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An Appeal to the National Security Community to Fight Racial Injustice

Two former U.S. officials argue there is no security abroad without justice at home.

People protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House in Washington on May 31.
People protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House in Washington on May 31. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

We have both had the honor of serving our country, albeit in different ways. One of us is a West Point graduate, former Obama appointee, and combat veteran with experience in homeland security; the other has been a civil servant and political appointee and has worked in places such as North Korea and Russia to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. One of us is black, and one of us is white. One of us is Jewish, and the other is Christian.One of us is black, and one of us is white; one of us is Jewish, the other Christian.

We have different backgrounds, but both of us have spent our lives in service of the same goal: a safe and secure country where our fellow citizens can thrive and reach their potential. We are proud to be part of a dedicated, highly educated, and principled national security community made up of people who serve and believe in the promise of America. Those who make up this broader community give their considerable talents not to making money or gathering power, but instead to ensuring U.S. security and promoting a foreign policy that protects not just U.S. citizens and interests, but also the universal ideals of freedom and self-determination around the world.

It is time for this great community to explicitly and collectively turn serious attention and energy to the issue that fundamentally threatens our ability to protect U.S. national security: racial injustice and inequality at home. The United States cannot claim to be a beacon of freedom in the world if it continues to witness and accept the ongoing murder of innocent black people. Unless the country makes fundamental changes, cities and communities will continue to be torn apart through over-policing and abuse, economic and racial inequity, and other persistent legacies of racism—all undermining both the United States’ ability to function as a society and its credibility on the global stage.

The United States has a long history, beset by a sharp contrast between those who enjoy the promise of a better life and others who bear the brunt of ongoing iniquity and heinous treatment. In such an environment, it is impossible to build any true national consensus and to sustain the resources needed to pursue national security priorities. True consensus means engagement with all parts of society, not just those let into the halls of influence. And as the United States—244 years after its founding—continues to struggle to live up to its creed of equality and inclusion, the credibility which the national security community needs to address global issues of injustice, human rights, peace, stability, democracy promotion, and the rule of law is fundamentally undermined. If the national security community only seeks to address global threats but refuses to confront the sins that hide in plain sight at home, there will never be lasting progress in either area.

For the past several years, the national security community has finally begun to address the striking gender imbalance in our field. And we are indeed making progress on that front. But our diversity efforts must expand to people of color, and we must incorporate in our work and our policies the need to address fundamental, racially driven divisions in our society. We are not the first to make this call, but we believe everyone must recognize and act to make this link between the United States’ national burdens and global objectives clear. Our community must be more proactive in recruiting people of color to its ranks, in discussing how racial and economic divisions at home undermine U.S. security, and in championing investments in underprivileged and excluded communities the same way we champion national security tools, funds, and initiatives. Neither of us has an answer for exactly how we can accelerate change, but it is clear to us that unless the national security community takes on this challenge in some meaningful way, we will be partly responsible for the perpetuation of the divisions plaguing society and eroding the United States’ moral authority. Unless the national security community takes on this challenge, we will be partly responsible for the perpetuation of the divisions plaguing society and eroding the United States’ moral authority.

It is a convention in national security analysis to strike as objective a tone as possible. Experts who focus on how inequality and injustice undermine security are often taken less seriously than those who focus on weapons development or military strategy. This, too, reflects the structural tunnel vision in our community that has to change. In this spirit, if we are not all actively aware of how racial injustice undermines our security and if we do not integrate efforts to combat it into our work and policy initiatives, then we will be part of the problem and guilty of undercutting our own security.

The United States faces a historic moment that provides an opportunity for the national security community to both discuss and act on the issues of race and extremism—and how they affect our security, diplomatic relationships, and credibility abroad. The racism that threatens lives and security will not magically vanish. It will not draw back or resolve itself. It must be cut out like the cancer it has been for so long. The national security community can strengthen the nation of which it is a part by being not just an ally of those who want change, but also an active participant in this dialogue and effort. The battles for the security and moral authority of the United States are intrinsically linked. If our community fails to step up to this challenge, our service and the efforts by all of us will fall far short of our collective goals.

Bishop Garrison is the director of national security outreach at Human Rights First, president and co-founder of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, and a former defense and homeland security official in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @BishopGarrison

Jon B. Wolfsthal is the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior advisor at Global Zero. He was U.S. President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He serves on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and helps set the time of the doomsday clock. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal