Getting Young Americans to Think Globally in the ‘America First’ Era

A new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reveals a continued slippage of American youths’ engagement with the world outside the US.

In the wake of a spate of school shootings in the United States this year, students of high school and college age are forming political campaigns for change as the country moves toward critical legislative elections in November. These young people are registering voters, although many of them are too young to vote themselves, and making demands of candidates, in some cases moving into organized politics. They are the vanguard of Generation Z, born since 1997. The oldest of them are about 20, but teens are also involved.

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Students participating at a UN event on youth leadership in peace and security, above, hosted by Eritrea and Finland, Oct. 4, 2016. CIA PAK/UN PHOTO

Gun control is justifiably a high priority; nobody wants to be gunned down in class. Some groups focus on immigration reform and citizenship for the Dreamers brought to the US as children.

What is missing from much of the burst of youthful activism, perhaps understandably, seems to be space to debate how to engage with the world or why that matters. Many factors play into the attitudes of the young, including a dearth of education about the United Nations and international affairs in general in schools focused more on domestic social issues. Other countries do better.

The Trump administration, which has pulled the US out of virtually all of its most important international agreements, is bequeathing to Generation Z an isolated country. The UN may have much to lose in an atmosphere now marked by indifference or hostile public opinion about the organization.

In a report published today, the Council on Global Affairs looks into history to gauge support through succeeding generations for American attitudes on engagement with the world. These attitudes have fluctuated over the years for demographic or historical reasons, but survey data show the Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation X before them “exhibit the least support for the United States taking an active role in world affairs.” Generation Z is taking shape, but there seems to be little doubt that the downward trend could continue.

The 40-page report, “The Clash of Generations? Intergenerational Change and American Foreign Policy Views,” begins with a summary of the concerns about a drift from American engagement, but discovers that the young may be looking for new definitions of involvement, with new national issues or threats and attitudes toward them. Still, there is slippage, the survey found.

“Since World War II, the United States has maintained an active foreign policy agenda, deeply engaged in both the economic and military domains,” the report said. “Many observers over the past few years, however, have begun to voice doubts about public support for the critical pillars of American internationalism. . . . [O]bservers have worried, in particular, about whether younger Americans will be willing to take up the mantle of global leadership. This question matters a good deal in light of the fact that the Millennial Generation . . . is now the largest generation.”

The report, published with the Charles Koch Institute in Arlington, Va., is full of graphics describing the evolution of attitudes over name-tagged “generations,” sometimes revealing considerable complexity and discernment in the views of the young.

The Chicago Council found some positive — to traditional internationalists — attitudes among the young. For example, while each succeeding generation is found to be “less likely than the previous to prioritize maintaining superior power worldwide as a goal of US foreign policy,” the survey shows that there is considerable support among the young for “cooperative approaches to US foreign policy,” and that they are more likely to be favorable to trade and globalization.

Based on a sample of 2,760 respondents, younger Americans seem not to see as many traditional military threats to national security as their elders, though Millennials back the continuation of current alliances, the report said. Millennials are also marginally more in favor of participation in international organizations, at 31 percent of those surveyed, compared with 25 percent of Baby Boomers and 24 percent of Generation X.

Jean Krasno, who directed programs on the UN at Yale University in the 1990s, sees these current perceptions firsthand among her students at the City College of New York, where she directs the master’s degree program in international affairs, and at Columbia University, where she lectures in the political science department.

“I can see why young people might not want to join the foreign service right now under Trump,” Krasno wrote in a memo to PassBlue. “But interest in foreign affairs has actually grown among students because of all the news and challenges they see happening to our world. Model UN in high schools and colleges is still very active. At City College and at Columbia, students are majoring in political science and international studies. My classes are always full.”

The question of how to re-engage the young and listen to how they redirect their interests and attitudes has caused controversy at all levels of education in the US, from middle schools through the college and postgraduate years. Since these will be soon the large majority of American voters, the question is important.

The loss of basic knowledge-building curricula has included, for example, the lack of geography courses. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office was asked to analyze why most American eighth graders failed to meet proficiency standards in the subject, which contributes to understanding a range of global politics and economics, among other topics. Chronological world history has often been reduced to or obscured by area studies.

In 2014, the journal Education World summarized and studied the GAO’s findings. “Variations in state requirements in geography can limit student access to geography education,” Education World reported, drawing on the GAO and adding that one research center consulted by the federal office found that most states do not require a single geography course in middle school and high school.

At the higher-education level in the US and in Britain, academic arguments swirl around demands by trustees and outside interests that colleges and universities should cut back on courses such as philosophy, literature, the social sciences and languages and that more practical career-oriented curricula should replace them. Some academics have responded forcefully that a turbulent world requires a broad knowledge base, including in the humanities.

Time should also be set aside, some leading academics say, to discuss current international affairs and old-fashioned civics, which taught potential voters about the structure and functions of government and the responsibilities of citizens.

In Europe and in Asia, there has been success in adding international understanding to school curricula. This approach works better because educational requirements are sometimes imposed nationally, and UN support organizations, like the World Federation of United Nations Associations, are active and influential. Using the UN as a focal point invites debate on a wide range of international topics, all of which eventually land on the UN, its secretary-general or the powerful Security Council.

Natalie Samarasinghe is the executive director of the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, or UNA-UK, an organization that has led a campaign for global citizenship in Britain. “UNA has been involved on this front for several decades, lobbying for the UN to be part of the national curriculum — or rather, national curricula as education is devolved across the four UK nations [England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] alongside producing our own materials to support teaching,” she said in an exchange of emails.

“We had a breakthrough in the early 2000s through the adoption of citizenship as a statutory subject, which included learning about global citizenship and institutions. But we’ve had to keep up the pressure several times since to ensure that references to the UN were maintained in the curriculum for England and Wales. Scotland and NI are more progressive on that front.”

Jeffrey Laurenti, who has written extensively on American foreign policy for the Century Foundation and the United Nations Association of the USA, said in an interview with PassBlue that the northern-tier countries of Europe — the Nordic nations of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland and others — are strong supporters of the UN because “it secures their place in the world.” For decades, a superpower like the US has had no “need” for the UN in the same way.

In the US, Laurenti said, “There has always been resistance to concept of global citizenship, and that remains a kind of a flashpoint of controversy in a number of states.”

At Sophia University in Tokyo, Yasuhiro Ueki, a former UN official who is now a professor and leading researcher of global studies, said in a memo that “the UN is still regarded as an important international institution for world peace and included in the school textbooks in Japan. While many Japanese are frustrated with Japan not having attained more permanent status in the Security Council that has not diminished their general support. Many young Japanese, particularly high schoolers and university students, are interested in supporting vulnerable children and refugees, even though the government does not allow many refugees to settle in Japan.”

Four years ago, Ueki stablished a program at UN headquarters for 30 Japanese students. This year, there were 52 applications for the slots. A second program for Japanese students is planned for Geneva in September. It is fully booked.

“These show that the young generation is getting more open than before to going overseas to learn about various global issues,” Ueki said. They are also committed to hard work in the complex details of international affairs.

At the New School in New York, Peter J. Hoffman, an assistant professor of international relations in the Graduate Program in International Affairs, directs a summer-study program for undergraduates and graduates at the UN, which emphasizes acquiring the intellectual tools to think about and write coherently about international affairs. He explains his methodical approach in a video. (PassBlue is affiliated with the New School.)

In an email message, Hoffman said that although students arrive with varied degrees of knowledge about the UN, “There is a tendency to accept simplistic caricatures — often the UN is a sort of ‘black box’ in which they do not explore specific mechanics and rather settle for gross structural explanations that discount organizational dynamics. . . . Moreover, in many schools what constitutes an international affairs curriculum is filled with absurd notions of memorizing capitals or, indeed, looking at cuisine.”

Laurenti concurs. “Certainly, we tend to celebrate international diversity — less in political terms than in inter-cultural understanding and kumbaya, which is important as far as it goes,” he said. “But it doesn’t give people a metric for understanding how things can be done successfully at the international level.”

Originally published at on June 25, 2018.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

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