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The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has thrust the United States into an uncomfortable light, as people around the world have taken to the streets to decry American racism. In Milan, protesters sat with hands around their necks in front of “I can’t breathe” signs, quoting Floyd’s dying words. The phrase was spelled out in candles in Australia. In Dublin, a large crowd, fists in the air, chanted, “No justice, no peace.” Syrians painted a mural of Floyd amid the rubble in Idlib. Black people across the world, said Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, were “shocked and distraught” by Floyd’s killing.
In many places, crowds turned their attention to practices by their own countries. In New Zealand, indigenous people stressed their vulnerability to racial profiling. In Bristol, England, protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slave trader, and threw it into the harbor. In Belgium, protesters set fire to a statue of King Leopold II. The reaction went beyond a rebuke of racial injustice when Minneapolis police shot foreign reporters with “nonlethal” weapons, leading to criticism from foreign governments about the importance of press freedom.
The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks has felt like a shift “as monumental as the Berlin Wall coming down,” wrote the journalist Kim Zetter. But stunning as the reaction was, it was not unfamiliar: global demonstrations in solidarity with American racial protest were common during the U.S. civil rights movement. And as they did then, U.S. foreign policy leaders today have looked at the global response and considered the effect of the crisis on U.S. foreign relations—worrying that the protests and violent police response, coming on top of the United States’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, threaten to undermine American strength in the world. As Richard Haass wrote for Foreign Affairs last week, “The turmoil in the United States, set before the eyes of the world, raises questions about American power.” This message echoes the concern of American diplomats from the civil rights era: failing to live up to the nation’s stated ideals undermines its international influence.
During the civil rights movement, concern over the impact U.S. racism had on the nation’s global image helped reinforce pressure for reforms, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The focus on how the United States was perceived, however, rather than deeper structures of inequality, ultimately limited reform efforts. Race discrimination remained an American feature, undermining rights at home and leaving the United States persistently vulnerable to the charge that its promotion of democracy and human rights abroad was hypocritical.
In 1963, an earlier generation marched around the world in support of racial justice in the United States. That May, police in Birmingham, Alabama, pummeled black high school students who were peacefully marching into the city to protest race discrimination. Shocking photographs of children plastered by fire hoses against buildings and threatened by snarling police dogs appeared in newspapers around the world, reinforcing global criticism of American racism.
Although some reactions reflected Cold War–era geopolitics, condemnation was nearly universal. Both U.S. allies and U.S. adversaries insisted that the United States could not be an effective world leader if it failed to protect the democratic rights of its own citizens. American diplomats in foreign posts cabled Washington about the global outrage and its palpable impact on public opinion.
These events coincided with the very first meeting of the Organization of African Unity. Leaders of newly independent African nations departed from their other business to debate how to react and whether U.S. racial violence was a reason for OAU nations to break relations with Washington. Backing off from a break, they passed a weaker resolution condemning American racism (which the African Union Commission reaffirmed after George Floyd’s murder). But it was enough to make clear that violent attacks on civil rights protesters were a foreign relations problem as well as a matter of domestic justice.
For many foreign policy leaders, civil rights reform was essential to protect the nation’s image in the Cold War competition for hearts and minds in newly independent nations.
As the civil rights movement kept American injustice in the public eye, aides to President John F. Kennedy argued that progress on civil rights was essential to achieving the administration’s foreign policy goals. The president called on Congress to pass landmark civil rights legislation. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in Senate testimony on legislation, stressed that the impact of racism on U.S. foreign relations was “very grave.” For many foreign policy leaders, civil rights reform was essential to protect the nation’s image in the Cold War competition for the hearts and minds of peoples in newly independent nations.
The Kennedy administration was wary when hundreds of thousands of people planned to march on Washington that August in support of the Civil Rights Act and broader social change. But the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) tried to ensure that the “right” message about the march was heard around the world. In U.S. propaganda, the march was a symbol of progress, an example of black American political participation, and the realization of American democratic ideals.
U.S. government information programs could not, however, contain the meaning of the march as it quickly became a global event. James Baldwin and other black Americans in Paris planned a petition drive in support of the march. Along with the musicians Hazel Scott, Memphis Slim, Mezz Mezzrow, Mae Mercer, and some hundred others, they walked from the American Church in Paris to the U.S. embassy to deliver a scroll of signatures in support of the March on Washington a week before the event. Baldwin then joined 200,000 others on August 28 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Like today’s Black Lives Matter protests, the March on Washington spawned solidarity marches in many countries. Over 1,200 marched on the U.S. consulate in Amsterdam. The mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, led 2,500 demonstrators. These actions were not all celebratory. A small, informal group protested at the U.S. embassy in Ghana carrying signs with slogans like “America, Africa Is Watching You” and “Stop Genocide in America and South Africa.”
Like today’s Black Lives Matter protests, the March on Washington spawned solidarity marches in many countries.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, expected a crowd of critical demonstrators. Officials planned together with local police, who took precautions, the counselor for political affairs reported, “not only to see that the ‘demonstration’ stayed entirely within peaceful bounds but even more to reduce the whole affair to minimal proportions.” About 200 police were stationed around the embassy. The show of force had the intended effect: only 13 protesters showed up, which pleased the embassy. They wore signs with slogans like “Remember Negroes Also Built America,” “Down With the Ku Klux Klan,” and “Medgar Evers Did Not Die in Vain,” referring to the murdered civil rights leader. Police allowed just two protesters to approach the embassy to deliver a petition from African liberation groups. American racism “fills us with anger,” the petition said, for the United States promoted freedom and democracy, “but these have only been on paper and never practiced.”
At the March on Washington itself, Martin Luther King, Jr., not only spoke upliftingly of the “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He also emphasized the “bad check” the country gave its black citizens in a nation “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” U.S. information programming tried to soften the edges of the march, spinning it as an example of democracy in action.
But facts on the ground continually hampered U.S. government efforts to shape the story for foreign audiences. Just over two weeks after the March on Washington, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. The international press condemned the “slaughter of innocents,” and U.S. embassies were flooded with petitions. A Nigerian government leader sent a check to the families and objected to the “increasing brutalities and bestialities” that black Americans suffered. The bombing erased the positive impact of the march on world opinion. In Cameroon, a government official invited to a screening of a USIA film on the March on Washington asked: “Don’t you have a film of the church dynamiting, too?”
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred race discrimination by private employers and by federal fund recipients such as universities, was an important step forward—one celebrated by the foreign press and touted by the USIA and Voice of America as evidence that the United States protected rights of nonwhite peoples and that democracy was superior to Soviet communism. Yet racist attacks continued, and protests consumed American cities in the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968. Racism remained endemic, even if formal legal change made American propaganda easier to write.
By the end of the decade, race discrimination was less frequently at the top of foreign press highlights in presidential daily briefings. This was not because the problems were solved, however. There was simply a new focus of foreign criticism: the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Although the impact of American racism on the nation’s diplomacy was widely recognized during the Cold War, most officials and foreign policy elites regarded discrimination as an aberration, a temporary failing of an inherently just system of government that would gradually be overcome. Changes from slavery to freedom appeared to be evidence of “progress,” and the story in public diplomacy programming was that democracy had made this racial progress possible. The persistence of U.S. racism—evidenced most recently by the nonchalance of Officer Derek Chauvin, hands in his pockets with his knee on Floyd’s neck as he died—eviscerates this hopeful narrative.
The racism crisis in the United States today is not one slip among others that makes the nation look weak in the eyes of the world. Racism is a central and enduring American characteristic, as the critical race theorist Derrick Bell insisted long ago. Calling it out, as have millions of Americans in the past week, does not undermine the nation by revealing its well-known failings to the rest of the world. The world has known of these failings for centuries. Instead, the protests are a first step toward redress. As other nations are challenged about their own legacies of injustice, a serious U.S. reform effort could be an example of strength worth emulating.