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Generations: Empire

This is my fourth installment of a series examining how the election of 2008 might be changed by as much as 45% of the electorate belonging to the Gen-X or Millenial Generations. You can find the previous entries here:

Generations: Institutionalized
Generations: Do the Right Thing

The United States of America is, by far, the most influential nation on earth. Its economy is the largest of any single nation, just behind the European Union as a whole at 27% of the entire world GDP. Its influence is even more gargantuan when measured by total military expenditures, which in 2008 are $711 Billion or 48% of the worldwide total:


Historical figures are hard to come by, but it seems reasonable to assume that no nation has dominated the world in this way since the glory days of the British Empire under Queen Victoria. This massive expenditure allows us to operate at bases all around the world, assuring that the sun never sets on the US military. It is not a stretch to say that we are all living in the days of the American Empire.

In generational terms, however, this means very different things to different people. The Traditionals, who were born before World War II, saw this Empire created from the ashes of a global conflict that dominated their lives as kids. My own Dad, born in 1933, remembers strange details about various battles because he followed the war as we might follow a sports team today. Specific heroes and their achievements come to his mind quickly as if he was remembering the game winning home-run from an obscure homestand in the middle of the season – if you were there, you’d remember it, too.

After the war, the US inherited bases all over the world and a commitment to keep troops in many places. We were also the only bulwark against Communism. The Cold War was what the Traditional Generation was called to fight, and they took their duty seriously. They did this because they knew the sacrifice of those who came before them. They were given high standards, and they lived up to them.

Baby Boomers were born with the American Empire as an assumption; it was simply the world they knew. While many took the call to duty seriously, or at least took advantage of the benefits of military service, others started to question the cost. This came to a head during the Vietnam War, when many Boomers saw no reason to go off and die in a pointless war. They were willing to tear the nation apart in order to be heard. Ultimately, however, the Empire proved too useful to be dismantled at least as long as Communism remained a threat.

I was born in 1965, the first of the Gen-Xers. My memories of the Vietnam War include the teevee broadcast of the last helicopter leaving Saigon. I remember it well. My Dad stared at the television, shaking with an urge to scream or cry or do something; in the end, all he could do was mutter, “This is a disgrace”. All I knew was that we had been humbled.

I never thought we’d face this again, but in September of 2001 we were attacked. My own memory of Saigon led me to realize that it could go badly, but the cries for war in Iraq were strong. We went to war for what we would later realize was no apparent reason and became bogged down. My own children are very young but they are receiving their own message in their formative years; they have learned that we are limited only by our own capacity for anger and self-delusion.

Each generation has reacted to the American Empire differently because they had different experiences with it. I am fond of saying that while every immigrant story is different, every immigrant story is the same; the first generation suffers in silence, the second learns to fight, and it’s up to the third and fourth generation to make sense of it all. The creation of the American Empire has taken a very similar path because, like an immigration story, it involves the arrival in and creation of a new world.

The world we live in is the world of the American Empire.

What does this mean politically? Consider a BBC poll of people around the world on attitudes towards the USofA:

They asked many questions in this poll, but the one I found most alarming was “Do you see the US as arrogant, humble, or neither?” A full 65% of all respondents worldwide said that they saw the American Empire as “arrogant”. That may not seem surprising when talking to a Frenchman (81%) or a Brasilian (68%), but what was astonishing was that 54% of all Americans responded that they saw our own nation as “arrogant”. Obviously, a lot of people are unhappy with where things have gone.

Each generation has had a different experience with the American Empire. We can reasonably expect that their history will shape how they feel about the situation and what should be done. While there has been very little polling on this issue by generation, the youngest generations, scarred by the first attack on the US since 1812, tend to be skeptical.

Our American Empire did not prevent the attacks, after all. Its response in Afghanistan and Iraq has been at best ineffective and at worst a diversion. None of this has made us feel substantially safer. Younger generations inherited the American Empire and did not have a hand in creating it. In their lives, it has been an enormous cost without a tremendous benefit.

Naturally, some people have different views even within Gen-X and Millenial generations; many brave people have fought in these wars and are rightly proud of their service. But on balance, the American Empire has become glaringly out of line with the rest of the world while providing less in real protection.

That’s not to say that issues of security won’t be important in this election. The generation whose formative years include the images of the World Trade Center falling must feel insecure and want to increase safety. However, they are less likely to have a blind support for the military and the American Empire as the solution.

National security necessarily includes economic security, and it’s clear that we are surprisingly weak right now in part because we spend so much money to support nearly half of the world’s military expenditures. When up to 45% of the electorate belongs to the generations that did not create the situation they will demand change. It may be sweeping and isolationist, but it will more likely be a nuanced approach to foreign policy that includes diplomacy and economics as well as military strength.

The American Empire is very real, and it was deliberately created. As the generations who comprise the electorate change, their different experiences will bring the value of this Empire into question. Our view of how we conduct ourselves abroad will be part of the discussion. Since we view ourselves as “arrogant”, on balance, you can bet that there will be a call for change. That change will be, like all the others, generational.

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