Monday, November 19, 2012


The reelection of Barack Obama confirms a shift in American strategic culture and has served to highlight deep and meaningful demographic and ideological transformations in the American electorate and in its foreign political preferences.

Confirmation of a shift in strategic culture

The 2012 campaign was marked by two candidates each advancing widely different worldviews. Mitt Romney focused almost exclusively on a foreign policy based on the preservation of traditional American leadership and power in the world – an emphasis on military might, interstate and bilateral relations, a world divided into friends (Israel, Eastern and Central Europe among others) and enemies (Russia, China), and even a proposition to create a Ronald Reagan Economic Zone to attract and codify cooperation between developed and emerging democracies.  Conversely, Obama placed more emphasis on his record on foreign policy as president (for which Americans rate him very favorably) and on the need to exercise military action as a last resort; the importance of multilateral institutions, partnerships and coalitions in foreign action; and on the need for renewed American competitiveness – but also greater cooperation – vis-à-vis emerging powers. Obama’s main messages tended to focus more heavily on frontier foreign policy issues, transversal problems that require common approaches and multilayered responses – the so-called global commons issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change (which his National Security Strategy classified a threat equivalent to a foreign invasion on US soil).

A Non Western-bound Vision of the World

Ultimately, the competing visions put forth by Obama and Romney correspond almost uniformly to demographic shifts already underway in American society – the emergence of two opposing generational poles, the Baby Boomers (born after WWII) and the Millennials (born 1981-2000). The main distinctions between the groups are: 1) for the Boomers, a general fear of the future (immigration, the loss of American prestige and an eventual decline, and the need to assert America’s force in the face of changing geopolitics); and 2) for the Millennials, America’s most ethnically diverse generation ever and the first to exceed 100 million people, an unprecedented level of social tolerance exemplified in an embrace of immigration, social mobility programs, diplomacy and smart power, and the conviction that the US president should focus more on Asia-Pacific, breaking ground on climate change, and building partnerships – and less on Middle East peace, for example.

Demographic Shifts to a New Foreign policy

Their choice of Obama dismantled the central Republican argument against the president for the past four years – that Obama’s presidency was a fluke of history that would be rejected a second time as a failed experiment. Although nearly half of the country did not vote for Obama, an overwhelming number of young Americans did. Their participation announced at least two major changes: first, that young and active Americans reject Republican nostalgia, concur largely with the policy priorities laid out by Obama, and are eager to express this at the polls; and second, that while all Americans do not welcome the emergence of a new multicultural America, it has already proven both inevitable and very much present in the landscape – years earlier than anticipated. Over the span of two presidential elections, Millennials have mobilized to confirm their notion of which direction America should pursue – to move the country away from the Cold War paradigms that marked the Baby Boomer generation and to embrace a new conception of the primary challenges and priorities facing the United States, as well as wielding a new set of tools to confront them.