Argument

How White Supremacy Weakens the United States

The Trump administration’s agenda on race undermines the country’s military, alliances, and security.

A woman carries a 'Black Lives Matter' sign past U.S. National Guard troops in the Fairfax District, an area damaged during yesterday's unrest, after the troops were activated by California Governor Gavin Newsom following violent demonstrations in response to George Floyd's death on May 31, 2020 in Los Angeles.
A woman carries a 'Black Lives Matter' sign past U.S. National Guard troops in the Fairfax District, an area damaged during yesterday's unrest, after the troops were activated by California Governor Gavin Newsom following violent demonstrations in response to George Floyd's death on May 31, 2020 in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Black Lives Matter protests suggest a tectonic shift in the domestic politics of the United States. Their significance, however, extends far beyond the water’s edge. For the United States and its image in the world, race matters, and the whole world is watching. Global expressions of solidarity with minority victims of racism and police abuse demonstrate yet again why civil rights are a foreign-policy issue. They should also remind us that a foreign policy informed by white supremacy weakens the United States and negates some of its core strategic strengths.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has openly flirted with white supremacy. Part of Trump’s “America First” vision has been to reserve power for white men throughout society and its institutions. That is part of the reason why the cabinet is almost entirely white and male; why Latino people at the border are caged; why Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids target Latino communities; and why his administration has gone beyond crackdowns on “illegal” immigration to discuss limiting all immigration to the United States. In this white supremacist vision, the United States’ international alliances would ideally reflect the supposedly white, Christian character of the country. That is why Trump, following the lead of his one-time political advisor Steve Bannon, has sought solidarity with right-wing political movements, even when that solidarity disrupts relations with allied governments. It is why he has placed so much weight on relations with Russia and Hungary, countries whose leaders see themselves as the Jan III Sobieskis of the 21st century, defending Vienna from the Muslim hordes.

The events of recent weeks, however, have offered stark evidence of why this foreign-policy vision is so flawed. First, it contradicts important elements of U.S. national identity and weakens U.S. “soft power.” For all of its flaws, the United States traces its origins to an anti-imperialist struggle. Despite its own deeply imperfect record on racial equality, the United States has fought and won two major wars against abhorrently racist states: the Civil War and World War II. These were also the costliest wars the United States has fought, in terms of U.S. lives.

These sacrifices allow the country to claim an anti-racist legacy. Billions of people worldwide can identify with the struggle for equality of black people in the United States, even as many of them may dream of refuge in the United States from oppression at home. The thousands protesting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London attest that turning the United States into a haven for white supremacist thinking risks alienating our partners abroad.

White supremacist policies also weaken U.S. “hard power.” The United States has long been a nation of immigrants because of its strong economy, low density, and open culture. Today, the United States is the No. 1 destination for migrants in the world, mostly for economic reasons.  The American dream still exists for immigrants. Partly as a result, the U.S. population continues to grow (if at a lower rate than in the past), while other powers, mainly in Europe, but also in Asia, have stagnant or declining populations. The United States crossed the threshold of 300 million population in 2006 and is projected to reach 400 million by 2058. This is a vital power resource in a country that faces global competition from China and India, with their combined population of more than 2 billion. Without immigration, there is no chance that the U.S. population will continue to increase, since U.S. fertility rates are below replacement.

Further, the United States is blessed with minority and immigrant populations that integrate well and wish to serve in the U.S. military, which is on the whole one of the most successful examples of racial integration in U.S. history. Today’s U.S. armed forces include more than 40 percent minority service members, including both recent immigrants and African Americans who have overcome the legacies of slavery and racism to serve a nation with greater fidelity than the nation has sometimes been willing to show them.

The U.S. Armed Forces did not integrate until 1948, a belated recognition of the contribution of African Americans to the triumph and defense of U.S. ideals. But in the succeeding decades, the military has become one of the institutions that has done the most to promote equality. Even as the armed forces today confront the legacies of segregation in the naming and location of major military installations, the United States continues to aspire to greater racial equality. For those who question whether black Americans or immigrants have the quality to be top leaders, consider that Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, is the only U.S. general who appears to have won a war in any durable sense in the past 50 years.

Part of the United States’ success in integrating immigrants is because of its culture and institutions, and a notion of citizenship based on freedom and mutual respect. But part of it is because of the aspirations and culture of the minorities and immigrants themselves. Latinos have proven to adapt extraordinarily well to life in the United States. While many first-generation immigrants have important ties to their countries of origin and speak Spanish better than English, many studies have shown that by the third generation, most Latinos primarily speak English, as has been the pattern with previous generations of European immigrants. The United States has also had far greater success in integrating Muslim Americans than other countries that have insisted on racial or historical bases for citizenship. These successes keep the United States strong, keep immigrants rolling into the United States and into the U.S. military, where they strengthen the United States on the front lines.

Openness at home enables partnerships abroad. Being open to the world and open to diversity at home are essential elements of U.S. soft power. That Americans are not afraid to have serious disagreements among themselves on the pace and direction of their social policies is a further strength, as they show how free societies need not suppress conversation or fear debate. Fighting for racial justice therefore materially strengthens the United States. The U.S. Army has known this for a long time and is stronger for its willingness to be open to all Americans. U.S. society’s diversity in service of common ideals is our greatest strength, and the best message we can share with the world—which is why the white supremacist thinking embedded in Trump’s misguided “America First” policy weakens the United States abroad.

Ronald J. Granieri is associate professor of history in the department of national security and strategy at the U.S. Army War College and executive director of the Center for the Study of America and the West at Foreign Policy Research Institute. This essay does not necessarily reflect the views of the US Army War College, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is a professor and chair of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War.

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