Demonstrations Prompt National Security Community Push for Diversity

In a letter, more than 150 organizations and practitioners in the national security and foreign-policy communities pledged to add more diversity to their ranks and boards of directors.

Demonstrators kneel as they protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, across from the White House on June 7, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Demonstrators kneel as they protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, across from the White House on June 7. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of the killing of an African American man in police custody in Minnesota last month have prompted soul-searching within Washington’s national security community about the lack of diversity in its own ranks.

In a letter undersigned by more than 150 organizations and practitioners in the peace and security, national security, and foreign-policy communities, and shared exclusively with Foreign Policy, organizations are pledging to add more diversity to their ranks and boards of directors.

“These racial attitudes exist in all facets of our lives, weakening our democracy, and opposing our values of equality, justice, and freedom,” said the letter, led by Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation, a Washington-based advocacy organization. “To root out institutional racism, it is vital that we re-examine our implicit and explicit biases, as well as biases within our organizations.”

“Institutional racism purposefully disadvantages Black people and people of color through social, economic, and political systems, reinforcing white supremacy, and must be consciously confronted, addressed and removed,” the signatories added in the letter, which also calls for national security organizations to develop mentorship programs for African Americans and to develop processes to hire more employees from lower-income communities. 

Among the signatories on the letter are think tank, advocacy, and charitable organizations such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Truman Center for National Policy, National Iranian American Council, Oxfam America, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Center for American Progress, Win Without War, Arms Control Association, and New America.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, advocates have worried that there are not enough avenues for young African Americans to seek out careers in national security and foreign service. In the Office of Personnel Management’s last report on diversity levels in government, released in 2018, the percentage of black employees in the U.S. government went backward, from 11.4 percent to 11 percent. African Americans represent just over 13 percent of the U.S. population overall. 

June 9 WCAPS Sign on Letter (Text)

The administration of President Donald Trump has also struggled to bring in diverse picks for high-level roles. In February, Foreign Policy reported that the State Department’s efforts to boost diversity in the foreign and civil service had often come up short and had sometimes resulted in a decrease in the number of minorities and women coming to work in Foggy Bottom and at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, according to a Government Accountability Office finding.

“There’s not the presence of them, there’s not the mentorships for them, and so the policies that are developed do not reflect their input,” said Bonnie Jenkins, a former State Department official during the Obama administration who organized the letter. “Younger people don’t see people of color, so they don’t go into these fields.”

Both the Pickering and Rangel fellowship programs seek to bring members of historically underrepresented groups into the foreign service, but successive U.S. secretaries of state haven’t been able to live up to pledges to bring more diverse candidates into high-level posts. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was criticized within the agency failing to boost diversity among top U.S. diplomats as top officials were forced out of the administration. State Department Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao, a close confidant of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is currently leading efforts to develop a strategy for the agency’s diversity and inclusion practices over the next four years. 

But advocates seeking more diversity in the national security community have seen a reason for hope, as embrace of the protests has become increasingly part of the political mainstream after Trump stirred controversy by walking to St. John’s Episcopal Church last week just minutes after U.S. Park Police violently dispersed demonstrators. On Sunday, former Republican presidential contender and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was seen marching to the church, across from the White House, along a stretch of street renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last week. 

Jenkins said that the moment of nationwide protest offers the U.S. government an opportunity to add diverse voices and perspectives to the U.S. foreign-policy conversation.

“If we’re making a foreign policy in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia and you do not have people who are from that culture, having that perspective in the room will enrich that conversation,” Jenkins said. “I cannot see how that policy cannot be enriched if you do have that perspective.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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