The police killing of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has focused the world’s attention on structural racism and inequality. Black Lives Matter can no longer be dismissed as a fringe movement — it has become a global rallying cry in the wake of Floyd’s death.
In this unique moment of solidarity and introspection, hundreds of organizations within Washington’s national security community (including the Quincy Institute) have committed to improving racial diversity in their ranks. And as U.S. rivals seize on anti-racism protests for political gain, some national security experts have highlighted the need to recognize racial injustice at home as a barrier to America’s moral authority on the world stage.
Yet it would be a mistake to limit our critical self-reflection to promoting diversity and inclusion within the national security workforce: we must have an open and honest debate about the ways race and racism have influenced America’s foreign policy for centuries, perpetuating racial injustice and inequality abroad in the name of national security.
Of course, the underrepresentation of minorities in the national security community is a serious problem that must be redressed. Despite efforts in recent years to increase diversity, people of color at the State Department and USAID remain disproportionately represented, especially at senior levels, and are less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
But as important as it is to improve racial equity in public service, these efforts do not automatically translate to fewer wars against predominantly black and brown countries, so long as the connection between race and foreign policy remains largely ignored.
As political scientists Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken observe, the role of race is strikingly absent in mainstream international relations scholarship. This is because the major theories of international relations — realism, liberalism, and constructivism — view political events through a Eurocentric perspective that justifies Western dominance. After all, the study of international relations, as the late Stanley Hoffman famously said, is an “American social science” whose development roughly coincided with the emergence of the U.S. as a global hegemon. It should therefore come as no surprise that the paradigmatic work of international relations, mostly written by Western white male scholars, ignores the issue of race in foreign policy.
Still, history is replete with examples of how race and racism have influenced America’s role in the world. The racism that permeates our foreign policies today is an extension of the belief in white supremacy that shaped the territorial and ideological boundaries of our nation from its inception.
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The United States was built on the backs of black slaves and consolidated through Manifest Destiny-era policies that denied indigenous peoples the right to own and cultivate their own land. This legacy has found expression in America’s interventions abroad, from Theodore Roosevelt’s expansionist doctrine to support for CIA-backed coups across what was then referred to as the Third World during the Cold War.
The xenophobic discourse surrounding the so-called “global war on terror” — which all too often conflates violent extremism with Islam — is merely the latest manifestation of a tendency to “otherize” people of color and portray their values, customs, and beliefs as nefarious forces in the world.
For many in the black freedom movement, the struggles for racial justice in the United States and global peace have always been closely intertwined. In his essay, “The Color Line Belts the World,” W.E.B. Du Bois articulates an internationalist vision of racial equality, emphasizing that the challenges that black Americans faced at home were “but a local phase of a world problem.”
Expressing solidarity with people of color worldwide, figures such as Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson explicitly linked race and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As Hughes muses, perhaps the U.S. waited until after V-E Day to drop the bomb on Japan, a nation of “colored” people, rather than on the white Germans.
The pernicious effects of racism have also shaped the prosecution of America’s endless wars. African Americans were disproportionately drafted and killed in Vietnam: in 1967, blacks accounted for 16 percent of all draftees and 23 percent of all combat troops, but represented only 11 percent of the civilian population. Today, blacks account for 18 percent of active duty enlisted personnel that are sent into harm’s way — still higher relative to their number in the U.S. population. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, endless war endangers incremental progress on civil rights because the “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism are inextricably linked and must be defeated together.
Dr. King’s words ring loudly today. Last year, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any previous year since the Pentagon began to keep a record. Although the United Nations has called for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. continues to drop bombs in Iraq, as it has done every year since 1991. The Trump administration is also reportedly considering an end to the congressional review of arms sales to the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, deepening the “worst humanitarian crisis” in one of the poorest countries in the world. And on the African continent, the U.S. has drastically increased its counterterrorism operations. Somalia alone has suffered from a threefold increase in the number of drone strikes under the Trump administration.
Crucially, the U.S. remains an outlier in international human rights law given its refusal to adopt the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, thus skirting international legal obligations concerning genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.S. has not only failed to adopt the Rome Statute, the Trump administration is going a step further in the wrong direction by sanctioning ICC officials because of their intention to investigate war crimes on all sides of the war in Afghanistan. Racial justice at home simply cannot be realized without securing justice and accountability for breaches of international law.
As we look inwards to dismantle America’s legacy of racism that pervades the law enforcement and national security apparatuses, we must also recognize that racism and militarism are mutually reinforcing. The militarization of police occupying American cities and communities is inseparable from the militarization of American foreign policy that has put the U.S. on a war footing in the Middle East and Africa. Moral outrage over racial injustice and inequality should not stop at the water’s edge — the color line that divides our domestic politics extends to our foreign affairs.