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Why foreign policy should be a millennial priority

People light candles at the scene of a

People light candles at the scene of a massive car bomb attack in Karada, a busy shopping district in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, July 4, 2016. Credit: AP

A friend of mine, in his 20s, recently moved to northern Europe. Soon, he couldn’t help but gush about Europe’s wonders compared to his experience growing up in America. He marveled at the public transportation options, the universal health care, the “free” college education for many citizens, and the constrained foreign policies.

Many of our differences simply wouldn’t have been resolved through friendly conversation. But I felt compelled to press him on one matter: Would any of those things that he so admired been possible without American leadership?

After all, without American intervention in the Second World War, the billions of dollars of aid provided through the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe and restore its economic footing, and America later acting as the guarantor of European security, European capitals may not have had the inclination or resources to foster what he saw as a thoroughly modern society.

He conceded the point, but he clearly hadn’t thought of it that way. If he had, perceptions of American failure were more at the forefront of his mind than  the countervailing facts about all the good that has come from American involvement in world affairs.

He’s not alone: Many younger Americans don’t appear to appreciate the vital role that American leadership has played — and continues to play — in the international system. If they do, they fail to see how it relates to them. Nearly half of all American millennials told the Chicago Council that the United States should stay out of world affairs in 2014, more than any other generational cohort.

They tend to score lower on measures of patriotism,  hold a rosier perception of global security threats than older counterparts, and seem less confident that American involvement would help ameliorate international crises.

It would be easy to dismiss these attitudes as a reflection of the so-called selfie generation. But the reality is more nuanced.

Millennials who went to college are three times more likely to have studied abroad than the generation before them. As the first generation to grow up with the internet, their access to ideas and people across the world is unprecedented.

But young Americans simply don’t view foreign policy as a top priority. According to a 2015 Pew poll, the educational system, the economy and better access to employment rank as higher priorities than combatting terrorism to Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. Strengthening the military was down the list, too.

Millennials appear to prioritize the work that needs to be done at home over  involvement in foreign affairs. Choosing between domestic policy concerns and engagement in foreign affairs is, of course, a false choice.

America’s foreign affairs budget represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget; trade agreements add to the homeland’s prosperity as much as they do those of foreign lands; and defense spending is at a lower level, as a percentage of GDP, than at any time since the Second World War. Our involvement in foreign affairs is affordable and pays dividends.

Fortunately, millennials do understand the importance of foreign aid and trade. And they broadly support humanitarian missions.

But that appreciation does not extend to American engagement abroad. Polls show millennials prefer cooperation to confrontation, restraint to intervention, and diplomacy is a better tool to ensure peace than a strong military.

No supporter of American international engagement would dispute the importance of trade, foreign aid or diplomacy. But without a strong military, America’s leverage in these realms decreases. Without America’s protection of the high seas, for example, the flow of trade would be far less reliable.

Millennials also need to hear just why engagement in foreign affairs should remain a top priority. The fact that America’s leadership role allows it to influence the rules of international trade and to stand up for the world’s most vulnerable populations will naturally appeal to young Americans.

But they also need to hear why American engagement is a good investment in national security: It allows America to address crises far from America’s borders, and prevents the creation of power vacuums that, if neglected, may necessitate a much stronger and more difficult response down the road.

Which brings me back to my friend. I asked him what people in his host country thought about Russia’s increased assertiveness, the waves of refugees now pouring into Europe, or about the potential that the United Kingdom might leave the European Union.

His answer? “They hope that the problem will just go away.”

It’s an answer that you might get if you asked Americans about some of our problems. America, though, cannot actually ignore international problems, so I pressed him again: “Without America, could Europe actually ignore these issues? Would it be in America’s interests to just let international issues unfold without its input?”

“Of course not,” he said. And he was exactly right.

Phillip Lohaus, a millennial, is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He also serves as executive director of the American Internationalism Project, a bipartisan initiative to restore a consensus about the importance of American leadership in foreign affairs. This essay originally appeared in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas” from the Bush Institute. This is distributed by