A Pragmatic Foreign Policy Would Have Black American Support

24 March 2023, 1852 EDT

Since marginalized communities tend to suffer disproportionately when governments make contemptible policy choices, it stands to reason that those communities might develop a heightened sensitivity about the merits of new policies. At the very least they have reason to cultivate a perspective and preferences that differ from people with resources (money, power, societal standing) to buffer them from the consequences of poor policy stewardship.

That perspective has a kernel of wise counsel.

There’s an abundance of evidence that policies ranging from de-industrialization since the 1970s to the “drug war” of the 1980s and 1990s to the pandemic response today dramatically harmed Black communities more than white or affluent ones. Same goes for the distribution of pain that comes with structural poverty and economic recessions.  

But I’m thinking about foreign policy. Specifically, I have a hunch that Black Americans have a comparatively good bullshit detector about statecraft. 

Why? Not because of anything innate or “biological,” but because of their historical experience in the United States and their overrepresentation in structural (and literal) violence as a consequence of US policy choices. Greater personal stakes means greater attentiveness to costs and risks, and therefore better judgment. 

The caveat is that African Americans are far from monolithic, and that sometimes extends to how they view US foreign policy. The US decision to enter World War I was exceedingly controversial and regrettable, but even prominent Black intellectuals of the time saw the war as a chance to secure their place in American society by supporting it. 

Black opinion about World War II—a war that offered some social mobility for African Americans—was more uniformly favorable. Even though it was a war of empire against empire, it was not only that, and the greater evil was clear enough to most.

In Vietnam, Black opinion was almost entirely critical of the war. Not only because Black Americans were being disproportionately drafted, court-martialed, and subsequently killed. And not only because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. decried, Congress used the cost of the Vietnam War as an excuse to cut anti-poverty programs that helped Black America. 

But also because their quarrel was not with those seeking freedom abroad (the Vietnamese) but rather those denying their freedom at home (the Cold Warriors). As Muhammad Ali said in refusing to be drafted: 

My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality.

And of course, Black Americans were mostly opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even though, perversely, that war and the larger War on Terror construct gave Black Americans the chance at societal inclusion, so long as they became patriotic “terror warriors.” I was active duty Air Force during the early War on Terror years, and the only sustained critiques I was exposed to came from hip-hop. 

So at the risk of oversimplifying, the Black community would have counseled in favor of World War II, against Vietnam, and against both Iraq and the War on Terror. Sounds like good judgment to me. 

And yet the idea that the public—in whole or in part—is fit to judge foreign policy is alien to Washington. 

By tradition, foreign policy is both an elite and elitist activity. The business of national security and diplomacy involves short reaction times, state secrets, bourgeoise social networks, and growing planetary complexity—all of which lends itself to elitism and technocracy. Foreign policy practitioners have long since taken a Lippmann-esque turn away from any conception of participatory democracy in foreign policy in favor an elite stewardship model that disavows the existence of a public mind or public will. 

When I worked as a foreign policy practitioner, I recall having a haughty, dismissive attitude toward the public—much like my peers and superiors. I’ve since struggled with the problematic of how to do foreign policy in a way that makes it more participatory beyond just greater diversity in the diplomatic corps. 

As the United States retools its economy and military to combat Russia, contain China, and prolong US global primacy, we find ourselves in another moment when US foreign policy is structuring the reality that the rest of us have to live within. One of several aspects that troubles me about all this “great-power competition” stuff is that it has proceeded entirely as a Washington-elite project. It has not answered to the public—to say nothing of the Black community—in any meaningful way.  

In that context, I recorded an episode of my podcast with Christopher Shell at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It was a wide-ranging discussion anchored in survey results of Black Americans’ views of the military, Ukraine policy, Taiwan, and US interventionism abroad. His findings told an interesting story that reveals gaps between Black American opinion and the overall thrust of US policy. 

Black Americans have an overwhelmingly favorable view of the US military, but:

  • Younger respondents (who grew up in the shadow of the War on Terror) have the least favorable views of the military;
  • Respondents who had a family member serve in the military were more likely to regret the Afghanistan and Iraq wars;
  • Most respondents supported withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq and thought the wars did not benefit the United States;
  • “half of African Americans were against sending troops to defend Ukraine (55 percent) and Taiwan (48 percent), while only two in ten respondents supported sending troops to either region”;
  • A plurality of respondents (42%) thought the United States should “stay out of world affairs.”

There’s much more than that in the data, and class position affects a lot of these views—the least economically secure tend to be opposed to war, which should not be surprising given what wars usually mean for those who are already hard up or oppressed.

Policy practitioners should be keenly attentive to what Black Americans think generally. It’s not just a matter of fidelity to an ideal of participatory democracy; there could be strategic merit to centering their perspective in the conduct of policies ostensibly done in their name. It might be a way of avoiding more Vietnams and Iraqs, or worse. 

This is cross-posted at Van’s newsletter.