As the system of international relations shifts from being unipolar to multipolar, young Millennials in the U.S. and Russia will play an important role in determining how both nations move forward in their relationship.

The new Millennial generation can positively influence Russia-U.S. relations. Photo: Getty Images / Fotobank

The world is not only on a geopolitical threshold, it also on a demographic threshold. Members of Generation Y (the so-called Millennials) are coming of age in the 21st century, replacing members of Generation X in leadership positions in the field of diplomacy and international relations.

Demographic and geopolitical changes are closely connected and cannot be analyzed in isolation from one another. A new generation will become, if not fully responsible for establishing a more just world order, at least an important participant in this process and responsible for safeguarding its continuity.

Importantly, geopolitical events at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century that accompanied the maturing of these Millennials have been influencing their views of the world. Understanding how Millennials see the world around them and what impact their perceptions would make on international relations, then, is of paramount importance for understanding the future of international relations.

The Ukranian crisis indictates that the world is on the threshold of a tectonic shift in international relations, as Millennials see it. In fact, it revealed many controversies in the established system of international relations. Because of the growing number of casualties in an increasing number of conflicts, talk of the need for a revival of diplomacy and a New Yalta Conference, literally or figuratively, where international balance would be reestablished, has become unavoidable.

A good place to start learning about generational identity in the U.S. and how views on international relations among American youth are shifting is the place where this identity and views are being molded: at the university. There has been a growing realization among American academics of the mistakes made by the U.S. in the international arena, mistakes which they now are starting to communicate to their young people.

At Columbia University, for example, Alexander Cooley, a political science professor who studies effects of external actors on the development and sovereignty of post-Soviet states, emphasizes that the world order is changing in no small part because the U.S. has compromised its reputation by “not practicing what it preaches.”

Likewise, another Columbia University professor, Robert Jervis, argues that international cooperation has been compromised by U.S. decision makers who are not sufficiently sensitive to the effects of the security dilemma in the field of International Relations. He believes that NATO expansion is a disregard for this security dilemma, which worsens relations with Russia and compromises world peace.

There is a process of growing objectivity in U.S. academic institutions with regard to analyzing events in the international arena, a mood that is becoming contagious for future American leaders. The effect of this new wave of realization is summed up by John Zogby, a founder of Zogby International, and Joan Snyder, a founder of the project Why Millennials Matter, in their book First Globals: Understanding, Managing, and Unleashing Our Millennial Generation. The authors write that, “Millennials shy away from traditionally exaggerated ideas of America as a superpower. American Millennials realized that the U.S. achieved the end of the road as the world’s sole superpower because they matured during the times when their country faced crises of confidence at home and abroad.”

The crises of confidence in the policies conducted by the U.S. establishment is expressed in the findings of a Pew Research survey conducted in March 2014, according to which only 30 percent of Millennials view the U.S. Congress favorably, compared to 68 percent in 2004. More than half of respondents call themselves political independents, which constitutes the highest level of disaffiliation for any generation recorded by the organization.

Growing dissatisfaction among American Millennials with the work of their government can be interpreted as a potential signal that Russia-U.S. bilateral relations can normalize in the near future, when American Millennials, who are spared from the fetters of ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union or Russia as its successor, can choose a non-confrontational path.

Matthew Asada, a U.S. diplomat, for example, says that American Millennials were raised with a different view of Russia than Gen X or Baby Boomers. They view Russia as a post-Soviet country that the West has been trying to incorporate into Western institutional structures, not a historical foe. Some were surprised by the perceived negative bias in media coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

It goes without saying, though, that bilateral relations are a two-way street and Russian Millennials are responsible for normalizing relations with the U.S. in no lesser degree than the U.S. Millennials are responsible for correcting possible mistakes made by their country after the collapse of a bipolar world order. Russian Millennials are responsible for establishing a reputation as a generation that is concerned and actively engaged in solving global problems. Active cooperation and partnership implies there can be no apathy or lethargy.

In light of the recent article Generation Putin in Foreign Affairs magazine - which painted a grim portrait of Russia’s future leaders as passive, conformist, xenophobic, homophobic and unwilling to change the system - rebuffing the stereotypes and creating a reputation of an engaged and concerned generation becomes a particularly challenging issue for young Russians.

Jack Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, for example, is skeptical that such a generation can appear in Russia. Based on his knowledge of the Millennial generation in Russia, he said that there is no real youth activism and existing movements are manufactured by the Russian government. As an example, he used the “government-organized lightly nationalist movement Nashi.” Considering the high degree of activism among American youth, Jack Snyder’s skepticism regarding the state of Russian youth activism can be understood.

In 2004 the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, which helps to strengthen students’ engagement in foreign politics through policy research and proposals, was founded in the U.S. It seeks to create a bridge between Millennials and foreign policy senior decision-makers. Similarly, Russian Millennials can learn to organize more in a grassroots fashion for pursuing pragmatic problems solving as well as not shying away from introducing new ideas to the government though policy proposals and initiatives.

Robert Jervis, an international relations specialist at Columbia University focusing on improving the world order and international security, has also reflected on the argument that the new Millennial generation can positively influence Russia-U.S. relations. He doubts that relations could normalize while Vladimir Putin is in power in Russia or even after.

This is assuming that Putin’s foreign policy course has the genuine support of future Russian leaders. This commentary, which suggests that long-held views of Russia and the United States could be harder to change than first imagined, could be a legacy of the Cold War mentality. This way of thinking, non-existent among the new Millennial generation, may have lingering influence for many years ahead.

In conclusion, it is necessary to bring attention to one important characteristic of the Millennial generation that will have strong influence on international relations, which Russian Millennials need to be aware of. Millennials in the U.S. are known for their global empathy that calls for reconstruction of ideal of citizenship and policy-making that transcends pure national interests. They have a self-conception as part of the “global citizenry” rather than a dominant affiliation with the United States.

In the current environment of heightened political tensions and perceived external aggression, it is important for Russian youth to avoid turning inward. While it is necessary to focus on Russia’s national interests and domestic economy, it is also necessary to participate in world affairs.  Educational and cultural exchanges should be encouraged because they are the only way to enable a generation, which will have to function in a globalized world, to learn about differences of other nations, and to build patience and empathy for working with multinational teams on creating a secure and prosperous international community.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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