The U.S. Reckoning on Race, Seen Through Other Nations' Eyes

While the tactic of criticizing the United States for its racial tensions and policies toward Black Americans is decades old, it comes as historians and experts on democracy warn that under President Donald Trump, American moral authority and stature around the world has waned

Protesters hold banners reading "Get Out Here" and "Black Lives Matter" during a demonstration led by the NAACP
John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It's not only in the United States where protests against racial injustice are part of the national conversation. A handful of America's critics have taken note too, using recent months' demonstrations and graphic images of police violence to denounce the country at the United Nations' gathering of world leaders this year.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani invoked the killing of George Floyd, the Black American man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee against his neck even as he repeatedly said he could not breathe. Floyd’s death, caught on video, set off nationwide protests in support of Black lives.

Rouhani said the scene was “reminiscent” of Iran's own experience in its quest for freedom and liberation from domination, and that Iran instantly recognized "the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.”

Cuba and Venezuela also took jabs at the U.S., making specific references to the protests during words delivered to the U.N. General Assembly.

While the tactic of criticizing the United States for its racial tensions and policies toward Black Americans is decades old, it comes as historians and experts on democracy warn that under President Donald Trump, American moral authority and stature around the world has waned.

“When the United States falters, it ripples across the world. And the United States has long faltered in regard to its racial policy and upholding its promise of equality,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose research focuses on democracy and governance.

“In the past, when we’ve faltered, we’ve tried to do better,” she said. “I think what’s different now is that people fear that those ideals and values are possibly slipping.”

In his remarks to world leaders at the all-virtual U.N. meeting this week, Trump touted what he called his administration's achievements in advancing religious liberty, opportunity for women and protecting unborn children.

“America will always be a leader in human rights,” Trump said. He made no reference to the protests roiling multiple cities as Americans prepare to vote in November's presidential election.

In contrast, Barack Obama spoke directly about America's own “own racial and ethnic tensions” during his U.N. General Assembly remarks in 2014, saying he knew the world took notice of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of an unarmed Black 18-year-old by a police officer set off protests.

America’s critics will be quick to point out “that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals," he said at the time. “But we welcome the scrutiny of the world — because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect."

Though Trump made no mention of the struggle for racial equality in his speech, others did. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “we aren’t going far enough to eliminate systemic injustice, whether it’s a question of racism against Black or Indigenous people, homophobia or sexism.” The small island chain of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines proclaimed “that Black Lives Matter" and said the case for reparatory justice remains strong.

As the Republican nominee in 2016, Trump seemed to acknowledge that when it came to civil liberties, the U.S “has a lot of problems" that impact America's ability to promote democracy abroad. “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country," Trump told The New York Times that July.

That argument echoes the one the Soviet Union levied against the U.S. during the Cold War, particularly in the civil rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Soviet media often portrayed the protests and sit-ins as evidence that racism was systemic of capitalism.

According to a State Department memo in 1963, written just months after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, Soviet broadcasters portrayed U.S. policies toward Black citizens as “indicative of its policy toward colored peoples throughout the world.”

Karl Jacoby, a professor of American history and co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University in New York, said that the U.S. moved to end segregation and push forth the Civil Rights Act as it competed for influence with the Soviet Union in part because “it was untenable to try to be the leader of the democratic world and be undemocratic at home.”

“This is really a very old pattern — that the United States finds itself very vulnerable on the international stage because of the hypocrisy of its stated ideals and the actual reality of the treatment of a lot of its citizens,” he said.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel leveraged that vulnerability when he referred to U.S. “imperialism” and the “ irrational and unsustainable production and consumption system of capitalism" in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly this week. He said the U.S. was facing “an abundance of practically uncontrolled expressions of hatred, racism, police brutality and irregularities in the election system."

And Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, not recognized by Washington as his nation's legitimate leader, blasted U.S. “arrogance." He said the Trump administration's current path will lead to isolation and condemnation, including from U.S. citizens “who have taken to the streets to protest against racism, against police brutality, against abuse.”

Iran, Venezuela and Cuba are all under U.S. sanctions, which have tightened under President Trump. The three nations also restrict protests and free speech within their own borders, sometimes harshly:

— Last year, Iranian security forces last year killed at least 300 in anti-government protests and suppressed media coverage, according to Amnesty International.

— Venezuela is in the midst of one of the world's worst refugee crises and a third of the country faces hunger. A U.N. Human Rights Council has accused Maduro's government of crimes, including torture and killings. The U.S. and nearly 60 other nations have called on him to step down.

— In Cuba, there have been dramatic openings in past years, but it remains a one-party communist state where dissent is punishable.

Thomas Carothers, author of “Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization," said that it becomes harder for the United States to be an effective promoter of democracy abroad when U.S. democracy falls short of its own standards.

“Unquestionably, President Trump has less interest in supporting democracy abroad than any other president in recent American history,” said Carothers, who is senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kleinfeld says the world as a whole is facing a problem of governance.

“Democracies may not always be doing well, and the United States is certainly not doing well,” she said. “But there is a chance in democracies that they can do better. They can at least elect their leaders and try to do better.”


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