To defeat systemic racism, America must end endless war

To defeat systemic racism, America must end endless war
Comment: The US desperately needs an open and honest debate about the ways race and racism have influenced its foreign policy for centuries, writes Nima Gerami.
6 min read
07 Jul, 2020
African-Americans account for 18 percent of active duty enlisted personnel [Getty]

The police killing of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour has focused the world's attention on structural racism and inequality. Black Lives Matter can no longer be dismissed as a fringe movement - it has become a global rallying cry in the wake of Floyd's death.

In this unique moment of solidarity and introspection, hundreds of organisations within Washington's national security community have committed to improving racial diversity in their ranks. And as US rivals seize on anti-racism protests for political gain, some national security experts have highlighted the need to recognise racial injustice at home as a barrier to America's moral authority on the world stage.

Yet it would be a mistake to limit our critical self-reflection to promoting diversity and inclusion within the national security workforce: we must have an open and honest debate about the ways race and racism have influenced America's foreign policy for centuries, perpetuating racial injustice and inequality abroad in the name of national security.

Of course, the underrepresentation of minorities in the national security community is a serious problem that must be redressed. Despite efforts in recent years to increase diversity, people of colour at the State Department and USAID remain disproportionately represented, especially at senior levels, and are less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

But as important as it is to improve racial equity in public service, these efforts do not automatically translate to fewer wars against predominantly black and brown countries, so long as the connection between race and foreign policy remains largely ignored.

The connection between race and foreign policy remains largely ignored

As political scientists Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken observe, the role of race is strikingly absent in mainstream international relations scholarship. This is because the major theories of international relations - realism, liberalism, and constructivism - view political events through a Eurocentric perspective that justifies western dominance. After all, the study of international relations, as the late Stanley Hoffman famously said, is an "American social science" whose development roughly coincided with the emergence of the US as a global hegemon.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the paradigmatic work of international relations, mostly written by western white male scholars, ignores the issue of race in foreign policy.

Still, history is replete with examples of how race and racism have influenced America's role in the world. The racism that permeates our foreign policies today is an extension of the belief in white supremacy that shaped the territorial and ideological boundaries of our nation from its inception.

The United States was built on the backs of black slaves and consolidated through Manifest Destiny-era policies that denied indigenous peoples the right to own and cultivate their own land. This legacy has found expression in America's interventions abroad, from Theodore Roosevelt's expansionist doctrine to support for CIA-backed coups across what was then referred to as the 'third world' during the Cold War.

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The xenophobic discourse surrounding the so-called global "War on Terror" - which all too often conflates violent extremism with Islam - is merely the latest manifestation of a tendency to "otherize" people of colour and portray their values, customs, and beliefs as nefarious forces in the world. 

Read more: For the sake of George Floyd and black lives everywhere, make this moment count

For many in the black freedom movement, the struggles for racial justice in the United States and global peace have always been closely intertwined. In his essay, "The Color Line Belts the World,"  W.E.B. Du Bois articulates an internationalist vision of racial equality, emphasising that the challenges that black Americans faced at home were "but a local phase of a world problem."

Expressing solidarity with people of colour worldwide, figures such as Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson explicitly linked race and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As Hughes muses, perhaps the US waited until after V-E Day to drop the bomb on Japan, a nation of "coloured" people, rather than on the white Germans.

The pernicious effects of racism have also shaped the prosecution of America's endless wars. African Americans were disproportionately drafted and killed in Vietnam: in 1967, blacks accounted for 16 percent of all draftees and 23 percent of all combat troops, but represented only 11 percent of the civilian population.

Today, African-Americans account for 18 percent of active duty enlisted personnel that are sent into harm's way - still higher relative to their number in the US population. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, endless war endangers incremental progress on civil rights because the "triple evils" of racism, poverty, and militarism are inextricably linked and must be defeated together.

Dr King's words ring loudly today. Last year, the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any previous year since the Pentagon began to keep a record. Although the United Nations has called for a global ceasefire during the Covid-19 pandemic, the US continues to drop bombs in Iraq, as it has done every year since 1991.

The racism that permeates our foreign policies today is an extension of the belief in white supremacy that shaped the boundaries of our nation

The Trump administration is also reportedly considering an end to the congressional review of arms sales to the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, deepening the "worst humanitarian crisis" in one of the poorest countries in the world. And on the African continent, the US has drastically increased its counterterrorism operations. Somalia alone has suffered from a threefold increase in the number of drone strikes under the Trump administration.

Crucially, the US remains an outlier in international human rights law given its refusal to adopt the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, thus skirting international legal obligations concerning genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

In fact, the US has not only failed to adopt the Rome Statute, the Trump administration is
going a step further in the wrong direction by sanctioning ICC officials because of their intention to investigate war crimes on all sides of the war in Afghanistan. Racial justice at home simply cannot be realised without securing justice and accountability for breaches of international law.

As we look inwards to dismantle America's legacy of racism that pervades the law enforcement and national security apparatuses, we must also recognise that racism and militarism are mutually reinforcing.

The militarisation of police occupying American cities and communities is inseparable from the militarisation of American foreign policy that has put the US on a war footing in the Middle East and Africa. Moral outrage over racial injustice and inequality should not stop at the water's edge - the colour line that divides our domestic politics extends to our foreign affairs.

Nima Gerami is a Visiting Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Fellow with the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. He is also an expert consultant at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @nima_gerami

This article was republished with permission from Responsible Statecraft.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.