Oftentimes, citizens struggle to approach issues of domestic policy with sufficient urgency as the fallacious comfort of the status quo detracts from the gravity of situations. An example of this is race relations in the United States. In this essay, I will argue that that the US’ racial tensions and their effect of weakening American democracy should be viewed as a national security problem within an international relations context where the necessity of dealing with this issue becomes more evident and pressing. In a world where the United States is in relative decline from the hegemonic position that it occupied in the late 20th century, it must once again prepare for conflict with other great powers. Instead of focusing solely on expansions of hard power, the US needs to be aware that democracy is inherently fragile to disunity and discord, and needs to protect itself by installing policies that promote national unity, as well as preserving the funding ideals of the nation. Put more directly, Americans should realize that their nation is under threat from forces domestic, foreign, and environmental, and that there is a need for a comprehensive long-term strategy to deal with these threats.
Indeed, hostile powers have exploited America’s racial divisions, and hence its political divisions, to weaken American democracy. For example, US intelligence officials suggest that there is a coordinated Russian effort on social media to stoke racial animosity by spreading disinformation. These attacks on national unity come at a time when the legitimacy of the US government has already been eroded by the incompetence displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the US has managed to top the rest of the world in COVID-19 cases. While COVID-19 will eventually be managed, racial issues will not go away so easily, and may be compounded by economic and environmental challenges that can further weaken the nation. For example, some have argued that rising economic inequalities in recent decades have eroded the majoritarian nature of American democracy as national policy decisions are shown to correlate more with the desires of upper-class Americans than the average American. The disparate economic circumstances between Americans, often split along racial lines, has only become more pronounced under the pandemic as some lost their jobs while others comfortably worked from their homes. Moreover, climate change could pose an even bigger threat in the years to come as it significantly increases the probability of extreme weather patterns. For example, a sustained drought, akin to the one that created the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, could threaten the US food supply, as the outbreak already does.
What the United States must do is to make sure that it is able to endure climate, health, and economic shocks socially when they do arise. However, as we have previously established, the US will have a hard time focusing and dealing with its domestic, foreign, and environmental problems as long as there are BLM protesters on the streets, which will be the case as long as excessive and unjust police killings continue. Moreover, the fact that such large protests exist in the first place shows that people have lost faith in the democratic process, and believe that voting alone is no longer sufficient. It is a truism that democracy is not resilient if people do not believe in it. It is no accident that this loss of faith has coincided with decades of widening inequality and a rising consensus that the government is corrupt and law enforcement unjust. While these negative aspects of society are often hidden, they are made plain for all to witness when white police officers are able to shoot black teenagers and get away with it. In this sense, police violence is the most critical issue facing American society not because it somehow affects the most people, but rather because by the nature of its gross injustice, and the ongoing discrimination against marginalized minority groups that it accentuates, it is impossible for Americans to unite as a collative and face their other issues if they do not resolve brutality first. In this sense, it is not the most important problem, but it is the first step to solving the most important problems.
All countries will need to try to recover swiftly from the pandemic, but the US will have doing so when entire communities are disproportionately vulnerable in a crisis and when leaders use divide-and-conquer tactics to stir division and prevent solidarity across races. Fighting for justice is clearly the morally right thing to do, but it also, from a purely pragmatic perspective, the smart thing to do. It will make American society stronger, especially against foreign powers. Sadly, the issue of race is currently heavily politicized in the US, though there is no reason for this to be the case. From the Republican side, it is not a good long-term strategy to politicize racial relations especially since the US is projected to have a white-minority by as early as 2045. If Republicans do not change their rhetoric on racial issues, they may be forced to hold onto power by aggressive gerrymandering and voter suppression, which will either become unsustainable or turn the US more undemocratic. From the Democratic side, fueling racial identity politics divides the moderate and radical wings of the Democratic party, making the party weaker and less electable in the short term. Moreover, there are serious arguments to be made that the identity of victimhood may undermine efforts to productively solve racial issues by creating a new moral code that further divides the nation.
Therefore, it is clear that in an era of deep political divides, there is reason for both parties to think about how we frame one of the most polarizing issues between them – race. Instead of using rhetoric that divides people along party lines, the issue of police brutality should be framed in such a way such that it is a reaffirmation of traditional American values of small government, and the fundamental rights of life and liberty. In particular, we note that white people are also often the victims of police brutality, though not as often. However, it is important to realize that not all change are best implemented on the federal level, but that some are better started on the local level. For example, while radical measures such as defunding may be abhorred by the general public, they may be considered seriously in more liberal cities. It is possible that these cities can start the ‘chain of dominoes’ by showing how defunding can lead to positive outcomes. While at it, liberal politicians and activists may also want to seriously consider rebranding “defunding the police” to something less scary-sounding and more reflective of what the movement is actually about, perhaps something like “community policing” or “community reinvestment.”
A further reason for starting more radical change with local implementation is that while politics on a national level is polarized, they are generally more cohesive on a state or local level. Therefore, successful police reforms in liberal areas are unlikely to result in a large backlash. In contrast, on the national level, any attempts at sweeping reforms to policing risk causing further divisions to the country. However, it must also be acknowledged that with a local approach that there may be regions that blatantly practice discriminatory policies against minority groups that will not see change in the short term. Ideally, people will move from the places where they live if they feel that they are treated unjustly by law enforcement. In reality, however, it is often the case that the majority of people may find themselves unable to migrate due to economic or family constraints.
This is not to say that there is no room for Federal action. Indeed, it would be wrong to condemn people to a higher probability of unjust treatment by law enforcement simple due to the place that they are born in, and congress should do its part in the fight against police brutality by writing laws that weaken qualified immunity and civil forfeiture. These are measures that the majority of Americans support, and should not have any negative political consequences. However, it is necessary to recognize that we should not expect the more radical sorts of change to come from the national level. For example, while measures such as a centralized police force under the Federal Government may increase accountability, it also increases the power of the Federal Government and hence erodes the rights of states and counties, making it more difficult for citizens to hold police accountable on a local level.
There is also the possibility that instead of resulting in better policing, attempts at centralization may instead allow greater violations of civil rights. For example, the 1994 crime bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton and partially drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden, greatly expanded the Federal Death penalty and eliminated scholarships for persons who has been incarcerated. As one would naturally imagine, both of these measures affected minority groups disproportionately. Democrats who believe that giving the Federal Government power over national policing should first reflect upon the past actions of their party, and then imagine how that power would be handled by a Republican Administration under Donald Trump. Moreover, from a pragmatic perspective, the fact that establishment Democrats such as president-elect Joe Biden do not endorse defunding further shows how it may be very difficult to start resolving the issue from a national level, and justifies the practicality of starting locally then proceeding nationally in an appropriate time.
In addition, implementing change at the local level, although easier than nation-wide change, is still by no means easy. Even intensely blue cities such as New York face challenges in implementing liberal policing policies due to deeply conservative police unions. Moreover, the fact that the city embraced search-and-frisk policies as recently as 2012 suggests that there is much progress to be made. Therefore, instead of proposing more radical changes for the entire nation, liberal reformers should first try to create the ideal law enforcement structures in their hometown to show the country what policing can be.
Resolving the problem of extrajudicial killings by the police is just a start to solving America’s many domestic problems, among which are racial injustice, widening economic inequality, COVID-19 control, climate change and its consequences, foreign election interference, political polarization, and many more. These problems are not independent but rather interrelated. For example, racial inequalities and economic inequalities are often perpetuated by the same structural mechanism, which in turn exasperates political polarization along racial or economic lines. The influences of political polarization does not restrict itself to the issues that caused it, but also spreads to issues of science that should be strictly non-political such as climate change and COVID-19 control. The continued politicization of aspects of life that were once apolitical, such as sports, science, and entertainment, deepens polarization and exposes vulnerabilities for foreign election interference as nefarious governments start to tactically spread misinformation on social media an attempt to influence outcomes of political processes.
Since it is clear that many of America’s major problems are connected, it should also be clear that a comprehensive plan to deal with multiple problems, instead of trying to apply specific fixes to individual issues, may prove to be the more effective approach. In other words, America needs a long-term plan to ensure the security and prosperity of its citizens – a “Grand Strategy.” Typically, an American Grand Strategy is defined as a set of coordinated and sustained policies designed to address the long-term threats and opportunities that lie beyond American shores. Traditionally, the Grand Strategies of the United States have been primacy (ensuring military dominance), offshore balancing (supporting allies that are located near hostile nations), and liberal internationalism (actively encouraging democracy and the rule of law around the world through the building of liberal institutions).
The merits of primacy, offshore balancing, and liberal internationalism often appear in domestic political debates and are not subjects that will be discussed here, but what is evident is that these are strategies that America’s actions embody, and that they are policies for a nation that seeks to shape the world in its image. Considering the position of hegemony that the United States occupied at the end of the Cold War Era, it is not surprising that such ambitious strategies were adopted. Indeed, the sentiments of that era are perhaps best captured when, during his inaugural address, President George H.W. Bush stated: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”
However, the world today is much different from that of the cold war era, and given that the county is under threat from more directions than ever before, Americans should realize that the country now requires a defensive strategy – a strategy of resilience. Resilience against foreign intervention, resilience against social and economic perturbations, and resilience against climate change. However, there is no way to move forward in such a strategy if race does not become depoliticized like America’s other strategic goals. Indeed, the goals of primacy, offshore balancing, and liberal internationalism, despite being sometimes featured in political debates, are embodied by the actions of presidents from both sides of the aisle. It is time to recognize that a new Grand Strategy of resilience is needed, and that it is in both party’s interests to work towards such a goal since it is clearly in the US national interest to do so. Moreover, the first step towards this strategy would be the reduction of police brutality, as well as other measures to reduce racial injustices, such that the nation may face its challenges united rather than divided.
We started this essay by discussing how the US is a global power in decline relative to other powers, and that the racial divisions within the US can be viewed not only as a domestic problem, but also as a national security problem in an international relations context. We then argued that while depoliticizing the issue of race is good for both of the major political parties, the difficulties of depolarization mean that a more practical approach may be to drastically reform police agencies on the local level in left-leaning cities first. Hopefully, these cities can implement such drastic reforms successfully, and serve as an example to the rest of the country. Finally, we briefly discussed how reducing racial divisions and police killings in the United States should be considered as a first step to a new Grand Strategy of Resilience that the country needs in order to adapt to the world’s changing society, economy, and climate.
It is also necessary to keep in mind that the problem of racial tensions, and in particular of police violence, is not simply a pragmatic problem that needs solving. The victims of these killings are real people, with family and friends; their death and institutional reactions, or lack thereof, is a constant reflection of America’s answer to the two questions that the Federalist and the Democratic-Republicans debated more than two hundred years ago – What does America stand for? And who really counts as American? Personally, America’s contemporary moral reckoning makes me recall Benjamin Franklin’s remarks upon exiting the Constitutional Convention. Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates have created. His answer was: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
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