Lack of foreign policy focus troubling

Eric Gardiner
Eric Gardiner

I joined the Navy at 17, three years after 9/11. I celebrated my 28th birthday on a military base in Afghanistan. Today, my friends – whose daily lives are shaped by decisions the president makes – remain on the frontlines. I am a veteran, a voter and a millennial. And I am worried about the lack of any real foreign policy debate in this election.

The next president will decide how to spend our taxes and where the members of our armed forces will risk their lives. The president’s choices will affect our standing in the world and the safety and prosperity of those at home.

Yet on both sides of the aisle, discussion of the candidates’ capacities to act as head of state is minimal at best.

The eclipse of the commander-in-chief test is an issue that matters for every American, and particularly for my fellow millennials. How the president chooses to use the American military has a disproportionate effect on young people. Close to 75 percent of those enlisted in the U.S. military are 30 or younger. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 80 percent of those wounded or killed in action had not turned 31.

We should also care because the United States is fighting a new kind of war. We are the first generation to tackle extended conflict with an all-volunteer force. We are a generation accustomed to violent non-state actors and to wars that refuse to conform to traditional boundaries. Groups like the Islamic State have supranational ambitions and unconventional tactics. It will take innovation from the youngest and most technologically capable generation to stop these trends.

Young people are used to a world in which the lines between foreign and domestic policy are blurred. For example, our relationship with China shapes economic growth. In a globalized society, choosing a good commander-in-chief is choosing a leader at home.

But this isn’t just about national security or our military. Aside from prisons, the military has the only wide-scale socialized health care system in the United States. More than 90 percent of enlisted military personnel have not received a bachelor’s degree, and military families tend to have more debt than civilians. According to the VA, more than half of all post-9/11 veterans will face a period of unemployment. When polled, people 18 to 34 describe jobs, debt and health care as their primary concerns. The military is a microcosm of the issues millennials care about most.

We should scrutinize how the presidential candidates carry themselves and how they plan to lead. Our generation shoulders the burdens of conflict, and we have witnessed the rise of new security threats. It’s time to revitalize the commander-in-chief test in both political parties. Millennials should lead the charge.

Eric Gardiner is adviser to the president for education at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own. Email: