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What can Generation X add to American foreign policy?

Does Ben Rhodes represent my generation? Whatever, dude.

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser: not cynical enough? (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

A running joke of those Americans defined as being part of Generation X is how, to the extent that generations are a thing, the rest of the country forgets that Gen X exists. There has yet to be a Generation X president, and the chances are good that the White House will pass directly from a boomer to a millennial. Because our generation is smaller than either the boomers or the millennials, we have been ignored.

Generation X has responded by resenting the lack of attention while at the same time displaying studied indifference to that lack of attention. What is interesting is that even as Generation X disappears from mainstream media coverage, its prominence in the foreign policy arena persists. This can be seen in the debate surrounding Ben Rhodes’s new book. Last month the Obama speechwriter and foreign policy muse came out with “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made.” It’s been widely reviewed as a well-written mix of autobiographical observation married to a narrative of “How did America get to the Bad Place?”

Two intrepid observers, however, suggest that Rhodes’s book represents some generational naivete. I mean, Steven Cook’s review essay in Foreign Policy is literally titled “Generation X’s Short Arc of History.” Cook suggests that Rhodes should embrace his generation’s legacy of cynicism: “[Rhodes] remains — despite his weary tone — a believer in U.S. exceptionalism and thus clearly regards the last 20 years to be an aberration. It would be hard not to be, having served the first Black president — although Obama would likely be the first to tell Rhodes the antecedents of the United States’ present pathologies run deeper than an era bookended by a crisp, clear Tuesday morning in September around the turn of the century and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”

Similarly, Julia Ioffe, in her new must-read newsletter, “Tomorrow Will Be Worse,” took on Rhodes’s book with equal fervor and landed on a similar criticism: that it was brimming with too little self-awareness: “It is crushingly obvious. Its primary conclusion — that unregulated American capitalism and information technology have helped raise the global anti-democratic tide that has returned to our shores; that Trump is Putin is Orban — is hardly novel. … The problem is his tone of wide-eyed wonder about the discovery of truths that are painfully self-evident.”

Naivete and a lack of self-awareness are not traits commonly associated with Generation X, so perhaps Rhodes is an outlier. This is an odd critique, however, since Rhodes made his name by dubbing Beltway foreign policy denizens “the Blob.” That critique is dripping with the cynicism so common to my generation. That seems hard to square with the “excessive idealism” label.

To the extent that there are generational-cohort views on foreign policy — and I think there are — is Generation X really as useless as Cook and Ioffe claim? Let me suggest that, weirdly, Generation X’s place in the foreign policy firmament has evolved over the years. When we were young, Gen X was much more cynical than the baby boomers. This was natural for anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s.

As time has passed, however Gen Xers have become relatively optimistic, but not absolutely so. Millennials and Zoomers are pretty down on U.S. foreign policy, and with cause. Gen Xers, however, are the youngest cohort to remember an era of good if not great U.S. foreign policy. This means we know such a thing is possible.

If there is anything I have learned in my years of studying and teaching about U.S. foreign policy, it is that one needs to balance healthy dollops of cynicism and idealism. Of course administrations will screw up foreign affairs, but that does not mean simply giving up on pursuing U.S. interests or values. It means trying to learn from mistakes, dusting one’s self off and continuing to move forward. Because, strange as it may sound in 2021, an awfully large part of the globe is continuing to root for U.S. leadership.

When we were young, it was appropriate for Generation X to temper the ambitions of older generations. As we hit middle age, however, our new task is to remind younger generations that not everything the United States touches turns to dust.