Leaders in Glass Countries Shouldn’t Throw Stones

Ferguson, Eric Garner, and why the United States isn't fit to be the world's moral authority.


Many people probably think the explosive events in Ferguson, Missouri, are a purely domestic issue and have nothing to do with American foreign policy or the U.S. position in the world. That position is understandable, insofar as these events are first and foremost about race relations inside the United States itself, which are largely a product of America’s particular history. At a minimum, what has been happening in Ferguson (and the protests that broke out in New York and elsewhere following yesterday’s news that a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner) reminds us that race remains a deeply problematic issue here — especially in the context of law enforcement and criminal justice. Not surprisingly, most commentators have focused on what this problem says about America and what the United States needs to do to address it.

Yet what has been happening in Ferguson — and in race relations in the United States more generally — does have some noteworthy foreign-policy dimensions. That is also unsurprising, because America’s internal condition inevitably affects its image in the world and the influence it can wield. When the U.S. economy is in trouble, it limits what the United States can do on the world stage. If the federal government is gridlocked or hamstrung by pointless political grandstanding (see under: Benghazi) the United States will act with less energy and wisdom abroad. And if minorities in the U.S. population are still marginalized, discriminated against, and treated as less-than-equal, then America’s full potential will be unrealized and its moral authority will be compromised in the eyes of many foreign observers.

With that insight in mind, consider the following connections between Ferguson and foreign policy.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that there is a trade-off between ambitious U.S. efforts to transform other parts of the world and the ability of government institutions to improve the lives of Americans here at home. I don’t think more social spending would eliminate racism or solve all the problems in places like Ferguson, but Americans would almost certainly be far better off if we hadn’t wasted $3 trillion+ in our misguided Iraqi and Afghan adventures. For example, spending some of that money on much-needed infrastructure here at home would have created a lot of jobs — including in places like Ferguson — and boosted the overall productivity of the U.S. economy.

Similarly, an unrealistic and overambitious foreign-policy agenda distracts U.S. officials from problems closer to home. When U.S. President Barack Obama has to spend weeks worrying about Ukraine, Syria, the Islamic State (IS), Jerusalem, the Senkaku Islands, Afghanistan, Iraq, T-TIP, Ebola, Boko Haram, South Sudan, etc., etc., it inevitably crowds out time he can devote to crucial domestic issues. Similarly, when the attorney general has to spend hours, days, and weeks adjudicating fights over NSA law-breaking or the status of Guantánamo, that means less time trying to figure out how to reform a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

This obvious point is not an argument for an isolationist foreign policy. Top U.S. officials should pay attention to world events and use America’s considerable power to protect vital U.S. interests. But we ought to recognize that there is a trade-off between our ambitions abroad and our capacity to build a better nation here at home. Even the president of the Council on Foreign Relations has figured that one out (though he mostly wants to fix the homefront so that America can still wield a big stick abroad). But remember: When a big social issue like Ferguson suddenly appears on your TV screen, it is at least in part because we’ve been devoting so much attention and so many resources to problems in distant lands, instead of focusing first and foremost on the needs and challenges that our fellow citizens still face.

But that’s not all. Ferguson also reminds us that a byproduct of the overblown war on terror has been a steady militarization of local police forces, who’ve been using counterterrorist funding and surplus weapons programs to add firepower to local policing units. The problem, as we saw in Ferguson, is that this sort of equipment — and the tactics that come with it — can be counterproductive when dealing with volatile social situations. The militarization of local policing didn’t create racism or the sort of attitudes you see exhibited in a video like this one, but they didn’t help either. In other words, we’ve imported the “war on terror” into our own law enforcement institutions, and Ferguson is to some extent one of the consequences.

Ferguson also struck a blow to America’s image as the global standard-bearer for equality, human rights, and opportunity. The treatment of black Americans has long tarnished our national mythology of the “melting pot,” and with it the smug belief that America is the ideal model for the rest of the world. This latest episode reminds us that the country still does not live up to the ideals that it likes to preach to others. Just as the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown showed the world that the United States was not infallible, the Ferguson fiasco reminds others that Washington doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to deep social divisions either.

And Ferguson also provides a valuable (and humbling) lesson on the topic of “nation-building.” Think about it: The United States has been wrestling with the problem of race for over two centuries, and fought a bloody civil war over that very issue. Slavery was abolished 150 years ago, and while significant progress has been made since then, Ferguson is just another sign that the country still has a long way to go. Yet a little more than 10 years ago, U.S. foreign-policy elites from both political parties blithely assumed that the United States could topple governments in Iraq and Afghanistan and then quickly set up new institutions that would handle deep ethnic, sectarian, or tribal divisions in a just, equitable, and effective manner. And despite how that effort turned out, they repeated the same error in Libya in 2011. What could they have been thinking? The United States hasn’t been able to fix its racial divisions in a century and a half, but we thought we could settle some equally deep divisions in a few years in foreign countries that we barely understood. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the very definition of hubris.

More than 25 years ago, I wrote that “external conditions impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it.” This is still true today. Because Uncle Sam’s position in the world is still so favorable, and because local powers will do more to contain serious threats if America doesn’t insist on doing most of the work itself, the United States can afford to take a relaxed view of most international developments. Ironically, one lesson of Ferguson is that the United States might be more secure, more prosperous, and more just — in short, a healthier society — if it paid more attention to events at home and devoted less effort and energy to quixotic crusades abroad.

Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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