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racism, foreign policy, equality, justice, black lives matter, systemic racism

We’re Still Failing to Confront Racism in US Foreign Policy 

Here’s how we make progress.

Words: Rishma Vora
Pictures: Gemma Chua-Tran

More than one year after police brutality and systemic racism led to the murder of George Floyd, the United States hasn’t done nearly enough to combat systemic racism. This applies domestically, but also to the realm of US foreign policy. For far too long, we’ve treated racism and violent white nationalism as solely a domestic issue when in reality, racism is built into the foundation of our nation’s approach to foreign affairs. It’s long past time for us to come to terms with this and actively combat the racism embedded in our foreign policy. That starts with holding our current administration, and ourselves, accountable.

The US has a long history of racism in its domestic and foreign actions. White colonizers destroyed native life and land in the name of “Manifest Destiny.” Anti-Asian sentiment forced hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps. In the 1970s and 80s, the United States instigated countless conflicts around the globe, supporting ruthless dictators and human rights abuses in the name of containment. In the Trump era, Islamophobia barred Muslim refugees from coming to this country to escape war. America’s Western paternalism and neocolonialism lives on within and outside of its borders. Such racism continues to exist today, often in implicit and dangerous ways.

The historic events of the past year ー worldwide protests demanding that Black lives have and will always matter ー seem to have raised a new sensitivity to racism. However, events in even just the past few months have illuminated the persistent presence of racism and American exceptionalism within our foreign policy decisions.

For instance, at our southern border, the Biden administration engaged in a stealthy “vaccine diplomacy” effort with Mexico. In April, the US promised Mexico 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to help combat its crippling COVID-19 crisis, quietly pressing for Mexico to curb immigration to the US in return. Most of those that still embarked on the treacherous journey to make a new life here, including asylum seekers, have been immediately turned away by US Customs and Border Patrol. Conditions at ICE detention centers have always been inhumane, but they stooped to a new level during the pandemic: reports of forced gynecological procedures, dwindling resources, failure to create a socially-distanced environment, and the list of abuses goes on.

Vice President Kamala Harris also delivered a blunt and harsh message to Guatemalans hoping to immigrate to the United States: “Do not come,” she said repeatedly. Her messaging centered around the need for Guatemala to focus on its government corruption and human trafficking issues, as well as limiting immigration to the US. Harris’ remarks implied that many of the issues Guatemala faces are of the country’s own doing, failing to recognize and account for the long history of US intervention in and exploitation of the country. From the CIA’s support of military dictators that conducted genocide during the Guatemalan Civil War to the continued exploitation of Guatemalan coffee planters for large corporations like Nestle, it’s clear that the US refuses to take accountability for its past and present legacy of racism, colonialism, and exploitation.

There is no easy solution to a centuries-old system of unjust and exclusive values built into America’s very foundation. However, individual and systemic changes can create cracks in that racist foundation to create a better, safer future for our country and ultimately our world.

The embedment of racism in US foreign affairs isn’t restricted to just one area, but it’s prominent in the defense and security realm. The Biden administration has made competition with China a cornerstone of its foreign policy, justifying the further bloat of the Pentagon’s budget by making exaggerated claims about the size and scope of China’s military threat. The reality of our comparative military power is indisputable: our deployed warheads are five times that of China’s and our active nuclear stockpile is 11 times the size of China’s. Yet instead of working with China to combat the most pressing issues plaguing the globe — from climate change to pandemic relief — we’ve chosen to pursue a path of competitive realism. This foreign risk inflation, not to mention the racist undertones of rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, has also spurred anti-Asian violence at home. The more we artificially create competition with China, the more we put our own citizens at risk.

Realistically, there is no easy solution to a centuries-old system of unjust and exclusive values built into America’s very foundation. However, individual and systemic changes can create cracks in that racist foundation to create a better, safer future for our country and ultimately our world.

We can start by reframing education surrounding International Relations. Universities offering International Relations courses should take a critical look at their curricula. The role of race and racism in shaping postcolonial global power structures should be central to these courses, not confined to a “special day” to discuss racism, which is all too common. Academic institutions must also improve their hiring processes to significantly increase the racial diversity of their International Relations faculty; the field has been gatekept for white men for too long.

When we invest in bettering the education of those who study International Relations, we invest in better global leaders for the future. This extends to international policy-making and diplomacy, too. In 2018, 81.3% of US foreign service specialists were white, and employees of color were less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts at every rank within the foreign service corps. It’s been long-proven that leaders representing their own communities, who understand their real needs, can affect the greatest change for them. We must advocate for there to be more seats at the table, especially for people and nations that have been traditionally marginalized.

On a national level, it is imperative to place immense pressure on Congress to divest funding from the Pentagon and the United States military and to actually invest in human security— that means taking some of the billions of dollars that are spent on building weapons and reallocating towards expanding public health access, ensuring stable housing for all, combating climate change, and so on. If even a portion of Biden’s proposed $715 billion Pentagon budget was reallocated towards improving the quality of life for Americans, we’d be in a much better state than we are now. Continuing to militarize further will not make Americans safer and will actively work against efforts to achieve racial equality, both at home and abroad.

On an individual level, we need to continue to write, to post, to protest, to have those tough dinner table conversations. And most importantly, we need to listen to Black and brown voices.

We must not allow the social and political momentum created in the summer of 2020 to die. The murder of George Floyd and countless Black and brown people in America, the early and ongoing massacre of indigenous people and resources, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and America’s entire history of colonialism are gruesome reminders of our need to do better and to push our government to be better. Since the effects of racism are often not considered and even hidden within the foreign policy sphere, we must loudly and actively recognize the inextricable ties between domestic racism, American exceptionalism, and US foreign policy.

Rishma Vora is a member of the Center for International Policy’s Summer 2021 Development and Communications Team.

Rishma Vora

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