By A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner
The polls are in: A majority of Americans supports President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
But in what is emerging as a significant new element of the political landscape, the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 1997) is by far the most supportive, with 65 percent for the deal, compared with 55 percent of older Americans in a recent Cato/YouGov poll.
The millennials’ attitudes toward the deal bolster the findings of our recent study, published by the Cato Institute, of millennials’ foreign policy attitudes.
Compared with their elders, millennials view the world as less threatening, are more supportive of international cooperation and diplomacy and are far more averse to the use of military force. All of these attitudes likely contribute to millennial support for the Iran deal.
Though 9/11 is the defining event of their generation, millennials see the world as a less dangerous place than their elders. Millennials are less worried about almost all potential threats to international security, including international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. This is why, as the Cato/YouGov poll found, just 53 percent of millennials believe that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be a “disaster,” compared with 68 percent of older Americans.
The broad reasons behind their relative ease are twofold. First, millennials grew up after the Cold War, in the absence of a superpower confrontation and the specter of nuclear holocaust. Terrorism is certainly dangerous, but it has not fueled the same level of fear that the Cold War did. Many millennials were simply too young for 9/11 to have had the direct emotional impact it did for older Americans.
In fact, the youngest millennials, born after 1987, are significantly more sanguine about global threats than older millennials, more supportive of the Iran nuclear deal and less concerned about whether Iran might develop nuclear weapons someday.
Second, the meaning and impact of 9/11 have become entangled with the U.S. response to it. A majority of millennials, as with other generations, views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a mistake, but millennials are also the least likely to believe that using military force is the best way to solve problems. For millennials, 9/11 demonstrates less that the world is a dangerous place than that aggressive U.S. military action is counterproductive.
And that’s a big reason millennials support the Iran deal: It represents a diplomatic approach to the Mideast that breaks from the military-focused policies of the recent past. When asked whether Congress should allow the nuclear deal to move forward, 58 percent of millennials said it should, compared with 49 percent of older Americans. Millennials are also the only generation in which a majority believes that the plan will either delay or stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Those tempted to argue that these results reflect liberal millennials taking cues from Obama are wrong. Though partisanship is certainly alive and well among millennials, it has much less impact on their attitudes toward the Iran deal than it does on the attitudes of older Americans.
The partisan support gap is just 16 percentage points among millennials, with 75 percent of millennial Democrats and 59 percent of millennial Republicans supporting the deal. But among Gen Xers, born between the 1960s and the early 1980s, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is 53 points; among baby boomers, the gap is 48 points; and among the silent generation (1920s-40s), the gap is a whopping 72 percentage points. In short, millennials are taking fewer cues than their elders from their political parties.
These findings are the bow wave of a sea change ahead in American politics. The millennial position on Iran is not a blip but an emerging pillar of U.S. public opinion on foreign policy. Millennials’ attitudes toward threats, the utility of military force, the importance of allies and the role of diplomacy were formed in what sociologists call the “critical period,” the time between the ages of roughly 14 and 24 when historical context and major events shape worldviews and attitudes for a lifetime.
These views already are shaping opinions on a wide range of issues, from the Middle East to climate change and the rise of China. And with millennials now outnumbering baby boomers, we can expect to see their attitudes and opinions playing an increasingly important role in the development and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
A. Trevor Thrall is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and an associate professor at the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. Erik Goepner is retired from the Air Force, having commanded units in Iraq and Afghanistan.