The uproar in the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 highlighted the country’s long reluctance to grapple with issues of race, identity, and inequality. Many institutions have failed to direct sufficient attention to these subjects, even as the United States undergoes demographic change, grows more polarized, and continues to treat racial and ethnic minorities in unequal ways. International affairs schools, committed to teaching the next generation of national security leaders, must embrace their responsibility to do better.

Too many contemporary international affairs schools provide their students with training that fails to prepare them to tackle fundamental twenty-first-century challenges, such as climate change, intractable conflict, and expanding globalization. Without reform, these schools will leave future foreign policy experts ill prepared to consider how inequities in the United States undercut Washington’s standing and will render them poorly equipped to address the social forces that make societies fragile and fuel unrest worldwide.

To address these challenges, international affairs schools need to adapt. That means diversifying student, faculty, and leadership pipelines; incorporating scholarship on diversity, equity, and inclusion into curricula; and transforming their campuses into inclusive and welcoming arenas for open discussion. This comprehensive approach to international affairs education will ensure that schools value diversity and aspire to equity and also equip students to strengthen U.S. diplomacy and defend national security.

DIVISION AND NATIONAL SECURITY

In the United States, the continued neglect of diversity, equity, and inclusion creates serious national security vulnerabilities. This inattention opens the door to foreign interference, reduces Washington’s influence abroad, and limits the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for instance, Russia effectively exploited socioeconomic and racial divisions within American society to foment political discord, contributing to one of the most polarized and contentious electoral contests in U.S. history.  

The exploitation of these weaknesses by foreign actors continued in 2020, when China and Iran joined Russia in weaponizing social media to stoke the kinds of resentments and divisions that fueled the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The damage that insurrection wrought was not solely domestic; it also led to a flood of criticism from abroad, further reducing the United States’ global standing and diminishing faith in Washington’s ability to spread democracy around the world. 

Continued neglect of diversity, equity, and inclusion creates serious national security vulnerabilities.

The United States is hardly the only country in which inequality and exclusion have profound security implications. Studies link unequally distributed power, wealth, and opportunity to radicalization and unrest. Tensions also tend to rise as countries grow ever more heterogenous, whether through influxes of migrant workers seeking economic opportunity or record numbers of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. Although immigration offers important social and economic benefits—including new sources of labor for aging countries and security for refugees escaping war—it often provokes political and social tension as societies absorb people of different religions, ethnicities, perspectives, and preferences.  

Inattention to these demographic trends inhibits societies’ ability to reap the benefits of greater diversity. Promoting inclusion and equity among different groups, for instance, improves stability by increasing social cohesion and augmenting faith in government. Investments that promote equality also pay economic dividends. The full economic empowerment of women around the world, for example, would generate trillions of dollars in income and accelerate social, political, and economic progress. Policy interventions designed to address grievances and inequities can also help prevent the outbreak of violence and reestablish stability following conflict.

 A FAILING SYSTEM

Despite the centrality of these issues to contemporary international politics, graduate schools of international affairs have failed to keep pace. Conventional curricula often overlook how racial, ethnic, and gender inequality threaten national security and global stability. A 2014 review of 50 programs offering master’s degrees in public administration programs found that only about ten percent of syllabi touched on issues of gender and culture, and a mere seven percent explored race and ethnicity. International affairs schools also do little to help U.S. foreign-policy makers address the effects of identity, embedded biases, and historical narratives on current events. After the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, Washington would have benefited from greater cultural competency, additional focus on addressing underlying inequities and grievances in both societies, and more inclusive reconstruction and peace-building programs.

A lack of institutional diversity within higher education magnifies these problems. Although the majority of students in public administration and international affairs programs are women, men still occupy an overwhelming number of faculty and leadership positions, including 60 percent of deanships. Racial and ethnic diversity is also lacking among both students and faculty. Women and people of color are promoted and granted tenure at lower rates than their white male counterparts, partly because they face greater barriers to getting their research cited and published. Less than 20 percent of deans at international affairs schools are female or people of color.

Some schools and institutions have made progress over the past several years. In 2019, for example, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration strengthened diversity and inclusion standards in the accreditation process for public policy programs. The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs is now focused on increasing the diversity of students embarking on careers in foreign affairs. Multiple universities, including Georgetown, George Washington, Texas A&M, and Tufts, have also created programs that focus on gender or social inclusion. And in 2020, the Harvard Kennedy School introduced a two-week mandatory course for incoming students, “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power.” Additionally, a network of deans from public and private schools across the country is helping schools navigate similar issues by sharing best practices and recommendations for promoting diversity and inclusion.

NO STUDENT LEFT BEHIND

Although these efforts are a good start, they still fail to address the severity of the problem. International affairs programs need to collectively launch a comprehensive examination (led by deans and program directors) of the composition of their faculties, administrations, student bodies, staff, and curricula and the social and political climates on their campuses—taking note of disparities in compensation, benefits, and financial aid levels. Schools also should prioritize diversifying faculty and leadership pipelines. Administrators often overlook and undervalue high-potential candidates from diverse backgrounds, as even the most sympathetic evaluators tend to replicate what is already familiar. To remedy this problem, schools should factor diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns into tenure and promotion reviews, as faculty and administrators of diverse backgrounds often bear a disproportionate responsibility for supporting and mentoring an increasingly heterogenous student body.

This emphasis on representation should also influence curricula. Courses themselves must consider how diversity, equity, and inclusion impact global affairs. Classes should address the effect of U.S. history and contemporary domestic discord on national security and the country’s global reputation. With this goal in mind, professors should revise introductory international relations courses and introduce a new series of required classes. These novel offerings would feature retooled syllabi designed to highlight scholarship from diverse experts. Professors could also develop topical seminars meant to discuss the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and subtopics in international affairs, such as how identity can underlie violent conflict. Finally, schools should offer specialization opportunities such as in gender and public policy through concentrations and certification programs.

Schools need to address their own legacies of racism, inequality, and marginalization.

Educational institutions must also foster an inclusive climate that helps students from underrepresented backgrounds thrive. The dearth of diversity among foreign affairs professionals indicates that schools are not successfully cultivating the strongest possible cadre of experts. The United States is weaker for it. International affairs schools need to engage a wide array of communities, recruit the best candidates early in their education, and offer them promising career paths. To do so, colleges and universities must first address the racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequalities that persist within academic communities, which the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated. Low-income students are abandoning their studies at far higher rates than their wealthier counterparts, and research and publishing rates among female faculty have declined precipitously, as women often assume a disproportionate share of elder- and childcare responsibilities.

Schools also need to address their own legacies of racism, inequality, and marginalization. Georgetown University, for its part, is reckoning with its troubled past through its slavery, memory, and reconciliation effort, which examines the university’s legacy of slave ownership and trade. Following the murder of George Floyd, the Princeton Board of Trustees decided to drop Woodrow Wilson’s name from both a residential college and the School of Public and International Affairs, stating that the former president’s “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.” 

A focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in global affairs is long overdue. The systematic lack of attention that educational institutions have paid to these issues has created vulnerabilities at home and abroad. Only by engaging the academic community can leaders transform the face and shape of U.S. foreign policy to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. International affairs schools must undertake a comprehensive effort to revitalize leadership, update curricula, and create an inclusive climate. Such an effort will pay dividends for decades to come.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • CARLA KOPPELL is Senior Adviser for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Distinguished Fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
  • JAMILLE BIGIO is Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development and former Senior Fellow on Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
  • MIGUEL CENTENO is Musgrave Professor of Sociology and Executive Vice Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
  • More By Jamille Bigio
  • More By Miguel A. Centeno