The surprising lessons Millennials took from 9/11

A new study suggests that 9/11 and its aftermath left Millennials 'deeply skeptical' of US military intervention abroad. They're supportive of humanitarian action.

Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star/AP/File
About 75 students from the University of Mary Washington protest the Board of Visitors on April 17, 2015, after their meeting at the Jepson Alumni Center in Fredericksburg, Va. The group wants the university to divest in fossil fuels and have been protesting for a few weeks.

A new study suggests that Millennials' views of America's role in world have been shaped by 9/11 – but perhaps not the way some might expect.

Millennials – those Americans born between 1980 and 1997 – are “deeply skeptical” of United States military intervention in foreign countries, the study by the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute notes.

Although the 9/11 attacks took place during a “critical period of opinion shaping” for the generation, it did not generate “greater concern about terrorist attacks and increased support for aggressive foreign policies,” the study found.

Instead, Millennials “perceive the world as significantly less threatening than their elders do, and therefore show increased support for a more restrained foreign policy even as they still support global engagement through diplomacy and trade,” the report finds. “Millennials are less concerned about supposed national security threats, more sanguine about the new distribution of power and the rise of China, and least likely to describe themselves as a ‘patriotic person.’ ”

Indeed, Millennials appear to regard 9/11 as evidence of a need for greater US restraint. The Cato Institute researchers, for example, point to a 2011 Pew Research Center study that found that Millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that the US’s own policies may have contributed in some way to the 9/11 attacks.

Having been witness to what they widely consider to be the failures and waste of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are less likely to support military force in “what may be a permanent case of ‘Iraq Aversion,’ ” the study posits, which is equivalent to what young adults in the 1960s and '70s called “Vietnam Syndrome.” 

In part as a result, perhaps, Millennials remain particularly supportive of humanitarian interventions to prevent large-scale humanitarian crises, “so long as it doesn’t involve US-centric solutions to the internal politics of other nations.” 

This should all be considered important grist for any political campaign, note authors A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner, who used extensive polling data to probe the opinions of Millennials. 

They concluded the report with some advice for presidential candidates who might be tempted to stake out hawkish positions as the campaign heats up.

These hopefuls “should not waste time trying to convince Millennials that Russia’s behavior spells the start of a new Cold War or that China’s rising power signals the need for massive increases in the defense budget,” they advise. 

“Nor should candidates try to convince Millennials that US grand strategy must revolve around a sacred duty to eradicate international terrorism.”

Millennials now make up one quarter of the US population and an increasingly important voting block.

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