The Foreign-Policy Blob Is Structurally Racist

A social revolution could transform domestic policy—but it won’t change the way policy is conducted abroad.

National Security advisor Susan Rice and others listen while U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting with commanders at the Pentagon Oct. 8, 2014 in Washington.
National Security advisor Susan Rice and others listen while U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting with commanders at the Pentagon Oct. 8, 2014 in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing awakening to the long-standing realities of discrimination against African Americans is marked by a scope and intensity that were unimaginable even one month ago. Polling shows a significant increase from 2015 among Americans who believe “racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States” are big problems, and widespread protests—including in rural and suburban communities where such activism is unprecedented—against systemic racism and police misconduct have erupted. The United States has thus entered a window of opportunity where real social change is more likely than at any time in recent history.

But are there foreign-policy implications for this moment? Could this enhanced recognition of racial discrimination at home result in meaningful differences in how the United States engages with the world? It’s tempting to think so—but the answer to both questions is almost certainly no. The structural impediments to more seriously accounting for social justice and human rights in foreign policy are simply too great.

There are at least four such structural factors. First, the composition of foreign-policy shapers (think tank experts, columnists) and implementers (government officials) remains disproportionately white (and male). This is visibly evident from any photograph of senior military officials. But it also pronounced in America’s diplomatic corps. In 2002, 70 percent of all State Department employees were white; by September 2018, it remained nearly unchanged at 68 percent. Moreover, in 2018, the more senior the role, the greater the proportion of employees who were white—going from 35 percent for midlevel GS-10 rank up to 87 percent for the most senior civil service executives.

This relatively homogenous composition of the foreign-policy elite—including yours truly—matters because the recognition of racial oppression at home and abroad is a glaring blind spot. In 20-plus years of working at academic institutions and think tanks, I can recall very few mentions of race. And even these observations were made not out of inherent concern for racial underrepresentation or discrimination within the United States but because the lack of progress toward combating those twin evils could lessen America’s relative power on the international stage.

Second, the predominant frame through which foreign-policy debates are conveyed is as national security interests. These seemingly neutral concepts are conveyed through principles or objectives, ranked by their purported interest-ness: vital, extremely important, important, or secondary. Those categories come from a landmark 2000 report by the Commission on America’s National Interests, which was representative of many comparable bipartisan initiatives. The 23-member commission included just three women, one of whom was the only person of color (Condoleezza Rice). The sole mention of individual rights—one of 10 “important national interests”—was in promoting “pluralism, freedom, and democracy in strategically important states as much as is feasible without destabilization.” The caveats that this august group of geostrategic thinkers added on demonstrate that rights are not universal and should never hinder stability—meaning a government that endorses U.S. interests retains power.

Though the facts shift, and allies and adversaries come and go, the narrative of America’s global role is always conveyed via static interests, which remain wholly uninformed by human rights concerns—unless it can be weaponized selectively to highlight an adversary’s human rights abuses. Foreign policy cannot be reconfigured in enduring and impactful ways without updating the thinking and language that could enable such change.

Third, and relatedly, a consistently missing element in elite foreign-policy debates is the livelihoods of actual humans. The central unit of analysis is countries, which are overwhelmingly evaluated through the words and actions of their leaders. When people are considered at all, it is as demographic clusters that might influence the countries or regions where they reside—the Arab youth bulge, Russia’s population decline, and China’s graying citizenry are popular examples. So-called voices from the regions are those few media-tested, English-speaking people who reside in the rolodexes of TV producers, serve as visiting think tank fellows, or are escorted through Capitol Hill offices by K Street lobbyists.

Without a reimagining of America’s global influence from the perspective of the individuals who experience hatred, bigotry, and oppression, it is impossible to conceive of a foreign policy that ever truly confronts racism.

Finally, the defining manifestation of U.S. foreign policy for 75 years has been the threat or use of military force. The global architecture required to use force anywhere at any time requires host nation basing and overflight permissions. These, in turn, require permanently stationing U.S. troops abroad, which increases civil wars and enables human rights violations by host nation governments. These governments enjoy military assistance in the form of arms sales. According to the State Department’s latest “World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers” report, the United States is the top arms exporter to the least democratic countries (meaning those in the lowest quintile as determined by Polity Project rankings)—accounting for 66 percent of all such sales. In short, to project military power, the United States tolerates or abets subjugation.

Moreover, military spending ($712 billion) absorbs more than half of all federal discretionary spending, towering over the diplomacy and development budget ($48 billion), which could be far better suited to promoting individual rights and freedoms globally. Unfortunately, when you review what country receives the most foreign assistance from the United States, it is a conspicuous list of occupiers, autocrats, and illiberal regimes. The top six proposed recipients for 2020, in order, are: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Uganda. These are so-called strategic partners showered with aid because of their geographic location, security partnerships, or a consequence of great-power competition (Uganda). Congress could vastly increase funding for international and nongovernmental organizations that work to protect groups experiencing prejudice and seriously hold recipients of foreign aid to account for their human rights violations. But there is nothing in recent history to suggest that legislators will fulfill this needed role or even its most basic oversight functions.

For these four reasons, and many others, an overdue turn toward an individual, rights-centric foreign policy is unimaginable, at least for now. The current defensiveness among elite foreign-policy institutions toward considering the role that race plays in U.S. foreign policy is simply too overwhelming. A more diverse group of future foreign-policy thinkers and leaders could one day lead the way—but that group won’t arrive in time to keep pace with the current push for racial justice across the rest of U.S. society.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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