Saturday, February 21, 2015

Civil Rights History, Foreign Affairs, and Contemporary Public Diplomacy

Mary L. Dudziak

It seems like a good time to reflect on the policy implications of scholarship on the relationship between civil rights and U.S. foreign relations. President Obama has recently emphasized that protecting human rights matters to the fight against terrorism. And the Council on Foreign Relations in DC will soon hold an event on the International Implications of the Civil Rights Movement. The event is not open, and discussion may go in a different direction, but below are a few points I hope to have a chance to get across.

The history of the intersection of civil rights and Cold War era U.S. foreign relations is copiously documented here and here. It took a while for American diplomats and political leaders to grasp the extent of the problem and how to address it. Here’s how they got it wrong, and then right – at least for U.S. public diplomacy:

In the late 1940s, as the U.S. hoped to encourage a newly independent India to ally with the United States, but encountered persistent criticism of U.S. racial segregation and discrimination, American diplomats in India initially made things worse. They dismissed the problem and analogized American racism to the Indian caste system, suggesting that all nations have racial problems. If not exacerbating the U.S. image problem, this at least delayed addressing a critical issue during an important moment in US/Indian diplomacy.

Because the United States argued that American democracy was a model for the world (in the context of a Cold War battle for hearts and minds with the Soviets), the U.S. encountered global criticism for not living up to its own ideals. The more the U.S. emphasized the values of democracy – at the same time that there was global news coverage of American civil rights abuses – the more the U.S. was criticized as hypocritical, and the benefits American democracy were questioned. It took a very long time for American leaders to understand that they couldn’t talk about rights for other nations without protecting rights at home.

Important steps forward – Brown v. Board of Education, sending in the troops in Little Rock, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – along with careful management of the global story in U.S. public diplomacy, helped turn this around. By 1964, American diplomats could report that peoples in other nations had come to believe that the American government was on the side of civil rights, rather than being part of the problem. The unfortunate part of the story is that formal legal change, effectively marketed, could accomplish this. Continuing inequality, if below the radar of global news coverage, did not hold the world’s attention.

One obvious takeaway from this history is that a call for global human rights cannot be effective, and could be counter-productive, without meaningful progress toward human rights at home. There has been global coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, reminiscent of the international interest in American civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. And there has been a devastating hearts and minds problem stemming from abuses at Abu Ghraib, revelations of U.S. torture, and the continuing scar of Guantanamo. If President Obama believes that promoting human rights is important to the fight against terrorism, this history shows that there is only one effective way to begin: by starting at home.

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