Police Violence at Home Requires a Rethink of U.S. Foreign Policy and Assistance Abroad

The United States has historically used its foreign assistance programs to advance the rule of law and justice around the world. But when police brutalize and murder unarmed Black Americans such as George Floyd, the effectiveness and legitimacy of the United States – including its ability to support justice abroad – crumbles.

Encouraging other nations to undertake positive, holistic and just reforms to advance the rule of law requires a rethink of U.S. foreign assistance. New, innovative and thoughtful approaches to foreign assistance are needed through, for example, highlighting alternatives to traditional policing verses just presenting American models and lessons. Rule of law and justice assistance must also shift to be more holistic, inclusive and community oriented to address root causes of violence and insecurity.

These changes should be advanced by U.S. diplomats who truly reflect the diversity of America and offer public support for the most salient forces driving racial justice at home – such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Recognizing persistent domestic struggles to achieve full equality and expressing humility will also boost American efforts overseas. Acts like these, among many others, will help infuse American diplomacy with much needed legitimacy.

The principles outlined below are not exhaustive but constitute a starting point from which to inspire meaningful changes to U.S. diplomatic practice. Given the current lack of American leadership on human rights, should there be a new U.S. administration in 2021, it should work together with the foreign policy community to repair the damage done and reinvigorate assistance in this area.

Prioritize Community Participation and Accountability

The United States has long provided support to rule of law and justice efforts abroad through providing training and resources to police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials. Many of these efforts focus on capacity building within a traditional model of policing and justice. For example, the Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT) builds partner nation capacities to address crime; in February 2020, for example, OPDAT convened Central American prosecutors, investigators and analysts to share best practices in responding to gang violence.  Other rule of law and justice programs engage more directly with issues of discrimination and vulnerability. In 2014, the Department of State worked with the Atlanta Police Department to develop a training course on hate crime for police departments in Latin America. In the same year, the Department of State sent a police officer from the Gay Officers Action League, a group that supports LGBTQ police officers in New York City, to Mexico to speak about LGBTI-specific policing protocols.

In the context of the United States’ current reckoning with its past and present injustices, this work must be conducted with humility, to acknowledge that the United States continues to face severe shortcomings in securing justice at home. Sharing expertise is valuable, but more holistic approaches are needed to bolster communities and uphold accountability across the justice chain both at home and abroad.  Local leaders know their communities and the specific challenges that impede justice. They should set the priorities and play a significant role in implementation. Specifically, U.S. rule of law programs abroad should consider actions to:

  • Vet U.S. police officers before they partake in assistance programs overseas to ensure they do not have a record of abuse or unlawful acts. Ensure oversight of American trainers overseas to monitor and mitigate any instances of misconduct;
  • Convene local human rights and community organizations to determine how assistance dollars are prioritized. Set empowerment of local organizations as program goals;
  • Link police and prosecutor training with support to judiciaries to hold officers accountable who use excessive force and;
  • Balance rule of law assistance with investments in social programs that support access to healthcare, education and livelihoods to address the root causes of inequality.

Highlight Alternatives to Traditional Policing from Diverse Contexts

 Around the world, communities are exploring alternative approaches to justice, security, and the rule of law that recognize unjust practices within this field. These alternatives include restorative justice, mediation, and community-led patrols. In Liberia, for example, where the police lack public trust given rampant corruption, citizens in one urban zone use community mediators to resolve disputes. Likewise, New York City’s “Cure Violence Program” has shown some success in deterring violence by approaching the problem as a public health crisis and supporting youth to engage with neighborhood residents including formerly incarcerated people and/or former gang members. There are multitudes of examples of innovative approaches, as well as scholarship that offers deep critiques and analysis of traditional approaches to policing, rule of law, and justice. Alternatives and innovation offer the ability to look more holistically at patterns of violence. U.S. foreign assistance should embrace these examples and support communities to share them with counterparts.

Represent American Diversity and Support Racial Justice Efforts at Home and Abroad

The current corps of U.S. diplomats is not representative of the American population. As Adom Cooper recently pointed out, “without diversity of backgrounds and experiences at the decision-making tables, the United States will have decisions that represent a monolithic ethos and not a representative sample of American experiences.” In June 2020, the American Academy of Diplomacy found that of 189 American Ambassadors serving abroad, only three are Black and only four are Hispanic.  In the 21st century, these numbers are pathetic, alarming, and damaging to U.S. foreign policy goals; talented diplomats have reportedly left the State Department after being sidelined or facing hostile work environments due to their race or ethnicity. Calling attention to this problem, more than 150 organizations signed a statement authored by Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation, calling for nongovernmental organizations to reflect the diversity of America at all levels, diversify boards to reflect people of color, provide resources to Black-led groups, and develop mentorship programs, among other steps. This commitment to diversity must be enacted across government agencies as well.

U.S. diplomats should also demonstrate public support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It is in the United States’ interest to speak out in support of fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Following his June 2020 meeting with the Foreign Minister of Zimbabwe to raise concern about the deaths of peaceful protesters, the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe explicitly linked the struggle for racial justice in the United States with support for human rights abroad, issuing a statement reflecting on his own personal experiences: “As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own. I have also known that America, conceived in liberty, has always aspired to be better…” He further affirmed that “To those who deny America’s right to speak out on [protesters’] fate, let me remind you, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’” The Ambassador’s powerful articulation of American values and the struggle to enact them provides an example of the moral leadership that is possible – and necessary – in U.S. foreign policy. His reflection on his personal experiences demonstrates the value, in terms of legitimacy and substantive experience, that greater diversity would bring to the diplomatic corps. Similarly, after the murder of George Floyd, former foreign policy officials urged the national security community to fight racial injustice.

Beyond individual statements, institutional efforts such as the U.S. Embassy in Seoul displaying a Black Lives Matter banner (which was reportedly removed following a request by the State Department) should be repeated and applauded rather than discouraged. Strategically engaging diaspora communities within the United States is another way to connect with and support racial minorities. The foreign policy establishment can benefit from their insights and connections with their countries of origin.

But most importantly, the United States must prioritize achieving racial justice. Upholding human rights and accountability at home would lead to more genuinely elevating these issues in foreign policy as well. To do so, U.S. leaders must see the benefit in healing societal divisions rather than inflaming them, expanding the ranks of foreign policymakers, and re-framing U.S. assistance abroad to include innovative approaches to justice.

The United States is Setting an Example, for Better or Worse

Stories of police killing unarmed suspects and clashing with peaceful protesters shake public confidence in U.S. law enforcement within the United States and globally. Police violence here has led to protests around the world. But events like these can also help highlight what is needed to create a more just, safe and fair world: accountability, diversity in public institutions, deep and meaningful community engagement—including with allies and diaspora communities—and resources for education and healthcare. Fredrick Douglass aptly stated, “without struggle, there can be no progress.” The struggle continues. The United States has the opportunity to continue to inspire change and build a more just world for those who experience racial injustice around the globe. Let’s not squander it.

Image: A ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner is displayed on the US embassy in Seoul on June 14, 2020. (Photo by Ed JONES /AFP  via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Jesse Bernstein

Truman National Security Fellow. Follow him on Twitter (@JesseBerns).