More Black Ambassadors Would Highlight America’s Greatest Strengths

An open position in China is an opportunity to show U.S. diversity.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24, 2020.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24, 2020.

At a critical time in U.S.-China relations, one of the most important roles is vacant. U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad stepped down from his post last October, and, amid the chaos of the coronavirus and the Trump administration, the role remains unfilled. Leaving an ambassador post open, particularly at this moment, harms the United States’ ability to compete. The opening in Beijing provides an opportunity for the incoming Biden administration to reflect on how a diverse foreign service ambassadorial corps is better suited to defend against China and other adversaries that continually stoke racial and social tensions in the United States.

The goal of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration should be to foster a foreign service that embraces diversity, thus allowing ambassadors who are Black or come from other marginalized communities to serve in the capitals of America’s greatest authoritarian adversaries. A Black ambassador for Beijing would be a good start given the foreign service’s history of appointing ambassadors to countries or continents of their ancestral origins. For example, in the 2000s 36 U.S. ambassadors to missions in Africa were Black, whereas only three were selected to serve in Europe.

A full embrace of policies that recruit, retain, and promote foreign service officers from marginalized backgrounds will align with the United States’ biggest strategic advantage (diversity) by opening a window for innovative policies and posing a direct ideological and material challenge to China. As one of the most diverse polities in human history, the United States has a wealth of talent that cuts across numerous backgrounds—including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, geography, and class—that need to be tapped to counter authoritarian powers.

Through its actions abroad, China is making the world more dangerous for democracy and safer for authoritarianism, while bolstering its internal ethnonationalism—with horrifying consequences for minority groups. Pushing back against China and other authoritarian adversaries will be made more robust by selecting diverse ambassadors. Those chosen to represent the United States abroad must understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of America and its adversaries—personnel is policy.

As an Alliance for Securing Democracy report noted, America’s systemic racism and inequality contradict the foundational principles of U.S. democracy, which if not mended will continue to “diminish its potential as a country and society.” The racial unrest that came to a head last summer is not new; it’s American as apple pie. Unchecked racism, the United States’ oldest vulnerability, invites U.S. adversaries to exploit it. The Red Summer of 1919 is a dark stain on American race relations that the country has truly never confronted. This pervasive historical ignorance has been highlighted by the shock of many Americans upon learning about the 1921 Tulsa massacre and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in the HBO television series Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.

Foreign adversaries are already exploiting American division and reaching out to marginalized communities within the United States. For example, in May of last year, the National Association of Black Journalists planned to host a webinar with the blacklisted Chinese technology company Huawei titled “The Rise of Misinformation,” featuring musician, political commentator Van Jones, and others. Huawei has faced criticism for the company’s involvement in the repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and other ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Though the journalism organization eventually pulled out of the webinar, saying that “it has become a distraction from other priorities,” this incident shows that Beijing has the means to reach out to U.S. marginalized communities that are often ignored by policymakers in Washington. Other authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cuba historically made overtures to marginalized communities in the United States, but with more success, due to an ideological pull that China does not have.

China is not the melting pot that the United States is. The Chinese govenrment, seeking to reinforce its visions of a homogeneous Han identity, captures nationalism as a formative identity anchor. Over the summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement reached a fever pitch, Chinese government officials awkwardly expressed support for the plight of Black Americans by equating them with Africans. This reflects a double standard on the Chinese government’s part. Chinese officials call for racial equity and justice in the United States even as some of the same officials are perpetrating genocide against the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group in western China. The nationalism as peddled by the Chinese Communist Party shares elements of Han chauvinism and anti-Blackness, paired with public proclamations of admiration and respect for Black Americans. Former National Basketball Association player Stephon Marbury, who is Black, became a larger-than-life figure in China by reinventing himself as a player and coach in the Chinese Basketball Association, becoming one of the most famous Westerners in the country.

The United States fails to acknowledge and use its diversity for what it is: a strategic advantage. It was identified by Susan Rice, a former Obama administration national security advisor and the incoming Biden administration’s domestic policy advisor, during her May 2016 commencement address at Florida International University. Rice addressed the problem head-on by highlighting that “leaders from diverse backgrounds can often come up with more creative insights, proffer alternative solutions, and thus make better decisions.” However, addressing this problem also means confronting a decrease in Americans’ interest in choosing a career in the State Department. Only 3.3 percent of senior leaders in the State Department are Black—compared to 12.5 percent of military generals. Though the incoming Biden administration’s nominations of Linda Thomas-Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations, retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Wally Adeyemo for deputy secretary of the treasury are a start, it is not enough.

This crux of diversity is practicality. As the former CIA officer Douglas London said late last year, “our adversaries and enemies are not going to be privileged, white suburbanites walking around the streets in Southern California” and “a large body of our spies are not really up to the challenge of dealing with different people and relating to them in an effective way.” In 2019, the BBC reported that the lack of diversity at the CIA may have contributed to a blind spot that did not anticipate the 9/11 attacks. According to one insider, CIA officials “could not believe that this tall Saudi with a beard [Osama bin Laden], squatting around a campfire, could be a threat to the United States of America”—a perception deepened by the CIA’s largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male leadership.

Thankfully, the United States already has many of the existing programs and pipelines needed to increase diversity within not just the State Department but the national security apparatus overall. Increased funding for the Presidential Management, Boren, Rangel, and Pickering fellowships as well as the Critical Language Scholarship Program can dramatically expand the pipeline for more Black diplomats and those from other marginalized backgrounds, but it’s not nearly enough. It’s about the retention and promotion of diplomats of color, not just recruitment. These programs already prioritize and encourage applicants to further their studies in Chinese, Russian, and other critical languages. Unfortunately, these programs remain underutilized, especially after the State Department quietly suspended the Diplomacy Fellows Program in 2017. Ambassadorial roles, the higher ranks of the State Department, and other parts of the national security apparatus still need to be staffed by individuals from diverse backgrounds, and exploring lateral entry into the diplomatic corps from the private sector would make a difference.

Last July, the Represent America Abroad Act of 2020 was introduced in the House of Representatives. If adopted, this bill will spur the creation of the Represent America Mid-career Foreign Service Entry Program “to identify, attract, and welcome mid-career professionals who are from minority groups into the Foreign Service.” Legislation like this is a step in the right direction, but as Rep. Joaquin Castro highlighted, the retention of diverse foreign service members needs to be just as high of a State Department priority as recruitment efforts.

The next ambassador to China should be uniquely qualified, well-versed in the country’s culture, a tested leader, and someone who will stand firm against the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to exploit American divisions even as the government at home attempts to heal them. There is a pool of highly qualified policy professionals. Recently retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper is fluent in Mandarin, led the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and understands the complex dynamics of Taiwanese arms sales. With the recent lifting of self-imposed restrictions in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, Hooper’s experience and knowledge are all the more relevant.

Once the United States embraces diversity within the foreign service and the national security apparatus, the amount of talent that has been wasted for decades will take the world by surprise. Appointing Black ambassadors to America’s greatest adversaries will align the United States’ strategic advantage of diversity and pose an ideological and material challenge to China as well as other adversaries. It is time to have Black ambassadors who are not just there to play jazz in foreign capitals, but to lead embassies.

Bryce C. Barros is the China affairs analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Truman National Security Project, Alliance for Securing Democracy, or the German Marshall Fund of the United States.