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Op-Ed: The future of U.S. global leadership depends on how the nation addresses systemic racism

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Key Points
  • It must be said plainly and repetitively, so that no one can miss the significance of this historic moment for the United States and its allies, who depend on its leadership.
  • The continued U.S. ability and credibility to lead rests on how effectively the country manages and learns from the triple shock of 2020: the worst global pandemic in a century, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and now the most extensive racial upheavals in 50 years.
Demonstrators march past the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against police brutality and racism takes place on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer

It must be said plainly and repetitively, so that no one can miss the significance of this historic moment for the United States and its allies, who depend on its leadership.

The continued U.S. ability and credibility to lead rests on how effectively the country manages and learns from the triple shock of 2020: the worst global pandemic in a century, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and now the most extensive racial upheavals in fifty years.

Yet it may be the third of those challenges that proves to be most difficult, decisive and differentiating, preceded by centuries of history but triggered by police officer Derek Chauvin's gruesome killing of George Floyd on the night of May 25 in Minneapolis.

That is because in a world where most countries share the global challenge of Covid-19 and recession, the nature of this racial drama is singular to the United States as "the only modern nation that had slavery in its midst from the very beginning," writes Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in this weekend's Wall Street Journal. 

It's also due to the timing of these upheavals, coming in such a divisive electoral year and at a moment of escalating major power competition with China. That has left many in the world viewing this period as a litmus test of the United States' rare set of founding principles that enshrine the notion that all human beings are created equal and endowed by God with inalienable rights.

Even as peaceful anti-racism protests expanded through the United States for the twelfth successive day on Saturday, demonstrations as well in countless cities around the world underscored the collective understanding of the significance of this moment. The protests stretched from South America to Africa, from Europe to Southeast Asia and from Mexico to Canada. 

From its beginnings through the Civil War, through the civil rights revolution and until today, the United States' delivery on its founding principles has been imperfect. What has inspired the world despite that has been the U.S.'s ability to self-correct and improve.

"Our country has a birth defect," wrote Condoleezza Rice this week in The Washington Post as the first and only African American woman to serve as Secretary of State. "Africans and Europeans came to this country together – but one group was in chains. In time, the very Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a man became a powerful tool in affording the descendants of slaves their basic rights. That work has been long and difficult, but it has made a difference. We are better than we were."

The question now is whether the United States can become better yet? The answer will have global consequences.

As I wrote in a public letter this week, "We can bring the free world together most effectively if we act to become more exemplary in our own behavior…If the United States is to have credibility in leading like-minded countries against the metastasizing cancers of nationalism and authoritarianism, it must remain true to best founding principles."

 As Lincoln said in December of 1862, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth."

The underpinnings of American foreign policy always have been the effectiveness of its democratic institutions and the global attractiveness of its democratic values. Both are now being tested.

Americans will be unable to shape the international order if they fail in addressing their national disorder characterized by problems that range from systemic racism to political polarization and from failing infrastructure to insufficient international engagement.

The killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was horrifying, but much of what has followed suggests that the United States is rediscovering what President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called "the better angels of our nature."

Most remarkable have been the large and diverse crowds of peaceful protesters that have demonstrated against racism in the United States and across the world.

"I know enough about that history to say, there is something different here," Obama said this week, comparing the situation to the 1960s. "You look at those protests, and that was a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets, peacefully protesting, who felt moved to do something because of the injustices that they have seen. That didn't exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition."

Perhaps this week's greatest accomplishment is what didn't happen. President Trump didn't invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would have allowed him to bring large numbers of military troops to the streets in a law enforcement capacity.

Secretary Mark Esper told a Pentagon press conference he wouldn't support such a move, and a storm of opposition from former military and defense leaders supported his position.

That followed the forced dispersal last Monday evening of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to make way for President Trump's walk from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church, alongside his defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be photographed holding the Bible.  

That prompted Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general and President Trump's former defense secretary, and Mike Mullen, retired admiral and 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs to break their silence in criticizing their commander-in-chief. Some 89 former defense officials joined the chorus this weekend against the use of active-duty military without the consent of local mayors or governors.

"I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership," explained Mullen in the Atlantic, "but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent."

Beyond breaking silence, American communities, workplaces and media are awash with ideas about how to ensure this moment brings real results.

Perhaps the most lasting change could come through a rebellion of individual acts.

"Let us talk with, not at, each other — in our homes, schools, workplaces and places of worship," suggested former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "As united Americans, we can then turn our fears into faith, hope, compassion and action. And then we can accept and carry out our shared responsibility to build 'a more perfect union.'"

"What will you do?" she asks all Americans, before making her own personal commitment to expanding educational opportunity "as a partial shield against prejudice."

If enough others join her, Americans have a shot at proving Martin Luther King right that the long arc of the moral universe once again "bends toward justice."  

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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