From Ukraine to Gaza, international crises are currently dominating the news. So the latest round of The Economist’s ongoing survey of American public opinion on foreign affairs is particularly relevant. What really stands out in this survey is how detached young people are from what’s going on in the world. The convention is that millennials are idealistic, hyper-connected global citizens. The reality is that many of them just don’t have an opinion. People aged 18-29 are 53% more likely than people over 30 to answer ‘don’t know’ or to have no opinion on a range of questions about the big foreign policy issues. The survey covers 25 questions on topics ranging from Israel to Egypt to Ukraine. On average, 33% of millennials had no answers, compared to 21.6% of over 30s.
The millennial ‘don’t know’ bloc is spread across issues. Young people are less likely to have an opinion on head-scratching dilemmas such as whether they approve of President Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine. But they’re also less likely to have an answer to basic emotive questions: 51% claim to have no positive or negative opinion of Hamas, almost half are neither hot nor cold on Benjamin Netanyahu. They’re also less likely to know the answer to widely reported, undisputed facts: 41% didn’t know who had experienced most of the civilian casualties in the fighting in Gaza.
Sure, there’s a basic civics case that young people should follow international affairs more closely. But there’s a self-interested case too. The consequences of foreign policy play out over generations. The instability in Iraq has its roots in borders drawn carelessly in the 1920s, while Afghanistan’s instability comes from the involvement of superpowers 30 years ago. Millennials will live with the consequences of today’s decisions for longer than retirees. And, if things really go wrong, the country sends its 18-29s into battle.