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The Clash of Generations? Intergenerational Change and American Foreign Policy Views

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Trevor Thrall , Dina Smeltz , Erik Goepner , William Ruger , and Craig Kafura
Shadows cast from a crowd of people in front of an American flag.

This Chicago Council on Global Affairs report reveals generations share opinions about international threats and foreign policy goals.


Since World War II the United States has maintained an active foreign policy agenda, deeply engaged in both the economic and military domains. Many observers over the past few years, however, have begun to voice doubts about public support for the critical pillars of American internationalism. Some have argued that the American public has lost its appetite for military intervention after more than 15 years at war in the greater Middle East. Others have suggested that Donald Trump’s election revealed weakening support for free trade and for the global alliance system the United States built after World War II.

Many observers have worried, in particular, about whether younger Americans will be willing to take up the mantle of global leadership. This question matters a good deal in light of the fact that the Millennial Generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, is now the largest generation of Americans. Like the Baby Boomers before them, Millennials have already had an outsized impact on American culture. As they age and begin to take leadership positions in business, government, and across society, their views – not those of their parents and grandparents—will be decisive.

Those worried about Millennials’ willingness to embrace the traditional liberal internationalism of the post-World War II era may find some evidence for their concerns in survey data. As the 2012 Chicago Council Survey report noted, "Millennials...are much less alarmed about major threats facing the country, particularly international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the development of China as a world power, and are less supportive of an activist approach to foreign affairs than older Americans."

In order to understand where foreign policy attitudes are headed, we employ a generational perspective to analyze a wide range of survey data collected by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs since 1974. The findings reveal that generations share many opinions about international threats, foreign policy goals, and the best approaches to engaging the world. Yet, each generation from the Silent Generation onward entered adulthood somewhat less supportive of expansive American internationalism, with more recent generations expressing lower support for militarized approaches to achieve foreign policy goals.

Today, each successor generation is less likely than the previous to prioritize maintaining superior military power worldwide as a goal of US foreign policy, to see US military superiority as a very effective way of achieving US foreign policy goals, and to support expanding defense spending. At the same time, support for international cooperation and free trade remains high across the generations. In fact, younger Americans are more inclined to support cooperative approaches to US foreign policy and more likely to feel favorably towards trade and globalization.

Key Findings

  • Each generation since the Silent Generation reports less support than its predecessors for taking an active part in world affairs, as measured by responses to the standard Chicago Council Survey question: "Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?"
  • Sometimes, this difference split Millennials from older Americans; at other times, Millennials and Gen Xers both differ from prior generations.
  • Long-term shifts in ideology and party identification mean that younger Americans today are more liberal than their elders, less likely to identify as Republican, but also more likely not to identify with either party.
  • Because ideology and partisanship exert such powerful influences on public opinion, these trends play a significant role in explaining the size and direction of generation gaps on foreign policy issues.
  • Yet even when the pull of partisanship and party loyalty is greatest, the differences across generations remain visible and large enough to be politically significant.

It is difficult to predict how much these generation gaps will influence the direction of US foreign policy. As younger Americans continue to replace older Americans, especially at the voting booth, shifting demographics and attitudes are likely to influence debates about how the United States should engage the world. As younger Americans move through the stages of life it will be interesting to see if these generational differences result in a permanent break from previous patterns of foreign policy attitudes.

About the Authors
Trevor Thrall
Associate Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University
Vice President, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Erik Goepner
Visiting Research Fellow, Defense and Foreign Policy, The Cato Institute
William Ruger
Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Institute
Director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
headshot of Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
headshot of Craig Kafura