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Why doesn’t the youth care about foreign policy? Why didn’t we weep over the horrors in Afghanistan and why is our blood not boiling, hearing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? We shouldn’t be content with lukewarm responses like sanctions or quail at the thought of responding with force.
Part of me knows we don’t need to despair about the youth being a lost cause. Millennials couldn’t care less about news when we were younger, but now we do. Currently, Gen Z is checked out. That’s only natural and was not so different for our parents and grandparents. Every coming-of-age story starts with the self, and then looks outward.
But I have noticed some trends in thought that make younger generations more hesitant to truly back our foreign allies.
First, we make decisions based on how an issue personally impacts us. A moral or ideological stance used to be enough. Our word stood for itself even across distances, regardless of an emotional connection. With the increased access to global stories and cultural content, it’s actually harder for us to care about an issue if we have no context, which is now the norm. I realized I’ve never seen a single movie from Ukraine. Not even a single YouTube video about street art or famous landmarks. I can’t picture what their scared children look like, or what meal the troops are sharing in the cold, thinking it could be their last.
Ukraine isn’t important enough as an ally, trade partner, or cultural influence for us to get angry on their behalf, as we would if Russia attacked England or France. But neither do they evoke our sympathy as much as third-world countries. Without these national or personal emotional connections, they fall much lower on our priority list.
I don’t think this is much different for older generations though. Why do my parents care about Russia? Because they lived through the Cold War. Why did we start taking notice of China? COVID. If we hadn’t lived through these events, would any of us resonate with such situations? It is troubling to think that we only act when we can empathize with a problem, and not just because it is right.
Though on the other hand, our disengagement from troubled European countries may be unconsciously deliberate, as many of us immigrated from such places.
We left these countries so we wouldn’t have to think about changing them for the better. Don’t like socialism? Go to America. Scared of Russia? Immigrate. We don’t want to think about all the troubles they’re still facing. Perhaps we have secondhand embarrassment that they haven’t become stronger. Do we feel vulnerable, remembering that our cousins are in fact struggling? The person who got out of the bad part of town doesn’t want to go back and fix things. They want to move on and never look back. If they donate to causes in the future, it won’t be in their old hometown - they might feel guilty about not doing more. America seems much more inclined to help out in non-European countries than the places we left behind.
Views on War
Second, younger citizens hold a different view of war and are only willing and able to immerse themselves in so many conflicts.
The average American doesn’t engage much with the activities of our military. Of course, it depends on the family and social circle, but generally, popular culture does not celebrate the military. We still demonstrate vague respect for service members, but we regrettably don’t participate much on military holidays, have related field trips or guest speakers, and fewer of our elders are veterans. Even my parents, growing up, could still encounter and talk with many WWII vets, but now such experiences are few and far between.
So military force is not on the radar for a lot of young people, and certainly isn’t seen as a righteous option, since the inconclusive outcomes and outright failures in the Middle East weigh heavily on us. We respond to trouble by withdrawing. An extreme version of perfectionism distorts our thinking - we have an all-or-nothing approach that makes us think we have to do something perfectly, or not at all. We must either stay out of other countries completely or conquer them and nation-build. We’re not willing to do the latter, and we know a half-hearted in-between approach doesn’t work, so instead, we agree to do nothing. Because of our detachment from military culture, we don’t think of weakness abroad as a problem for America’s name. We don’t even think it’s weak to withdraw or refrain from engaging. Much of the youth are most afraid of making a mistake and being seen as a failure, so we’d rather make no change.
It doesn’t help that we’ve grown up with the mentality that conquest just “doesn’t happen anymore” - at least not between major superpowers. I remember being shaken when Russia annexed Crimea. I thought, “that still happens?” Even at the height of this conflict, global leaders are still reinforcing the supposed social contract that civilized superpowers don’t conquer people anymore. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, tweeted: “The use of force and coercion to change borders has no place in the 21st century.” NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, at Thursday’s “Stronger Together” conference, said: “There is much at stake in today’s crisis… Russia is using force and ultimatums… to try to rewrite the entire global security architecture.”
On the world stage, we have a sense that we can’t go to war again, or it’ll result in another World War. Our economics are so intertwined now that it’d be devastating. We’d destroy ourselves as surely as the other. More and more people are willing to say that we’re in another global Cold War. But we’re also in a cold culture war domestically. And you can’t fight a war on two fronts.
Which is why liberals in particular will do essentially nothing to help Ukraine. Sure, this crisis is still splattered across every news site, but on CNN, it had to share headline space with mean Trump tweets. Liberals are too occupied by the war here: the ideological war, the rewriting of America. And most young people take their cue from liberal influences. If liberals tell us over and over again through school, the media, and Hollywood that we should care about the climate, we do. That’s how we pick our issues these days - absorption. So, if we don’t see much discussion of how to help Ukraine, many won’t consider such actions necessary.
And young people are already consumed by two wars: the social wars, and the one inside themselves. Trying to figure out the global front, when such matters are taught minimally in schools, is difficult. We don’t know where to start, and we’ve already run low on mental and emotional energy. Some young people are dismissive about not following the news. Why should I care? Others feel embarrassed about the gaps in their knowledge. A new college kid, who’s still trying to find himself, and who’s maybe only ever taken a couple classes on global history and sociology, is suddenly faced with taking on the whole world. Again, we have an “all or nothing” approach. I can’t understand the news unless I know the context, but there’s way too much to learn, so I just won’t read the news. Sometimes adults, who’ve forgotten that they had to gain that knowledge piece by piece over the years, will mock young people for not knowing as much as they do. They automatically assume negligence or laziness, and this makes kids less willing to ask questions. But our questions are important, not just for learning, but because questions are vital for the development of our nation.
Frozen by Questions
This leads to my third insight: the youth are more interested in questioning than acting, but we need to mature past this stage if America is to remain a positive influence abroad.
It’s good to ask, should we have territories? Do we treat them right? Is it even our business to police the world? How do we stand up for our morals without causing more harm than good?
Many people have taken these questions too far, and are only willing to focus on America’s mistakes. It’s easier to flagellate ourselves with guilt than to push on and develop more refined policies. We are still a young nation. We rose to power and influence quickly, and we did make mistakes that need to be examined. But in the process of maturation, we must move past this period of investigation, and take action again. It is good that the youth is willing to push boundaries and question the status quo, but it won’t matter unless we can implement a middle ground between tyranny and inaction, not just at home, but abroad.
But we also dwell on even larger picture questions, like, “Is it even necessary for each individual to have a moral stance, understanding of, and plan for every political issue in the world?” For most of human history, farmer Joe Shmoe didn’t care about the ambitions of distant kings. Isn’t that a bit much to ask?
And yet, that’s one reason for America’s greatness. We do hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our entire political system is built upon the assumption that we do care, that we are constantly seeking progress and knowledge, that we have strength of character and resolve, and are willing to take a stand for what is right. I love that part about us, and I don’t want to lose it. It may take time for younger generations to notice how our thought patterns are dragging down our foreign policy. It grieves me to think it’s too late for Ukraine. But I have hope that when we refine our emotions, mature in our questions, and realize some things are worth dying for, we have a bright future ahead of us.
Caylah Coffeen is a Millennial in Huntsville, AL who knows how to think and speaks up for the sake of truth and a future as bright as the stars. Her column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.