Image: Wikimedia Commons (Marching towards the Capital – September 15, 2007)
By Scott Strgacich
In March 1915, Walter Benjamin was not yet the legendary neo-Marxist nomadic intellectual and ethereal aesthetician that he is now known to be. He was merely a young student at the University of Berlin, full of promise and hope but recently heartbroken.
For years Benjamin had been a devout disciple of Gustav Wyneken, an outspoken and controversial champion of Platonic educational reform in Germany. Yet the same man who had kindled Benjamin’s passion for the inner workings of the mind had nearly smothered it when, in November 1914, he gave a thoroughly jingoistic speech called “Youth and War.” This speech urged Benjamin’s generation to protect their Fatherland by joining the national war effort. An Austrian Archduke was dead, alliances had been roused and the fields of France were already beginning to absorb German blood. The First World War was on. Duty called.
Benjamin deplored this speech as an act of betrayal of Germany’s youth – an “unparalleled disgrace and outrage.” His polemical letter to Wyneken of March 1915 severed all ties with his former mentor and idol. “Financially,” said Benjamin, “you have sacrificed young people to the state, which had taken everything from you. The young, however, belong only to those with vision who love them and the idea in them above all…The legacy I now wrest from you is that of living with the idea.”
Benjamin sought to do what his lost generation as a collective could not: reclaim some control over the discourse that shaped their lives and, in the case of the Wilhelmine Empire, ended many of them. It is time for America’s youth to have its “Benjamin moment.”
Drawing on polling data from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Trevor Thrall recently pointed out that “47 percent of Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) think the United States should ‘stay out’ of world affairs and only 51 percent think the country should ‘take an active part’ in them.”
To account for this, Thrall emphasizes the impact of world events during a given generation’s “critical period,” the formative point of sociopolitical consciousness. “Younger Americans,” Thrall says, “have spent their formative years and early adulthood witnessing lengthy, unsuccessful wars and military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.”
This is indeed so. This month marks America’s seventeenth year in Afghanistan and in an ephemeral War on Terror stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Philippines. Bearing witness to a global conflict with no clear strategy behind its prosecution and no clear meaning behind its body count has colored the perception of a generation that is now apparently the most anxious one ever polled. Student indebtedness, the cost of living, and a prohibitive job market are the foremost concerns in the millennial’s anxiety-ridden mind. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara operating in Niger is, by all accounts, not. Yet it was there that four US Army Rangers lost their lives. The gulf between the priorities of the coming generation and their government is evidently wide enough to swallow the lives of four American servicemen for a reason neither can comprehend.
But that is not the end of the story. Thrall could (indeed should) go one step further. There is an additional layer to the millennials’ “critical period.” Today’s young Americans were not simply turned off by the use of force after witnessing a series of foreign policy contretemps in a vacuum. Young Americans can recognize the reality of a strategic context that significantly differs from that in which their parents and grandparents experienced their own “critical periods.” As Thrall himself points out, millennials tend to “see the world as a less dangerous place than do older Americans.” There is a reason for that.
Today’s world is interconnected. Today’s security threats are complex and asymmetrical. Today’s great power rivals are also inextricable trading partners and mutual investors, neither explicit friends nor foes. None of them offer a significant conventional challenge to US power. Few immediate threats are realistically existential. The advent of a new tactical atmosphere, augmented by technology, has made conflict less kinetic than ever before. Even at the height of President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, Reuters reported that wars were becoming markedly less deadly than in times past. Millennials understand the world to be less dangerous because it is far more complicated than at any point in American history. They see that warfighting – and its implications – have been significantly altered. They tend to conceive of war not just in terms of lives lost and property destroyed but also as a poor strategy given the world in which they grew up, a world in which war is increasingly a palliative at its most benign (a calamity at its worst) but never a cure for global ills.
In another time, another strategic context, perhaps the response from millennials to a ruinous Iraq or an endless Afghanistan may have been more, not less, bellicose. A new kind of war may be needed but the necessity of war as the nation’s primary tool would not be in doubt. To prevent another Hitler, for instance, the “Greatest Generation” surmised that the world needed more America, not less. However, this world, as millennials rightly recognize, is not that world. War as a strategic device is therefore less palatable to them and with good reason. This is a basic assertion but it remains at the heart of young Americans’ conception of foreign policy.
With millennials as the up-and-coming voting bloc to bet on, the challenge now is to, as Walter Benjamin attempted, reclaim the “idea,” in this case, the foreign policy ideas being tossed around in the public discourse with little input from the generation who will inevitably inherit the product of that discourse. The trajectory of US strategy is not solely the preserve of the reigning generation. Today’s youth deserve a say in tomorrow’s wars.
However, informed and honest captains of this new movement toward a restrained foreign policy are too few and far between. On the left, the young California Representative Ro Khanna has been an outspoken if still relatively unknown acolyte of John Quincy Adams and his restrained understanding of US global conduct. Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, who mobilized masses of progressive millennials to political activity in the 2016 election cycle, has likewise been increasingly vocal about the need to rein in not just the national security apparatus at home (an unsurprising liberal trope) but how it is used abroad.
The waters are muddied by less versant progressives like the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez whose stunning upset victory in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District seems to have overshadowed her provincial and clearly uninformed foreign policy perspective. When confronted about controversial comments referring to the Israeli “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez pleaded ignorance, claiming she was “not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.” The validity of her comments about Palestine aside, if young progressives are to play a part in reorienting the public discourse about the future of American strategy, more informed, more serious and, dare I say, more curious minds are needed.
There are even fewer voices for restraint on the right. As a recent Pew Research study indicated, 61% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents stand by the 2003 invasion of Iraq (compared with only 27% of Democrats), giving some indication as to the hurdle young, potentially restraint-minded conservatives face in their own intra-party debate. However, the insurgents for foreign policy prudence can be found, if one knows where to look.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the de facto chieftain of the libertarian right, has, much like Senator Sanders, been an animating force for young people within his party. In the wake of the 2016 election, he too has become a more vociferous advocate for restraint and he hopes to take his young, energetic movement with him. When one compares his anemic foreign policy approach at a divided CPAC 2014 to his more recent espousal of a new strategic framework and his pronouncements against constitutionally unjustified participation in the Yemeni Civil War, one can clearly perceive how Paul’s stubborn stridency has grown with the imperative of the issue he is addressing.
For the youth in both parties, the biggest challenge of all will be to recognize their foreign policy vision as one movement. Hemmed in by partisan stockades, the youth of the progressive and libertarian camps have an increasingly popular message: American foreign policy is being held captive by the intellectual monolith of neoconservative interventionism and a blind faith in the god of war. This paradigm is creating a world young Americans cannot stomach and will not justify. Young progressives and libertarians will not agree on taxes, healthcare, federal spending, solutions for the national debt, education, or whatever Milo Yiannopoulos is saying now, nor should they. They have, however, both correctly diagnosed the hawkish malady of American strategy and are resolved to step into the arena of public debate to remedy it.
They should do so together, united and undaunted by the old guard of naysayers who, it seems, could not bring themselves to say “nay” when George W. Bush asked Congress for permission to make of himself an Alexander the Great and march to the banks of the Tigris.
The millennials’ “Walter Benjamin moment” has indeed come.
Scott is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley where he studied political science with an emphasis on international relations. He was the founder of the Berkeley chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society and received highest departmental honors for his thesis Tehran’s Pragmatism: Iranian Strategic Culture After the Nuclear Deal. He is interested in national security policy, arms control and Iranian affairs. He also has a weird thing for Egyptology.