The Globalist Generation Gap: Changing Views of International Human Rights Law in the United States and United Kingdom

The Globalist Generation Gap: Changing Views of International Human Rights Law in the United States and United Kingdom
Ava Morgenstern
Vol. 38 Associate Editor

International human rights law is unfashionable this year. Right-of-center politicians in the United States and United Kingdom, exploiting fears of migration and terrorism, have attacked international institutions as out of touch with local populations. Entrepreneurs of populist nationalism frame elite globalist bureaucrats as detached from ordinary citizens. This rhetoric however may have a short shelf life. Though older voters – who tend to vote more – distrust international law, younger voters – who show up at the polls less – feel much more favorably. In the long-term, this generational gap may sharply change public opinion and thus the work of international lawyers and policymakers.

Throughout 2016, major politicians have elevated national sovereignty and attacked international human rights law. In the United States, Donald Trump aligns himself with leaders who discount international norms in favor of sovereignty and expansive military power, most notably Vladimir Putin.[1] He explicitly rejects the United Nations (UN) by alleging it is not democratic, not effective, and not aligned with U.S. interests.[2] A few weeks before the Presidential election, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights called Trump “dangerous from an international point of view.”[3]

Trump’s major critique of international legal norms regards wartime conduct. The United States should, he thinks, have “taken the oil” out of Iraq during the 2003 invasion, which would likely have violated the Geneva Convention’s standards for conduct of an occupying power.[4] He rejects the need to defend North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies under attack, if he perceives them as underpaying NATO.[5] The drafters of the UN anti-torture convention are, he says, “eggheads” out of touch with the realities of terrorism.[6] He would order the U.S. military to kill terrorists’ families and torture terrorism suspects, using techniques “tougher than waterboarding” because “torture works.”[7] Targeting civilians and using torture are violations of the Geneva Conventions. Trump did later retract these statements after retired General Michael Hayden countered that military officers may refuse orders illegal under international law.[8]

Trump also rejects international law governing racial minority rights. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim tourists and immigrants may violate the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.[9]

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, pro-Brexit politicians have criticized international human rights law. They create a dichotomy between British sovereignty and European legal institutions – elevating the first, dismissing the latter, and finding both mutually incompatible. The Conservative government led by Theresa May is now trying to disentangle the United Kingdom from its decades of involvement in European law. While this disengagement is focused on the European Union (EU), May also favors withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which are part of the Council of Europe separate from the EU. She objects to the ECHR on the grounds it undermines the United Kingdom’s national security by obstructing the deportation of terrorism suspects.[10]

Julian Beach comments on the gap between nationalism and internationalism in the United Kingdom:

[T]he voting results expose a deepening chasm between the pluralist, legalistic, and policy-driven rationalism supporting EU membership and the emotionally provocative politics of identity and the desire for “national sovereignty.” This incoherence, which emerges from the shadow of recession, prolonged economic suffering, and intensified racial antagonism, could prove highly disruptive to transnational law and its foundational values.[11]

While these pro-sovereignty and anti-internationalist trends are dismaying for advocates of international law, better days may lay ahead. Notably, in the United States and United Kingdom, voters’ concepts of nationalism and internationalism differ strongly by age. Trump’s supporters are older, whiter, more religious, and less educated, compared to Clinton’s.[12] Their foreign policy views are unusually hawkish even for Republicans.[13] Meanwhile, Trump has low support among millennials,[14] who are more racially diverse, more educated, and less religious.[15] Millennials, in contrast to older voters, view international institutions and human rights law more favorably.[16] The Cato Institute notes that U.S. millennials’ worldviews are shaped by economic and technological globalization, the post-9/11 surveillance state, terrorism, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Consequently, the Institute writes, millennials see the world as “less threatening” than do older generations, and are more likely to favor “international cooperation” rather than military force.[17] Trump’s hostility to international law is thus unlikely to resonate with millennials either now or into the future.

The same generational gap around (inter)nationalism exists in the United Kingdom. In the EU referendum, voters who chose to leave the EU were on average older than those who chose to remain.[18] Older voters were more concerned about sovereignty and limiting immigration, while younger voters were more focused on the economy and human rights.[19]

Younger voters’ more favorable views of international law will not, however, automatically or quickly translate into corresponding domestic policies. Younger voters in both the United States and United Kingdom show up at the polls less often than older voters, so mobilization campaigns must reach the former group.[20] In the United States specifically, young adults also suffer voter suppression due to strategic partisan tactics.[21] Change toward a more internationalist politics is not inevitable. Nevertheless, with the right efforts and strategies, advocates of the international legal order may cultivate a better public reception in the long term.


[1] See David Frum, The Dangers of the Putin-Trump Relationship, Atlantic (Sept. 21, 2016), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-and-putins-relationship/500852/.

[2] See Trump Presidency ‘Dangerous,’ Says UN Rights Chief, BBC News (Oct. 12, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37628345.

[3] Id.

[4] Damian Paletta, Trump’s ‘Take the Oil’ Plan Would Violate Geneva Conventions, Experts Say, Wall St. J.: Wash. Wire Blog (Sept. 8, 2016, 1:08 PM), http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/09/08/trumps-take-the-oil-plan-would-violate-geneva-conventions-experts-say/.

[5] Krishnadev Calamur, NATO Schmato?, Atlantic (July 21, 2016, 10:21 AM), http://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/trump-nato/492341/.

[6] See Allan Smith, Donald Trump Dismisses ‘Eggheads’ Who Developed International Laws Banning Torture, Bus. Insider (Mar. 22, 2016, 6:59 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-brussels-attacks-waterboarding-2016-3.

[7] Charlotte Alter, Donald Trump Backs Off Promises to Break International Law, Time (Mar. 4, 2016), http://time.com/4248218/donald-trump-backs-off-promises-to-break-international-law.

[8] Id.

[9] The Trump Memos: The ACLU’s Constitutional Analysis of the Public Statements and Policy Proposals of Donald Trump, Am. C.L. Union 5 https://action.aclu.org/sites/default/files/pages/trumpmemos.pdf (last visited Sept. 26, 2016).

[10] Anushka Asthana & Rowena Mason, UK Must Leave European Convention on Human Rights, Says Theresa May, Guardian (Apr. 25, 2016, 2:54 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/25/uk-must-leave-european-convention-on-human-rights-theresa-may-eu-referendum.

[11] Julian Beach, Essay, Sovereignty and Identity After Brexit: The European Project Under Siege, Colum. J. Transnat’l L., http://jtl.columbia.edu/sovereignty-and-identity-after-brexit-the-european-project-under-siege/ (last visited Sept. 26, 2016).

[12] Chris Alcantara, Kevin Uhrmacher, & Emily Guskin, Clinton and Trump’s Demographic Tug of War, Wash. Post (Sept. 25, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/the-demographic-groups-fueling-the-election/.

[13] See Adam Taylor, Poll: Trump Supporters See the World Very Differently Than Other Republicans, Wash. Post (July 18, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/18/poll-trump-supporters-see-the-world-very-differently-than-other-republicans/.

[14] See Poll Finds Millennials Favor Clinton Over Trump by Wide Margin, USA Today (Aug. 15, 2016, 12:14 PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/pr/2016/08/15/poll-finds-millennials-favor-clinton-over-trump-wide-margin/88757778/.

[15] See, e.g., Millennials in Adulthood, Pew Res. Ctr. 4–17 (Mar. 7, 2014), http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2014/03/2014-03-07_generations-report-version-for-web.pdf.

[16] See A. Trevor Thrall & Erik Goepner, Millennials and U.S. Foreign Policy, Cato Inst., http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/20150616_thrallgoepner_millennialswp.pdf (last visited Sept. 26, 2016).

[17] Id. at 1.

[18] Jon Kelly, Brexit: How Much of a Generation Gap is There?, BBC News (June 24, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36619342.

[19] James Sloan, Young Voters: Most Are for Remaining in the EU, Yet Many Will Not Vote, London Sch. Econ. and Pol. Sci.: Brexit Blog (Apr. 18, 2016), http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/04/18/the-generation-gap-how-young-voters-view-the-uks-referendum/.

[20] See Kelly, supra note 18; Asma Khalid, Millennials Now Rival Boomers as a Political Force, But Will They Actually Vote?, Nat’l Pub. Radio (May 16, 2016, 2:40 PM), http://www.npr.org/2016/05/16/478237882/millennials-now-rival-boomers-as-a-political-force-but-will-they-actually-vote.

[21] See Catherine Rampell, Where Are All the Young Voters?, Wash. Post (July 23, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/where-are-the-young-voters/2015/07/23/2781990e-316f-11e5-8f36-18d1d501920d_story.html?utm_term=.4afec10ad24e; Voter Suppression Targets Women, Youth, and Communities of Color (Issue Advisory, Part One), Nat’l Org. for Women (Aug. 2014), http://now.org/resource/voter-suppression-targets-women-youth-and-communities-of-color-issue-advisory-part-one/.