and our money.”

Sure, it’s disheartening to learn that more than four in 10 Generation Z/Millennial voters say they hold “no strong opinions at all” on crucial foreign policy questions, but there is cause for optimism. Zoomers don’t see military intervention as a viable solution to all problems. They want to reverse the course that President Trump has championed by regaining global respect. 

But only time will tell if Generation Z will act on their beliefs and what policies they might advocate as an alternative.

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