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Is It Generational?

Edward Snowdon and I are the same age; our adolescence sits squarely between the fall of the Soviet Union (8 years old) and the events of 9/11 (18 years old). During that time, without the bipolar rivalry that overshadowed much of the twentieth century, American culture shifted toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and placed significant value on cross-cultural exchange. (I'm thinking of shows like Captain Planet, in which an international, multi-ethnic team of kids thwart rapacious corporate villains). Furthermore, it was always assumed that the United States, secure in its position as the world's sole superpower, would be leading such efforts, and doing what it could to bring about a more unified, less contentious world community.

Contrast that with the tenets of realism, which assume that competition between states is an immutable fact of life, and that individual nation-states are, in some sense, perpetually at each other's throats for the upper hand on the world stage. In such an environment, the less savory aspects of spycraft (like spying on your allies, or hacking into the servers of private companies) make perfect sense. But in the world Edward Snowdon and a lot of other Gen Y kids thought they were growing up in, it's a gross violation of basic decency. Worse, it's a vestige of a bygone era, a worldview that has no appeal to children of the Information Age, who have seen the power of unbounded, collaborative spaces like the Internet and are increasingly disgusted with the human toll wreaked by self-serving foreign policy.

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one's own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

I think that over the next few decades, as more and more members of Gen Y reach maturity and begin taking the reigns of power in government, we're going to see fewer and fewer people willing to swallow that kind of cynical, game-theory worldview. While Baby Boomers and Generation X are killing themselves trying to figure out how to beat their opponent in the prisoner's dilemma, Gen Y wants to break out of the prison.