Why Inclusion Is Important for U.S. Foreign Policy

If Washington chooses to reengage with the world, it will need to first champion diversity and gender equality.

Protesters hold up their fists up in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to protest against police brutality and racial injustice on June 14.
Protesters hold up their fists up in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to protest against police brutality and racial injustice on June 14. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

This year, the United States has faced the dual challenges of struggling with the coronavirus pandemic and grappling with public anger over a history of structural racism. The tragic death of George Floyd in particular unleashed a national outcry over police brutality: A wide range of citizens put aside their own health concerns to take to the streets and make their voices heard.

Recently, COVID-19’s disproportionate harm to marginalized communities around the world has underscored how a policy of inclusion is essential to global development and national security. Economies and societies squander precious human assets when women, minority groups, and marginalized populations (including those disadvantaged by the legacies of colonization or slavery) are denied access to education, health care, or capital.

The Trump administration has repeatedly declined the chance to denounce white supremacist groups and expressed outright disdain for women and minorities. The administration inaugurated in January 2021 will have an important opportunity to elevate social inclusion and halt a backsliding into a society where tribalism and repression can grow.

Social inclusion is a phrase thrown around quite often and used in varying ways. In foreign policy, inclusion should not be a simple numbers game but rather a fundamentally new approach that informs both personnel and policy choices. While there have been attempts to prioritize inclusion in previous administrations, the United States must now go even further. It is naive to assume that merely recognizing or articulating the existence of a problem represents progress. It is only the first step. While the image of the United States as a trailblazer—imperfect but improving—has been tainted in the last four years, the next administration can usher in an era of true inclusion. But how?

Change could begin with having the right people in the room where it happens. National security agencies should not only reflect diversity in their ranks but incorporate diverse voices into their decision-making. That requires creating incentive structures that change the culture of U.S. agencies. Performance assessments and promotions must reward personnel prioritizing international policies of social inclusion.

The content of Washington’s international policy should now put social inclusion at its center.Minority groups and people of color should be represented in U.S. foreign policy leadership, and Washington must work to integrate the voices and needs of the global south in its policies. Doing so would advance international cooperation to tackle urgent issues of peace, climate, shared prosperity, and justice with a voice for affected populations—thereby serving U.S. interests. The next administration should use its clout at the United Nations and multilateral banks to elevate voices from marginalized groups in high-level decision-making processes, a step that would involve integrating civil society into multilateral institutions in a structural way. Incorporating a role for civic and affected populations would advance more comprehensive breakthroughs and solutions. For example, robust participation of civil society has advanced the Ottawa anti-landmine treaty, the marked reduction of HIV mortality since 2004, and the Paris climate accord.

The United States’ strength stems in part from its extraordinary diversity and pluralism: Integrating social inclusion into both its personnel and its policy can and should become a defining feature. As such, the content of Washington’s international policy should now put social inclusion at its center. In order to advance its national and global security, the United States must develop policies that deliver for the needs of all people.

Countries where minority, tribal, or religious groups are targeted for violence often become unstable for decades: Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are vivid examples. The long-term security threats from repressive or unaccountable states include the risks of mass migration, violent extremism, and prolonged conflict, to name just a few. An integral part of addressing these outcomes should be a U.S. foreign policy that defends and supports those whose freedoms and views are sidelined.

For instance, when a distinct group is targeted for repression, violence, and death—such as China’s repression of the practice of Islam and its subjugation in forced labor and extrajudicial killing of Uighurs—Washington could respond with more than condemnatory rhetoric. It could condition China’s access to U.S. technology on reversing its atrocities. Additionally, the United States should return to the U.N. Human Rights Council and spearhead the formation of a commission of inquiry (similar to the one shedding such light on North Korea’s atrocities); U.S. leadership can and should rally more concerted and deliberate geopolitical action (from historical allies and Muslim-majority countries alike) to condemn atrocities against Muslims.

The next White House should also commit decisively to ensuring that women comprise at least half of its top foreign-policy positions and work with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to go beyond his worthy successes in increasing the proportion of women in the top leadership of the U.N. The culture at most multilateral organizations remains male-dominated and chauvinist, resulting in profound policy gaps. The United Nations continues to struggle with allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power at its headquarters, while accusations of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in places such as Haiti and the Central African Republic have become all too familiar. Instead of merely threatening to withhold funds, the United States should build political coalitions in multilateral bodies to hold their leaders or field personnel accountable.The next White House should also commit decisively to ensuring that women comprise at least half of its top foreign-policy positions.

The United States also needs to prioritize gender in the content of its policy. The abuse of women and girls is not only an egregious and largely neglected human rights violation; it is also a threat to global economic growth and prosperity by sidelining half of the world economy’s human assets. By not proactively addressing global gender inequality, the United States misses an opportunity to enhance global growth—and in the longer term prevent violence and insecurity.

Globally, the COVID-19 crisis has led to alarming spikes in gender-based violence and the loss of critical economic opportunities and health services for women. This is precisely the right time for the United States to craft a bold new agenda to advance gender equality globally. The next U.S. administration—in its first 100 days—should launch a new National Security Council Task Force on Gender Equality. It should also create a robust cross-sectoral fund dedicated to reversing the catastrophic effects that COVID-19 has unleashed on women and girls, including targeted funds to combat gender-based violence.

A U.S.-led global strategy to advance gender equality should work toward elevating gender equality in multilateral programming and targeting the structural inequalities and pervasive culture of harassment within multilateral institutions. If elected as U.S. president, this new strategy could leverage Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s long-standing commitment to advancing women’s rights and combating gender-based violence toward reinstating the moral standing of the United States on the global stage.

Inclusion in personnel and in policy content is inseparable—each reinforces the other. Promoting social inclusion to address a wide array of the world’s most serious problems is a focused and fitting way for the United States to reenter a leadership role in the global community after a period of abrasive unilateralism.

Sohini Chatterjee is on the faculty at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and serves as a legal advisor for Independent International Legal Advocates and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mark P. Lagon is on the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and served as U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat trafficking in persons. He is the former president of Freedom House.