Decolonize the State Department

As U.S. policymakers grapple with systemic racism, it’s time to start tapping the expertise of diasporas.

State Department DRC Flag
A State Department staffer adjusts a Congolese flag before a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi at the State Department in Washington on April 3, 2019. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

The toppling of symbols of oppression—from King Leopold II’s statues in Belgium to Confederate monuments in the United States—has been a long time coming. The former Belgian king was one of the cruelest leaders and colonizers in world history. It’s fitting that statues honoring his legacy are being removed right as the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where his most violent crimes took place—celebrates 60 years of independence from Belgium on June 30.

Monuments like those of Leopold are constant reminders of the dehumanization, exploitation, and silencing of Black people in the Western world. It is estimated that 10 to 15 million Congolese were killed during Leopold’s reign of brutality. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, Belgium is beginning to publicly acknowledge the Congolese people’s suffering over the last 150 years, as the country finally listens to activists familiar with this pain.

Now it’s America’s turn to listen, particularly as it charts its own plans for foreign nations. Calls for greater racial diversity are growing within the foreign-policy establishment. As former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice famously said, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is “white, male, and Yale,” and that must change.

But policymakers also need to ensure that as the field becomes more racially diverse, the contributions of diaspora communities are meaningful and robust. One of the clearest ways to do so is to change the terms of who gets to develop formal policy.

Personnel is policy, and, as it stands, white foreign-policy experts dominate both the discussion and the decision-making. But the United States is home to sizable diaspora communities, such as those from India, Nigeria, and Haiti, which possess specialized knowledge, lived experience, and expertise. U.S. policymakers would be wise to seek out and include these voices.

With an approximate size of 4 million, the Indian diaspora has become influential in American politics and impacted U.S. foreign policy as a result. Rep. Ami Bera currently serves as the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, and President Barack Obama appointed the first Indian American, Richard Verma, to serve as U.S. ambassador to India in 2014. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Donald Trump. Though they make up only about 1 percent of the population, Indian Americans have been able to ascend to key foreign-policy roles in the last two decades and shape milestones in U.S.-India relations, including the U.S.-India nuclear deal under President George W Bush. While Indian Americans are hardly a monolith, their growing influence in U.S.-India relations and American politics cannot be denied, as seen through Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump’s joint visit to Houston last year.

While the Indian diaspora has managed to gain a foothold in making policy, other large diaspora communities have been all but ignored. As the United States finally reckons with institutionalized racism and seeks to eliminate it, policymakers must reevaluate who gets to sit at the table and who is being shut out. The Congolese diaspora is an apt case in point. The Second Congo War, from 1998 to 2003, and its aftermath, was the deadliest war since World War II—with an estimated 5.4 million dead from violence, disease, and starvation by 2008. The violence stemming from this war continues to this day—which is why Congo was the largest source of refugees to the United States in 2019. In fact, Congolese refugees outnumbered those from the next four countries—Myanmar, Ukraine, Eritrea, and Afghanistan—combined.

But even as the Congolese American population grows, with thousands establishing new homes across the country, the foreign-policy establishment continues to disregard their voices. This is detrimental to crafting a robust U.S. policy toward Congo at a time when the country is arguably more vital than ever.

Congo’s strategic importance to the U.S. economy cannot be overstated. The country’s mineral wealth has powered Silicon Valley. Coltan, used in smartphones and computers, and cobalt—a key element in lithium-ion batteries—fueled the technology revolution of the 2000s. The supply chains of America’s most admired and profitable companies, including Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Tesla, are intricately linked to Congo because of these minerals. Coltan is also essential for technologies utilized in missiles, jet engines, and other high-end electronics critical to defense weapons systems. The United States and Congo’s national security ties, in fact, date back to World War II. The uranium ore used to construct the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from the Shinkolobwe mine in Congo’s province of Katanga.

The Congolese people, however, have not benefited from the country’s mineral wealth. In fact, by 2050, as many as 40 percent of the world’s extremely poor are projected to live in Congo and Nigeria. Long-term peace and stability are at risk, too, as poverty and conflict are strongly interconnected. As neighboring South Sudan has shown, conflicts disrupt and destroy the social safety net—increasing the risk of social and humanitarian crises.

Yet despite these real concerns for ongoing war and insecurity, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment rarely solicits Congolese perspectives on these matters, and there are limited mechanisms through which Congolese American experts can advise policymakers. Overlooking U.S. citizens who have families, businesses, and nonprofit organizations in Congo is a loss for U.S. diplomacy in the region.

In 2019, we launched the Congolese Diaspora Impact Summit to increase the visibility of Congolese American policy experts—because U.S. foreign policy is not determined at the ballot box but by advisors and policymakers in Congress and the executive branch. During the Obama administration, just a handful of political appointees and congressional staffers were of Congolese descent—mostly in junior-level positions. And there are very evident systemic barriers to entry for people of color into the highest ranks of the State Department, including Congolese Americans. As it stands, the Pickering and Rangel fellowships are the only two programs that are dedicated to diversifying the State Department; however, they have been deemed insufficient—mainly by Black diplomats—in addressing the foreign-policy establishment’s race problem.

Formal U.S. government engagement with diaspora communities is underdeveloped and lacks focus. The Obama administration launched the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance initiative in 2011, which was a partnership between the secretary of state’s Office of Global Partnerships and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The program, however, is no longer functional under Trump. The lack of strategic diaspora outreach is truly a missed opportunity for the U.S. government. It is not only Congolese Americans who are frustrated with the scant inclusion of their perspectives in U.S. foreign policy. The Haitian diaspora, too, has been discouraged by this reality and voiced their ire with the direction of U.S.-Haiti relations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Frederica Wilson in October 2019. The successes of the Indian diaspora in U.S. policy should not be novel; Congolese and other diasporas are increasingly becoming more involved in American politics.

Given the changing demographics of the United States, policymakers need to grasp that Congolese American immigrants and other diaspora communities are deeply invested in the affairs of their country of origin—and we intend to take our seat at the table.

Lukogho Kasomo is a co-founder of the Congolese Diaspora Impact Summit, a biannual convening for Congolese millennials in the United States and abroad. She is a U.S. and Africa foreign-policy strategist and a former U.S. congressional staffer.


Jim N. Ngokwey is a co-founder of Congolese Diaspora Impact Summit, a biannual convening for Congolese millennials in the United States and abroad. He is the managing partner of Mighty Peace Coffee, a social enterprise that operates in the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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