Ferguson from Afar

How the World Sees the Protests

A man is doused with milk after being hit by an eye irritant from security forces trying to disperse demonstrators in Ferguson.
A man is doused with milk after being hit by an eye irritant from security forces trying to disperse demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, August 20, 2014. (Adrees Latif / Courtesy Reuters)

As the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, unfolds, questions about the United States’ commitment to human rights are once more headlining news coverage around the world. The uncomfortable international spotlight on such domestic problems should not be surprising. American racial inequality regularly dominated foreign news coverage during the 1950s and 1960s. U.S. policymakers were eventually forced to respond, in part to protect America’s image abroad. As it reflects on how to handle the protests in Ferguson, the Obama administration would do well to consider the fact that, in previous decades, federal intervention was eventually needed to protect both civil rights and U.S. foreign relations.

The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer -- and the resulting protests -- have been front-page news in many countries. On August 20, Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan and the Kuwait Times published the same shocking photograph of an officer in riot gear pointing a rifle at a woman on the ground. The United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News featured white law enforcement officers in military-style gear holding high-powered rifles. Coverage of the events in Ferguson has been particularly extensive in Turkey, too. And news services across Europe, Africa, and South America have followed the story. Of particular note, the unrest in Ferguson was featured prominently on Russian state television, reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s extensive coverage of American race discrimination during the Cold War. And in China, commentary in Xinhua, the state news agency, suggested that Ferguson shows that a “racial divide still remains a deeply rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart.”

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