Politics, both domestic and international, have certainly changed over the last few years. It’s almost impossible to enter a discussion or read a report on current trends in foreign policy and national security without two points being raised: one that domestic extremist violence is now considered the top terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland, and two, that the world is entering a new era of great power competition. What is not frequently discussed is how these two trends are intricately linked, and how addressing one can aide the United States in the other.
Authoritarian governments, primarily led by Beijing and Moscow see themselves in competition with the United States for key relationships with countries around the world. For decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an assumption that the international standard for progress and reform was the adoption of democracy and liberal market reforms. Today, that is no longer the case. Authoritarian regimes are offering an alternative vision for how to organize society and for a government’s relationship with its people. Their proposition is simple: Yes, it may be more repressive and there are fewer freedoms than with liberal democracy, but it is also more orderly, efficient, and able to handle big problems.
But it is more than simply promoting their own model. Authoritarians also seek to tear down America’s comparative advantage in this this perceived battle of ideas, its self-proclaimed strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom, and equal rights. By doing so they are working to undercut the image America seeks to projects to the world, and the very idea promoted by Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Republicans like Ronald Reagan that America should serve as a shining city upon the hill. If the United States and democracy is not viewed as offering freedom, liberty, or equal rights, then it’s all a sham and the model that it professes is a sham too.
This is why foreign, authoritarian-run media covered the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol so extensively and sensationally. Chinese State-owned outlets described it as an “internal collapse” of the American political system. Chinese outlets were even sent instructions for their coverage of the Capitol Insurrection to emphasize attacking democracy and promoting the idea that censorship is a superior political tool compared to freedom of speech. RT and Sputnik, Russia’s vaunted international propaganda outlets, similarly promoted such messages, covering the Jan. 6 insurrection with headlines describing it as “a date which will live in infamy,” “the date the Second Civil War began,” and “a symptom of a bigger problem.” The Russian government goes beyond simply promoting damaging messages in news coverage, but even tries to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States through its social media manipulation. It is home to leaders of American Neo-Nazi and extremist organizations. Russia’s disinformation networks also specifically target minority groups, especially African Americans, in their disinformation campaigns. There are even reports that Russian intelligence may be financing certain hate groups in the United States, specifically trying to push them towards violence.
This is not to say that foreign adversaries are the cause of racial division in America. That is a burden that rests with Americans. But it clearly shows that America’s competitors view its social division, history of racism, and domestic anti-democratic movements as a vulnerability for the country. This is why authoritarian States seek to tear at the national fabric of America at home and tarnish its image abroad.
This is not a particularly new or novel idea. During the Cold War there was a recognition that division at home hurts America abroad. Domestic reformers and Cold War strategists alike understood that America’s best message to the world was to live by its values and demonstrate that while democracy may be imperfect and in need of constant update and renewal, everyone should all strive to reach that ideal. While in an ideological, global competition with the Soviet Union, the United States needed to build a stronger country at home and prove to the world the value of the democratic model.
The same is true today. Democracy is under assault around the world as authoritarian regimes promote their system abroad and anti-democratic movements spread hate and conspiracy theories here at home. Only by addressing its most dire democracy crises at home can the United States speak with authority abroad.
President Dwight Eisenhower, the wily strategist, understood this dynamic. Even though he never endorsed the final decision, his administration filed an Amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education arguing for school integration, in part because, “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.” When the decision came down, the Republican National Committee praised it as part of Eisenhower’s “many frontal attack on global Communism” adding that “Human equality at home is a weapon of freedom.” As Mary Dudziak argued in her book Cold War Civil Rights, “efforts to promote civil rights within the United States were consistent with and important to the more central U.S. mission of fighting world Communism.”
Biden also makes the case for racial justice in geopolitical terms, telling the State Department staff that the United States needs to resolve long standing racial injustices to be able to rally democracies and push back against authoritarianism. When Biden spoke in his inaugural address about a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making and the need to defeat white supremacy and domestic terrorism, he was talking to Americans, but he was also talking to the world.
But this is not something that any one president, any single administration, or any particular political party can tackle on their own. That is why our organization – the Center for American Progress – has partnered with The McCain Institute for International Leadership to develop a policy blueprint to fight violent white supremacism and extremism. The idea was simple, to better understand and elevate the ideas and insights of stakeholders most affected by white supremacist violence as well as those who have been working for years to diminish it, the CAP and McCain teams met with more than 150 community leaders and experts to hear their perspectives and recommendations. This included communities, experts, and advocacy groups that are viewed as progressive, those that are seen as conservative, and many more with no political alignment at all.
It is a blueprint that was designed to find common ground from conservatives and progressives alike, not as a way to find the lowest common denominator, but as a way to find real meaningful steps forward with widespread support. The result was a surprising degree of shared understanding and agreement on the problem at hand and initial steps forward. Perhaps most the most important of all the findings is that there is a near-universal agreement on the need for improved data collection, research, and reporting on white supremacist violence. The lack of comprehensive and detailed data has hindered the development of targeted strategies to address the problem and to appropriately allocate resources. By investing in more and better research and making that research publicly available, America will not only understand the problem better but will also demonstrate to the world that it is willing to do the difficult work needed to improve its own democratic shortcomings.
The takeaway from this experience is that among the people who are most affected by white supremacist violence, there is a clear recognition of the need to move forward with meaningful action. The imperative is now with the country’s political leaders to act. While politicians frequently miss the forest for the trees when debating domestic reforms, there is a strong tradition of thinking and acting more broadly and strategically when it comes to foreign policy and America’s role in the world, a tradition that leaders today should once again embrace. Only by finally dealing with the scourge of white supremacist violence and racist policies at home can the U.S. lead the world toward a future in which rights are respected everywhere.