Chauvin Verdict Averts Further Foreign Damage

History shows civil rights violations hurt U.S. foreign policy and intelligence operations


The VOA spends nearly $220 million a year broadcasting America’s story to the world in 47 languages, but it was three words spoken by a judge in Minneapolis Tuesday that did more for U.S. foreign policy—and maybe even our intelligence agencies—than any number of public or covert programs over the past year to influence global opinion in our favor. 

“Guilty ... Guilty ... Guilty,” the judge said, enunciating the jury’s signed verdicts condemning White Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to a long prison term for his murder of George Floyd, a Black man. And with that, a dark stain on America‘s self-proclaimed democratic values was lifted, if not entirely erased.  The world might give us a chance again, after a frightening skein of revolting, iPhone-recorded murders of Black people by cops and others.

A savvy, young, liberal-minded U.S. diplomat told me a few years ago that “the American brand was strong” in Africa, where he was posted, despite the Trump’s administration’s trashing of immigrants, Muslims in particular, and the president’s own coddling of White supremacists and Neo-Nazis. Yet the connection between our domestic conduct and foreign policy is undeniable. 

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy was slow to see the connection between images of police brutality and challenges from the Soviets in the so-called Third World, but see it he did after vivid photos and film of White cops savagely beating mostly Black Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Ala. dominated international news coverage of America.

That's "exactly the kind of thing the Communists use to make the United States look bad around the world," he complained, according to his biographer Richard Reeves, as I recounted in Newsweek in 2014.  The CIA was struggling to beat back Soviet-backed political parties and Marxist liberation movements from North Africa to Latin America. The civil rights movement “was embarrassing him” on the eve of his Vienna showdown with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Reeves wrote, making it appear that he couldn't control events in his own country.

"Race was having a devastating impact on U.S. foreign relations vis-à-vis the Russians," Mary Dudziak, an Emory University law professor and historian and author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, told me. American diplomats struggled to make the case for peaceful, democratic change in the Third World (especially when the local dictator was a U.S. ally). The question was, "How can you appeal to people in newly independent countries when they see pictures of police dogs attacking protesters?" she said. "The racial problems in the U.S. undermined our ability to criticize'' friendly regimes who were repressing their minorities. 

Kennedy, who had been cool, if not outright hostile,  to the civil rights movement, came around. He federalized the National Guard to protect the black students, drew up a major civil rights bill and, in a major address at American University, called civil rights "a moral issue…as old as the Scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution." He said, "The heart of the question was whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated." 

JFK’s turnabout, followed by Lyndon Johnson’s full embrace of civil rights legislation, did not, of course, prompt African and Latin American radicals to reject the Soviets and flock to Disneyland—the Vietnam War scotched that, along with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the combustive riots that followed.

Likewise, the Kremlin’s repression of Jews and armed crushing of dissent in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe sent untold numbers of students, officials, scientists, engineers and even KGB agents into the arms of the CIA, former agency officials have told me. China’s reputation for, and actual massive domestic corruption, not to mention its genocide of the Uighurs, is doing the same, they say. 

I suspect Joe Biden senses an opening like JFK did when he gave his eloquent, now iconic, speech at American University, where he pronounced civil rights a major goal of  his administration.

The reaction to the speech was electric in corners of the world where the U.S. and USSR were vying for the hearts and minds of millions mired in hunger, disease and hopelessness, I noted in that 2014 Newsweek piece. The American ambassador to Ethiopia cabled home that, "the tone of the press immediately improved," according to Professor Dudziak's research. "Emperor Haile Selassie thought the statements were 'masterpieces.'" Similar responses came from elsewhere, but there was also caution: “Actions will speak louder than 'torrents of words,'" the American Embassy in Senegal warned.

No doubt similar cables have been pouring in from U.S. embassies in the wake of the Chauvin trial verdict, quickly undercut, alas, by further killings of Black youth by White cops.

The Biden administration is moving quickly to repair the damage. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a deep-dive investigation into whether the murder of George Floyd was a one-off or just part of “a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”  

And that’s just a start. “Such investigations are often the precursors to court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governments that create and enforce a road map for training and operational changes,” the New York Times noted. Police reform is coming to a station near you. But how soon?

Addressing foreign diplomats at the Munich Security Conference in February, only weeks after he was sworn in, with nerves raw from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Biden re-franchised a foundational value of American foreign policy. “Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values,” he said. “They’re not transactional. They’re not extractive.  They’re built on a vision of a future where every voice matters, where the rights of all are protected and the rule of law is upheld.”

Back to the Future

In that and his other remarks surrounding the murder of George Floyd and other people of color, Biden was channelling JFK, albeit without the eloquence. 

"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home," Kennedy said at American University 62 years ago. "But are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?"

Yesterday Biden told George Floyd’s family, “We're going to get a lot more done. We're going to do a lot. We're going to stay at it until we get it done."

It’s a do-over.

Foreign officials gave “wide support” to the guilty verdicts, according to one report, but it mostly sounded like relief.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said that "any other result” other than the guilty verdicts against Chauvin “would have been a travesty of justice." 

“She said also noted the rarity of the outcome,” according to the report, saying in a statement, “As we have painfully witnessed in recent days and weeks, reforms to policing departments across the U.S. continue to be insufficient to stop people of African descent from being killed." 

You can resd it all at the Voice of America.

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