The “America First” policy President Donald Trump extolls “has won,” scholar Robert Kagan wrote in a recent op-ed, surmising that the administration’s preference for unilateralism, trade protectionism and immigration restrictions amount to “a new direction of American foreign policy.”
But there is reason to believe that victory will be fleeting. In time, this period may be recognized more as the high-water mark of a short-lived turn toward quasi-isolationism than the beginning of an enduring trend.
To understand why, consider the country’s changing demographics. The millennial generation — those born between 1981 and 1996 — will overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest cohort in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. The size, ethnic diversity and experiences of this generation influence their views about America’s relationship with the world.
Take immigration: Few issues defined President Trump’s campaign more than hostility toward illegal immigration, and his administration has acted to curb both illegal and legal admissions. He championed those policies in New York during his recent speech to the United Nations, celebrating the start of construction of “a major border wall” and defending his right to set America’s “immigration policy in accordance with its national interests.”
But a hard-nosed approach to immigration is unlikely to persist as America changes. Nearly eight of 10 millennials believe immigrants strengthen rather than burden the country, says Pew. A similar number believe a path to citizenship should be created for undocumented immigrants now living in the United States, according to a University of Chicago study.
It’s a similar story on trade. Before the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump defended tariffs, bemoaned trade deficits and declared that the world trading system is “in dire need of change.” The rising cohort disagrees, reports a June study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Nearly three-quarters of millennials — 73 percent — believe international trade is good for the U.S. economy. Majorities support NAFTA and the much-maligned Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well. And 70 percent of millennials agree with the statement “globalization is mostly good for the United States ” — higher than any other American age group.
It is not difficult to imagine why. Millennials are born into a borderless culture that they both shape and are shaped by. For example, their iPhones, which are as much appendages as arms or legs, are conceived of in California, manufactured with parts from a dozen countries from Asia to Europe, designed with a Scandinavian aesthetic and marketed by ad firms in New York. Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook friends span the globe and share an increasingly common argot of hashtags, emojis and memes. A cat video filmed in Nepal draws peals of laughter in Nashville. This generation’s default setting is not to build walls but to grow Earth-spanning digital tendrils.
Accordingly, when President Trump said in New York, “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” he was speaking more of the present than the future. Millennials overwhelmingly favor the kind of multilateral agreements this administration has criticized. Seventy-two percent support America’s commitment to NATO, 68 percent favor the Paris climate agreement and 63 percent backed the Iran nuclear deal, according to the CCGA study.
That is not to say a generation’s ideas are uniform or cannot change with time, or that tomorrow’s internationalism will be the same as yesterday’s. Notably, millennials depart from traditional U.S. foreign policy in their current ambivalence toward U.S. military power (only 44 percent of them believe maintaining superior military power is a very important goal), American exceptionalism (50 percent believe the United States is “the greatest country in the world”), and American global leadership (only 25 percent think the U.S. should be “the dominant world leader”), according to the CCGA. In short, they prefer a globalized world absent an American imperium.
If America Firstism is doomed, what could replace it? For those of us who believe peace, prosperity and human dignity advance furthest under American global leadership, the task will be to nurture our generation’s best impulses: to join its latent commitment to universal equality, interconnectedness and pluralism with support for the leadership of the nation that has done more to realize those dreams than any other. The goal will be to build a vision of internationalism that rejects the false choice between globalism and patriotism and embraces the former as integral to the latter.
Matthew F. Ferraro is an attorney, former intelligence officer and visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. Reach him @MatthewFFerraro.