Gen Z is Not Transatlanticist by Default
Gen Z thinks differently from older generations.
Its efforts to combat climate change, ranging from school strikes to gluing body parts to streets and famous paintings, are the most visible manifestations of their perspectives and priorities. Some might dismiss the younger generation as being naive, but their actions reveal trends that may well shape the future and impact foreign policy.
Indeed, Europe’s Gen Z has a take on the world that contrasts with those of others. According to GMF’s Transatlantic Trends 2023, young people are less likely than their elders to perceive US global influence as positive. They also are less likely to see the United States as the world’s most influential actor in five years and more likely to see the emergence of multipolarity. Perhaps more ominously, they also believe NATO is less important for their country’s security and tend to perceive Chinese and Russian influence as more positive than older respondents do. In other words, Gen Z does not comprise the transatlanticists that their parents are.
Most important, however, was the toll the erratic Trump administration took on European teenagers of the time.
Political memory is likely to play a major role in this. Most young Europeans, those born in the 1990s and the 2000s, are familiar with less glorious chapters of US foreign policy, having grown up with images of failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the coincident financial crisis, which cast a pall over American capitalism. And although many Europeans enthusiastically welcomed Barack Obama’s election, his failure to adhere to his own “red line” regarding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons furthered doubts about US leadership, particularly since Russia and Middle East powers filled the void and remained major players in Syria’s civil war. Most important, however, was the toll the erratic Trump administration took on European teenagers of the time. American soft power took a hard hit. Even under the current Europhile president, challenges to American democracy, structural racism, and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan dominate what European Gen Z’ers read and see. Indeed, only 53% of them approve of Joe Biden’s handling of international affairs.
If the transatlantic partners are serious about tackling challenges together, their efforts must start with adapting their agenda to a multipolarizing world.
This cannot be dismissed as youthful naiveté. That would ignore the geopolitical structural changes that shape Gen Z perceptions on, in fact, both sides of the Atlantic. It would also ignore the likelihood that the components of the consensus underpinning the transatlantic relationship will change over time. Gen Z’s belief in growing multipolarity, after all, only reflects reality.
If the transatlantic partners are serious about tackling challenges together, their efforts must start with adapting their agenda to a multipolarizing world. This may be anathema to some in Washington given that it implies a decoupling from China is too simple of a solution to the challenge posed by the country’s push to expand its geopolitical and geo-economic influence. Instead, the United States and the EU, which, Transatlantic Trends 2023 finds, 23% of Europe’s Gen Z’ers believe will be the world’s most influential actor in five years, must find ways to cooperate with Beijing on global challenges through a de-risking process.
Russia’s war in Ukraine demonstrates the potential of transatlantic cooperation and unity in confronting a crisis. The United States has shouldered the lion’s share of military assistance for Ukraine, and EU member states, in terms of total cost, have been Kyiv’s largest benefactor. This has stymied the Kremlin’s grander plans, but the conflict rages on, providing evidence that transatlantic cooperation remains insufficient to address some challenges. The changing world order requires the transatlantic partnership to strengthen ties with key countries elsewhere. To many in Gen Z this is not news.
But to many of today’s policymakers, almost all of whom hail from older generations, it is. They need to take heed. Crucial elections in the United States and for the European Parliament are coming up next year, and many Gen Z voters will be voting for the first time.