Love me today, love me tomorrow? Millennials and NATO

A NATO flag is seen ahead of the Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause - RC185FE11420

As NATO leaders commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Washington Treaty, talk of crisis again swirls around the alliance. Yet, against President Trump’s continued skepticism and reports lamenting the lapse in American leadership, signs for optimism surface. Surveys reveal relatively high public support for NATO. The 2019 Munich Security Conference saw the largest, and bipartisan, congressional delegation. Yet, today’s groundswell of public support is likely to instill false confidence in the future of Americans’ sentiments. Backing the alliance is easy today, particularly among the rising millennial generation, as opposition to unpopular policies of Donald Trump. However, when examined in the context of millennial foreign policy priorities, questions emerge as to NATO’s role vis-à-vis the issues that motivate them—and, therefore, the long-term support for the alliance.

Some good news

Despite Trump’s longstanding inclinations, NATO today is in a relatively good place with the American body politic. As the most recent Chicago Council survey finds, not only do “a majority of Americans continue to favor maintaining (57 percent) or increasing (18 percent) the U.S. commitment to NATO…the 18 percent of Americans who want to increase the U.S. commitment to NATO is the highest level ever recorded in Chicago Council surveys.”

If talk of a “commitment” seems too vague, respondents broadly feel comfortable, at least in theory, backing up words with action. Fifty-four percent favor using American forces to respond to a Russian invasion of a Baltic state—a new record since the question was first asked in 2014. Such figures help explain the continued, bipartisan willingness to flout the president on this issue.

This support is not limitless. For a nation weary from nearly two decades of war, the matter of burden-sharing is a real issue. A Europe perceived to be shirking a growing responsibility for its own defense—such as recent troubling reports from Berlin—could squander that support. Nonetheless, for an alliance turning 70, NATO looks decently well-armed to weather another storm.

Shifting priorities

Yet, support for NATO is easier in a moment when it requires no immediate action and is largely synonymous with endorsing partnership with Europe. When the Trump administration—particularly the president—has driven trans-Atlantic rifts over issues from trade to the Iran Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), NATO stands out as a symbol of continued cooperation in a turbulent relationship. But as time passes, it is an open question how NATO’s mission tracks with the foreign policy priorities of millennials, fast becoming the largest voter demographic in the United States.

While representing a cooperative partnership, which millennials do value, NATO has less direct bearing on the generation’s top five foreign policy goals, as found by research from the Chicago Council and Charles Koch Institute in 2018. Asked for their priorities, respondents cited the importance of:

  • Protecting American jobs: 70 percent
  • Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons: 64 percent
  • Securing adequate supplies of energy: 59 percent
  • Improving America’s standing in the world: 52 percent
  • Combating world hunger: 47 percent

Though important issues in their own right, these objectives are not traditional ones with which NATO was created to contend directly: territorial defense and the maintenance of stability in Europe. Such an absence speaks, in part, to the millennial generation’s distance from NATO’s founding moment. For a cohort without any memory of great power conflict, NATO’s key role in deterring war is baked into assumptions about how the world is naturally.

Yet if, as my colleague Robert Kagan argues, “we have lived so long inside the bubble of the liberal world order that we can imagine no other kind of world,” then my millennial generation risks great stakes on this assumption. A lack of historical memory that conflict can spark and spread even in Europe is tragic, but not unreasonable. After all, even a scholar as thoughtful on these issues as Barry Posen can question the U.S. commitment to NATO in the popular press without considering the U.S. role in warding against the return of “the German question.”

In this broader historical context, the absence of “maintaining U.S. military superiority”—another option on the survey—from millennials’ top five priorities not only contrasts with preceding generations, but raises concerns as to whether the alliance will be resourced to perform its mission or become more of a hollow symbol. 

The need for informed skepticism

Millennial skepticism of a militarized American foreign policy is not baseless. From lived experience, armed force appears ineffective at best, an expensive boondoggle at worst—especially in the Middle East. Particularly since 9/11, as Robert Malley and Jon Finer have argued, “Washington has become addicted to quick military fixes” when “sometimes what’s needed is a far broader approach.”

Nonetheless, a U.S. strategy containing a military component oriented toward the forward defense of democracy in an increasingly contested world—as NATO does in Europe—reflects a different dynamic. While millennials are more familiar with scenes of American soldiers patrolling desert streets or civilians mourning casualties from drone strikes as exemplifying military power, the forward deployment of U.S. forces, as a deterrent, has helped maintain peace in Europe and Asia. As a recent RAND Corporation report notes, “U.S. troop presence was associated with…a lower likelihood of interstate war.”

That deterrence factor, however, is increasingly called into question. As the congressionally-charted National Defense Strategy Commission report details in Europe: “Russia is seeking to create situations of military strength vis-à-vis America and its allies, and despite its limited resource base, it is having considerable success.” To repair this growing disparity, the commission asserts, “the United States needs more than just new capabilities; it urgently requires new operational concepts that expand U.S. options and constrain those of China, Russia, and other actors.” As NATO allies confront critical questions about the allocation of resources, a more nuanced understanding of the U.S. military role in NATO and Europe is vital to an informed debate on U.S. strategy.

Such a conversation should be a debate, not merely acceptance of a limitless military budget. Already millennial skepticism of pursuing military primacy is increasingly represented in an ongoing and vibrant policy debate—particularly among progressives. Considering a spectrum of views, including deviating from military primacy to military sufficiency, is necessary in a climate of heightened geopolitical competition and limited resources. To draw on President John F. Kennedy, the United States may be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” but it is not wise to pay every price, bear every burden, meet every hardship.

Washington must deploy its assets strategically in a competition with authoritarian powers that encompasses a host of domains. The military sphere cannot, and will not, be the end all of the growing competition. But nor can it be wished away as a factor that requires a serious and informed conversation among millennials as to how defense issues, including NATO, should be included in American foreign policy.

The military sphere cannot, and will not, be the end all of the growing competition. But nor can it be wished away.

Military might embedded in a broader strategy

An effective discussion must begin by pairing debate on military resourcing with a deeper and expanded conversation around NATO’s role vis-à-vis the increasingly important domains of competition— technology and innovation, economic influence, and political interference.

As Ambassadors Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute outline, Vladimir Putin’s Russia presents a broader threat in non-military domains—to say nothing of a China that may “not pose a direct military threat to most NATO allies… [but] is emerging as the strongest strategic competitor of both North America and Europe in this century.” NATO was founded in part to prevent a hostile power from dominating the Eurasian centers of industry. Today the Allies must grapple with the prospect that such an outcome may be possible without authoritarians resorting to military force, necessitating an equally serious and robust approach to bolstering democratic institutions and values as to military defense.

While “democracy promotion” and defense of democracy may still carry a post-Iraq War stigma, candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders may move millennials by highlighting the importance of combatting the kleptocratic and foreign political influence as pathways through which authoritarians are undercutting Western democratic societies. Such approaches must be further fleshed out, and coupled with a realistic discussion of hard power, if they are to be built into an operational strategy. Nonetheless, they reflect an important first step in engaging millennials in the security dialogue that will define NATO’s future.

Tomorrow’s NATO

Twenty-six years ago, Senator Richard Lugar declared NATO must go “out of area or out of business.” For millennials, that shift “out of area” accompanied tragic wars that soured belief in the role of military power. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s business seemed to return to territorial defense. That deterrence is a vital pillar of the alliance. The millennial generation must engage with this challenge, recognizing that the world we have known is not the only world that could be.

However, they must simultaneously weave that discussion of military force into a broader dialogue and debate around the new domains that confront the trans-Atlantic partners. NATO cannot seek to simply refight the Cold War, and a rising generation with new ideas can help ward off that trap.

The ability to walk that line is a tall order. Nonetheless, if successful in marrying the two aspects, millennials reflect the best hope to adapt the alliance to a new generation of challenges.