Policy Brutality at Home Batters America’s Image Abroad

Demonstrators during a die-in. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Demonstrators during a die-in. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Last week, following the Staten Island grand jury’s acquittal of N.Y.P.D officer Daniel Pantelano of charges related to the death of Eric Garner, Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, pointed out that “[t]he treatment of black Americans has long tarnished our national mythology of the ‘melting pot,’ and with it the smug belief that Americans is the ideal model for the rest of the world. This latest episode reminds us that the country still does not live up to the ideals that it likes to preach to others.The United States hasn’t been able to fix its racial divisions in a century and a half, but we thought we could settle some equally deep divisions in a few years in foreign countries that we barely understood. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the very definition of hubris.”

Mr. Walt is a well known, respected, but not an uncontroversial scholar of international affairs. Recently, he received attention for a spirited, nuanced and thoughtful critique of U.S. and European policy before the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year that runs deeply counter to conventional wisdom in Washington. Mr. Walt also co-wrote a less thoughtful report in 2007 examining U.S. policy towards Israel that dressed up the Jews-are-controlling-American-policy trope in respectable academic sounding language. Nonetheless, he is right about Ferguson, Eric Garner and the impact of that on the U.S. ability to promote human rights and democracy abroad.

To most Americans, regardless of party or political views, it is reasonably apparent that if the U.S. seeks to be the moral arbiter of the rest of the world, then what happens within our borders will probably receive a fair amount of scrutiny. Even those who support grand jury decisions, like those in Ferguson or Staten Island or who believe the demonstrators are unlawfully rioting, likely understand that these events do not make the U.S. look good to the rest of the world. Many Americans may not care what the rest of the world thinks of us, but our foreign policy cannot be separated from that.

This argument, however, is likely to be lost on a foreign policy establishment that has too deep a commitment to a foreign policy that, among other things, views the U.S. as the model and judge of issues of democracy and human rights. This commitment is sometimes unspoken, and perhaps even unconscious, but unequivocal. The programs and policies that from that commitment seem, at best, more difficult to implement and, for many in the U.S. and abroad, bizarrely hypocritical, after events like these two acquittals. Police brutality, racially-charged policing and criminal justice may seem like domestic policies, but every time a police officer does not stand trial for shooting an African American, it makes it harder for the U.S. to speak convincingly to the rest of the world about things like democracy and human rights.

Foreign policy makers do our country a disservice by ignoring that. One of the forgotten aspects of the Civil Rights Movement during the mid-1960s was that apartheid in the American south had become Kremlin propaganda that was very damaging to the U.S. in much of the world. Thus, improving racial equality was, for many white policy makers, a Cold War strategy more than a moral imperative. There is little evidence that today’s largely self-contained foreign policy establishment, regardless of personal views on Eric Garner or Ferguson, has made a similar connection.

Even as thousands demonstrated throughout the country in recent weeks, U.S-funded aid projects throughout the world aimed to improve people’s lives and strengthen the rule of law in many countries. Much of this work was undoubtedly very productive, but it becomes much more difficult by high-profile incidents that spotlight deep flaws in American democracy. Mr. Walt calls this “hubris,” but it is also a reflection of the depth of denial that too often characterizes how American elites view the rule of their country in the world.

Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.