The Breonna Taylor/George Floyd Narrative?

Impacts on U.S. Foreign Policy and International Standing

| June 2020
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If the Covid-19 pandemic has called into question America’s role as leader of the world community of nations, will the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by law enforcement personnel–and the subsequent protests and demonstrations that have resulted, both in the United States and around the world–have an impact on U.S. foreign policy?

In my past role as editor of The National Interest and my current editorial role at Orbis, I am used to receiving innumerable submissions about how the U.S. can and ought to “fix” problems around the world–what we can do to create regional security structures, promote good governance and human rights, reform policing structures and electoral inequities, promote development and democracy, and so on. Most of the debate revolves around the extent to which the United States should be active in the world, and some of the narratives that the U.S. Global Engagement project has been exploring express concerns about the degree of involvement, not whether the U.S. should be involved at all. Retrenchment narratives worry about overstretch, and regeneration ones are concerned with resources and loss of focus.

But in the aftermath of the deaths of Taylor and Floyd, amidst the overwhelming focus on domestic policing and societal inequities, there are the beginnings of a possible new perspective on foreign affairs: one that links excess use of the military instrument of power abroad with increasing militarization of domestic life, and one which not only questions whether America should export solutions of perhaps dubious efficacy in favor of looking overseas for better models of domestic governance. Finally, this narrative parallels calls made in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic to redefine national security in favor of human security and to shift resources away from the tools of power projection (especially the military) toward agencies for development and social assistance.  A nation that adopts some of the proposals advanced by the protest movement in terms of domestic governance would see their applicability to foreign affairs as well.

Will this emerging narrative gain traction? For the Biden campaign, which was, at the beginning of the year, planning to focus primarily on a restorationist narrative in foreign affairs, and has seemed disinclined to connect domestic questions to foreign policy issues, it is not yet apparent whether any of these sentiments will be reflected in the campaign’s policy positions. Nor does it seem likely that these concerns will be melded into a revised “America First” pitch. And neither campaign will be eager to connect ethical failings at home with a questioning of America’s right to offer moral commentary on the actions of other nations.

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  1. Nikolas K Gvosdev says:

    And appending this open letter sent out by Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Policy:

    George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 has sparked an urgent national and global conversation about racism and how to address it. This discussion is long overdue.

    Already, the debate has underscored the fact that, while social justice has not been a traditional focus of foreign-policy thinkers, it should be. As Bishop Garrison and Jon Wolfsthal argue in a recent FP essay, “The United States cannot claim to be a beacon of freedom in the world if it continues to witness and accept the ongoing murder of innocent black people. … If the national security community only seeks to address global threats but refuses to confront the sins that hide in plain sight at home, there will never be lasting progress in either area.”

    If you still harbor any doubts about the importance of race in defense and international affairs, I urge you to read the arguments numerous leading U.S. military figures—including retired Gen. John Allen, retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, and retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard—have all recently shared in FP. On June 3, Allen, a former commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, wrote that Trump’s use of military force to violently drive peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square might mark “the beginning of the end of the American experiment,” and he called on U.S. voters to respond by driving change “from the bottom up.”

    Whether or not that happens, the problems remain unavoidable. As Pittard, one of the few African Americans in U.S. history to reach the rank of two-star general, told FP’s Michael Hirsh in a June 4 interview, nonwhite officers are forced to confront discrimination throughout their careers. So are American diplomats; as FP’s Robbie Gramer found in reporting his June 11 story on how the current protests—and underlying injustices—are affecting the State Department, “Out of 189 ambassadors serving overseas today, only three are African American career diplomats, and just four are Hispanic.”

    These issues aren’t only being debated inside the United States. As Benjamin Haddad writes, “Europeans are expressing their frustration with American leadership … and their sympathy for a nation they still want to believe in.” Steven A. Cook, FP’s Middle East columnist, compares the U.S. protests with those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 and Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. “What is Black Lives Matter if it is not a demand for dignity?” he asks. Farther away—in India, for example—the events in the United States are now inspiring deep and painful introspection. Or they should. As Raksha Kumar wrote for us recently, while prominent Bollywood stars have been quick to show support for African Americans, they have too often ignored how police brutality in their own country disproportionately affects India’s poor, its so-called lower castes, and its religious minorities.