U.S. Foreign Policy Should Pay More Attention to Black Americans

U.S. Foreign Policy Should Pay More Attention to Black Americans

Black Americans’ views have often foreshadowed big shifts in U.S. foreign policy. What does this mean for today’s era of strategic competition?

In the days following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) stood alone in Congress to oppose the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permitted the president to wage war in Afghanistan or against anyone else complicit in harboring or aiding Al Qaeda. Lee again urged restraint in the use of military force by suggesting a diplomatic alternative to the 2002 Iraq AUMF. Both military campaigns combined carried a price tag of $8 trillion, the immense loss of U.S. military and overseas civilian life, and a damaged reputation among the international community. In retrospect, Congresswoman Lee’s appeal for restraint, when the American public largely favored the use of overwhelming military might, was a harbinger of costs to come.

Lee’s actions need to be placed in the context of the linked themes of race and foreign policy. It is no coincidence that Lee—a Black woman with experience working with Oakland grassroots organizations, a daughter of a U.S. Army veteran, and representative of the progressive and racially diverse Twelfth District of California—was skeptical of a muscular foreign policy. Lee’s sentiments are an extension of a longstanding tendency in African American political thought to prefer the judicious use of military might abroad.

Given the high rates of military service among African Americans, alongside a heightened present concern with addressing racial and economic domestic challenges, it is no surprise that many Black Americans are sensitive to the human and material costs associated with a muscular U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, policymakers in the past have not made it a priority to account for Black American opinion on the U.S.’s role in the world. Black American public opinion on U.S. military engagements has often foreshadowed broader public discontentment with poor foreign policy decisions. The historical record shows that foreign policy officials could have benefited from listening to Black American views on the U.S. role in the world. As Washington recalibrates to face a new set of global challenges, thoughtful engagement with Black American thinking on overseas military engagement offers a chance to build a more disciplined foreign policy attuned to the aspirations of the American people.

To be sure, Black American opinion has not always opposed involvement in foreign wars. While some Black intellectuals viewed both world wars as the “white man’s war,” many Black Americans saw both conflicts as an avenue to display their patriotism and a way to undermine the logic for formal Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. However, after the conclusion of the Second World War, and as the United States adopted a policy of global supremacy and containment of the Soviet Union, many Black American thought leaders such as Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. shifted against Washington’s Cold War policies. For them, their disillusionment with Washington’s foreign policy was driven in part by the persistence of domestic challenges such as racial and economic inequality, the immense loss of overseas civilian lives, and ensuing geopolitical instability born out of a militarized foreign policy.

It has long been known that the two flashpoints in the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, were largely unpopular among African Americans. In the case of the Vietnam War, Black Americans were some of the earliest opponents of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, well before the antiwar movement gained nationwide momentum. Many Black American leaders’ discontent was rooted in the human and financial costs of the war while the battle against racial and economic inequality remained unfinished. Furthermore, while Washington understood the war as an attempt to stop the spread of communism, many Black American leaders understood the conflict as the Vietnamese people’s fight for self-determination. When the fog of war cleared in 1975, the war’s consequences reshaped the social fabric of America, led to regional instability in Southeast Asia, and undermined human rights. Rather than dismissing the logic of Black leaders as being “unamerican” or “communists,” policymakers could have benefitted from listening to the polemics of Black American civil rights activists and avoided the loss of overseas civilians and American servicemembers lives and saved the millions in military spending.

Although more than half a century ago, the lessons of Cold War conflicts remain with us. Today, among Americans both within and outside the Beltway, there is consensus that Washington’s attempt at regime change and dominance in the Middle and Near East was ill-fated. However, two decades ago, the American public favored a hawkish foreign policy, while African American public opinion stood largely in opposition to military intervention in the region. For instance, polling conducted a year after the invasion of Iraq in 2004 revealed that an overwhelming majority of African Americans (76 percent) felt it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, compared to 42 percent of Whites. While African Americans, of course, did not have more predictive power than their fellow Americans, their unique experience with military interventions of the Cold War, alongside a concern with America’s perennial domestic challenges, partially explains the heightened sense of skepticism towards the war well before costs were incurred.

President Biden’s painful but overdue withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021 has provided foreign policy officials little reprieve as Washington is now met with a new set of global challenges. Washington’s commitment to global hegemony has resulted in a balancing act that includes anxiously managing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas War, and China’s rise. Such challenges have increased the specter of great power conflict, which could very well produce the level of carnage unseen since the twentieth-century wars in Europe.

Indeed, pundits are correct in noting that most Americans have not fully come to terms with the costs associated with the challenges of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the Black American community, with its high rates of military service, is in a unique position to fathom the costs of a great power conflict. For instance, a September 2022 poll conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reveals that only 20 percent of Black Americans would support sending troops to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion or sending troops to Taiwan in the case of a conflict with China. In an October 2023 poll, enthusiasm for sending troops to the Middle East if Israel were attacked by its neighbors was low among white respondents but especially lower among Black respondents.

Of course, these findings do not mean that many in the Black American community do not see the need for American leadership or that they do not support democracy, liberty, and human rights globally. Rather, it means they would prefer to see their country showing more discernment and prudence about its engagement in global conflicts and alliances. For instance, another Carnegie Endowment poll reveals that many  Black Americans believe the United States should be engaged in the world, but in a different manner. Findings from the survey indicate a plurality of Black Americans believe the United States should play a supporting role in sending humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine and coordinating an international response to China’s rise, for example. That number is significantly higher among those respondents who believe racial issues persist at home. Such findings speak to the fact that a U.S. foreign policy that helps our allies do more in defense of common interests would bode well with many in the community.

Washington’s understanding of diversity should not stop merely at incorporating more Black faces into the foreign policy apparatus. It should also include seriously examining and weighing the opinion of a community that has participated in and thought critically about every American conflict. The point here is that understanding the African American tendency to favor diplomacy over direct military action has implications for the twenty-first century. First, understanding the distinct foreign policy ethos of the African American community in our polarized political climate can serve both political parties in their messaging to Black Americans. Polling and pundits have pointed to the fact that African American enthusiasm has dipped significantly, leading to real concerns about voter turnout and the outcome of the 2024 Presidential election. As I have argued in previous works and as Naima Green-Riley and Andrew Leber point out in their recent Foreign Affairs article, at a minimum, such insights can aid in crafting political messaging that sparks voter enthusiasm and speaks to the needs and aspirations of the community beyond domestic concerns.

More importantly, Black American opinion on the use of force abroad makes a compelling case for a foreign policy that prioritizes sharing defense responsibilities with our allies, establishing competitive coexistence with a rising China, and retrenching from a posture of global dominance. Adopting such a foreign policy will help avoid future foreign policy decisions and policies that risk squandering resources, costing the lives of American servicemembers and overseas civilians, and damaging America’s international reputation.

Christopher Shell is a fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research explores Black American attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. His writing has appeared in Responsible Statecraft, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.