European Union Policy Studies

Black Lives Matter in International Relations TOO!

Black Lives Matter

By Joshua Grant

In the United States, human rights issues have historically been viewed more as foreign policy and diplomacy questions than matters that hit close to home. Recently, however, human rights issues have taken a decidedly more domestic turn. Several policy solutions posed by the Trump administration have been largely reactionary and, in some cases, even harmful to certain segments of the American population. In 2017 an executive order prohibiting migrants, many escaping conflicts in Central America, from entering the United States resulted in masses of displaced peoples seeking refuge. The President then issued a memo expanding the purviews of ICE to arrest, detain, and expedite the deportation of undocumented immigrants. This memo led to a massive influx of detainees and resulted in the separation and detention of children at the border. In another instance, the administration championed gutting the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule which protects the ability of women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals to access fair, affordable housing. These are just some of the numerous examples of targeted rollbacks on civil and human rights that have taken place under the current administration's watch.

In recent years, American allies and critics alike have voiced their concern that the USA is not living up to its standards calling for the protection of liberty, the same standards it has historically fought to instill and protect in other nations. This apparent hypocrisy has led to a virulent strain of anti-Americanism also known as liberal anti-Americanism, which, among other things, cites the inability of the USA to meet the same standards it expects from other countries. As early as 2017 the White House criticized the UN Human Rights Council as being weak concerning the investigation and action against countries prone to human rights violations such as China and Russia. The USA even went as far as to withdraw from the Council in 2018. "I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from human rights commitments… On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights", stated former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Now, in the wake of the George Floyd strangulation, along with the senseless deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks among others, President Trump’s human and civil rights record is once again in the spotlight. In response to nationwide protests in the USA, the military was called upon to "dominate" Black Lives Matter protestersa move that even apolitical military generals spoke out against and that many perceive as a show of political chauvinism. These acts have laid bare the centuries-old American struggle with issues with race, equality, and justice. Black people in the USA are three times more likely to be shot by police while being 1.3 times less likely to be unarmed. Black Americans commit crimes at similar rates to their white counterparts while accounting for only 13 percent of the population, and yet represent 34 percent of the prison population. Black citizens have historically been overpoliced since the abolition of slavery, and have continued to be overpoliced due to institutionalized practices, propagated in American society and politics for decades. The murder of Black people, the protests for justice, and the inadequate response of the current administration have brought to the surface the impact and persistence of these histories, capturing now international attention. 

George Floyd's very public and brutal death sent shock waves through the United States and the world. The horror of the images televised worldwide of the treatment and death of George Floyd as well as the lack of Presidential leadership on the matter resulted in protests in London, Berlin, Pretoria, Seoul, Pristina, and Florence. Hundreds of thousands of people marching in protest have made it quite clear that the USA needs to change its ways. International protesters have shouted the potent, yet straightforward affirmation, "Black Lives Matter." They have called for the USA to embrace international human rights standards and thus in praxis, institutional change. Even the United Nations, an organization in which the USA is a major leader, has called for increased level scrutiny of U.S. treatment of Black citizens and protestors. Some within the UN Humans Rights Council have argued that the Council should launch a Commission of Inquiry, the Council's most powerful investigation tool. These developments indicate a notable and positive shift for Black people in the USA; it shows that the international community cares about our situation. It shows that the effects of American domestic policy do not stop at the water's edge, and accountability falls not only under the responsibility of domestic institutions but also international. Most importantly, it shows that Black Lives Matter when it comes to international politics, too.

The USA now has to reckon with both the domestic consequences of its actions as well as international repercussions. One significant global consequence is that the USA is losing an essential resource in international relations: soft power. Joseph Nye defines soft-power as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies." Basically, if other nations love your country, it makes it easier for your country to obtain its policy goals in international relations. The trend is proving that in recent years American soft power has been in steep decline. According to the Pew Research Center, a 22-nation poll found that the number of people who showed confidence in the U.S. President dropped from 70 percent in 2013 to 28 percent in 2018. Now 45 percent of those polled by Pew stated that they believe that the USA is more threatening than helpful. Furthermore, in the annual British Soft Power Index, America slipped from its usual position as number 1 to fifth in the ranking. This steep decline will continue to make it hard for the US to coalesce international support on numerous key issues.

While the USA has historically been a champion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law on the international stage, it has allowed its institutions to marginalize Black Americans. The current racial strife has exposed America’s deep racial inequalities at a time when international confidence in the USA was already waning. The more America’s words are contradicted by its actions, the more its soft power decreases and the weight of the U.S. word abroad decreases. These declines in turn reduce America’s ability to influence the creation of a more peaceful and stable world. Values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights should not just be spoken words but rather demonstrable actions. Leading scholars are already studying the growing relevance of their dictatorial models and argue a polar shift towards authoritarianism is on the rise in the world. Without U.S. leadership spearheading and spreading democratic values, countries vying for international power such as China and Russia will certainly try to fill the void with potentially dangerous illiberal values. The USA must deal with its racist demons now, first and foremost, for the well-being of its Black citizens, but also if it is to maintain its privileged international standing. It must remember that in international relations: BLACK LIVES MATTER!!!

Joshua Grant is a current EUPS student on the Foreign Policy and Internal Security specialization track. He studies issues of justice and how they correlate to foreign relations. He is completing an internship with the Transitional Justice Resource Center in Pristina, Kosovo where he is researching racial inequality in the EU.

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Published: Friday, July 3, 2020

Last Updated: Monday, July 6, 2020

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