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A Clash of Generations over American Leadership?

July 9, 2018 in Economics

By Christopher A. Preble

Christopher A. Preble

For some time now, scholars and commentators have been aware of
a worrisome gap between public and elite opinion with respect to
U.S. foreign policy. Elites generally embraced a grand strategy of
primacy (also called global hegemony or deep engagement ) in which U.S. military power
was deployed to underwrite global security, and advance global
prosperity and human rights. The United States, in this sense, is
the main provider of global public goods. The global policeman. Or,
as Michael Mandelbaum put it, Goliath.

In contrast to most foreign-policy elites, clear majorities of
Americans, writ large, believed that the U.S. military existed
chiefly to defend the United States and its economic and security
interests -not those of others. These slightly differing impulses
often worked hand in hand. A large and active U.S. military that
was focused mostly on U.S. security and prosperity typically helped

But if and when Americans sensed that U.S. foreign policy was
harmful to those ends, public support collapsed, as we saw in 1993
after the failed humanitarian mission in Somalia, or in 2004, when
the war in Iraq failed to play out as that war’s advocates
claimed that it would. Writing in 2005, Mandelbaum noted that
Americans “have never been asked to ratify their
country’s status as the principal supplier of international
public goods, and if they were asked explicitly to do so,” he
predicted, “they would undoubtedly ask in turn whether the
United States ought to contribute as much to providing them, and
the other countries as little.”

In short, he concluded, “the American role in the world
may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too

Thanks, in part, to Donald Trump, it seems unwise to count on
the American people not scrutinizing U.S. foreign policy too

Trump exploited the gap between the elites and the public at
large with ruthless efficiency on his path to the GOP nomination,
and then in his general election win over Hillary Clinton. As
president, his rhetoric has continued to shine the light on the
public vs. elite divide, though his actions have largely conformed
with the primacist consensus.

Increasingly, however, we see not merely a disconnect between
the public and elites, but also among different age groups within
the American electorate. And the age cohort most skeptical of
American global leadership, at least as it has been practiced for
the last several decades, is the Millennial Generation, those men
and women born between 1981 and 1996. These individuals did not
arrive at their views because of Donald Trump; a majority of voters
under the age of forty-five voted for …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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