Domestic Racial Justice and Biden’s Foreign Policy

by Arjun Sharath

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Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash 

As we look towards the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s Presidency there is little doubt that immediate American policy priorities will be largely domestic, centred on the Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the country. 


Taking office alongside Kamala Harris, the first African-American, Asian-American, woman vice-President in American history, and following both the vital moment of the Black Lives Matter campaign and a political battle with Donald Trump that highlighted many of the divisions in America, racial justice will unquestionably and rightly be a key priority. 


Donald Trump’s Muslim bans and the separation of children from their mothers on the Southern border were nothing else if not racist – both in their execution and the brand of politics to which they appealed. 



Without addressing it, Biden’s foreign policy goals may be stillborn. While IR scholarship has begun to embrace the importance of race in recent years,1 Americans tend not to view foreign policy as suffused with the same racism that has long defined American domestic politics.   


Race, however, has long been not just been a fundamental issue in American domestic politics, but also a lens through which America has constructed its foreign policy. 



As I argue in my dissertation, racial antagonisms regarding Germany at the turn of the 20th century helped inform the foundations of the Anglo-American alliance. This encouraged policymakers in both Britain and the United States to view each other with greater sympathy. To Theodore Roosevelt and many of his contemporaries in London, racial ideologies centered on Lamarckian views of evolution and competition led to fears of a Greater Germany eclipsing the English-speaking peoples around the world. 


Far from establishing an Anglo-American alliance, it nevertheless led to the United States and the British Empire treating the other with disproportionate sympathy during a series of crises. This included perhaps not just, for example, diplomatic support during the Boer War through neutrality and Roosevelt’s insistence that English be spoken “south of the Zambesi,” but perhaps most critically, the issue of mass migration at the turn of the century.   


Indeed, to Roosevelt and policymakers at the turn of the last century, race was not a matter of simply domestic or foreign policy alone – the lines were blurred to an extent that Roosevelt at times viewed “interracial law” as eventually superseding international law. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged immigration from Germany to the United States, believing that this would turn Germans into Anglo-Saxons, preventing the rise of German settler colonies around the world. 


Race formed a pillar of the early transatlantic alliance – leading to sympathies that arbitrated some of the most apocalyptic conflicts and foreign policy questions of the 20th century.  Yet while German immigrants could assimilate into an “English-speaking mould,” the same privilege was not afforded to immigrants from Asia, leading to a series of diplomatic difficulties with Japan as California began to segregate schools and various Asian Exclusion Acts were passed. 


By the 1920s, not only had miscegenation laws become commonplace in the South, immigration was restricted largely to white, European countries. 


At the end of the First World War, the Racial Equality Proposal, stipulating “The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality,” was overturned by Woodrow Wilson, despite a majority of states voting for its inclusion.  The Second World War ended with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forever enshrining racial equality in international law – yet in the post-war era, the issue of segregation hamstrung American efforts to claim the mantle of the “free world” over the Soviet Union.  


Even the United Nations maintained the possibility of biological differences in race during the first of four UNESCO statements on race, issued between 1950 and 1978. During the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles famously remarked to Attorney General John Brownwell after the Little Rock incident that “this situation was ruining our foreign policy. The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians” with Brownwell agreeing and pointing out the “use Nasser and Khrushchev were making of it.”2 


Far from being isolated incidents, racism – including the impact of racism domestically –  has long been critical to American foreign policy.  Although modern American politics has focused on racism as a domestic matter, the impact and nuances of race and racism have long been part of American engagement with international affairs. 


The past few years alone, of course, have seen race re-enter American politics in unprecedented fashion.  Donald Trump’s Muslim bans and the separation of children from their mothers on the Southern border were nothing else if not racist – both in their execution and the brand of politics to which they appealed. This point, of course, has never been lost on, in particular, African-American diplomats and civil servants interacting abroad,3 particularly following the protests against the murder of George-Floyd last year.4  


Where then does this leave American foreign policy in the early Biden administration?  Following his speech on foreign policy at the State Department on 4 February, Biden emphasized both a return to more traditional American priorities, reversing much of Trump’s promise to reverse nearly all of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives. Yet as he emphasized himself, promising “I will have your back,” the country’s diplomats can only take abroad what they themselves experience. 


The face of Biden’s America will reflect his accomplishments towards racial justice and depend on understanding the long role race has played in American foreign policy’s priorities as much as on pivoting towards traditional alliances and diplomacy.   






About the author

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Arjun is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Geopolitics and recently completed his PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.  From Virginia, he previously spent most of his career at the US Department of Justice.

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