In a recent interview on CNN to promote his new film BlacKkKlansman, the film producer Spike Lee said he keeps making films on race because America has never come to terms with its history of slavery and racism. He is right but could have gone further and said that neither has it confronted how its foreign policy is shaped by the deep-seated racism that moulds the political views of its leaders.
The past few months have revealed a great deal of that ugliness in the American government and its society. A low point was the president’s assertion in Europe in July that immigration was bad because it would “change the fabric” of Europe, copying word-for-word the terms used by white nationalists throughout the West. He had said similar things about his own country, calling migrants from Central America “invaders” and an “infestation”, all the time playing to his approving base.
But perhaps we should not be surprised. A large part of American politics is, and always has been, motivated by racial resentment. For many Americans, the United States is, and should be, a white-majority country, and policies should endeavour to keep it that way. White supremacists are now coming to the fore as they confront the reality that the non-white population will soon outnumber whites. Several African-American writers, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, have written on this central trend in American history.
Clearly, not all Americans are motivated by racist politics, as shown by the tens of millions who find this language, politics and policies abhorrent, and one hopes they will make their voices heard. But not fully confronting the history limits their ability to fight back with moral conviction and honest facts. The politics that President Donald Trump has unleashed will not go away. Nor did these policies start with Trump: both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan used codes such as “welfare queens” to refer to minorities on social welfare. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court upheld both Trump’s travel ban and a racially biased legislative map in Texas.
One can understand why this is bad for the multicultural and multiracial US. But why does this matter to other nations?
First, these racial policies clearly affect Washington’s foreign policy decisions. Trump’s immigration policies have repercussions on Central American countries. The travel ban harms the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries. The administration clearly prefers immigrants from Europe over those from “shithole” countries.
“Yellow peril” rhetoric encourages tough action not only against China, but also Japan and South Korea, and prejudices may affect the upcoming negotiations with North Korea. And if negotiations fail, the administration may decide that violence and collateral damage against an “inferior” people might be acceptable losses.
Trump’s revoking of the nuclear deal with Iran, against the advice of America’s allies and its entire foreign policy establishment, for example reveals a deep disregard for the dire consequences of American decisions on people who are not citizens of the West, are not of the same racial origins and belong to a different religion. Yet Trump is not the only one to have targeted Iran in this way: many Republicans (and, it should be said, some Democrats as well) have called for similar actions against Iran for a long time.
In fact, most non-Western countries that challenge the American status quo have been harshly criticised, threatened and sanctioned by the Trump administration: China, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela come to mind. And now Turkey, a Nato ally. There is one major exception – Putin is treated with far greater respect by the American president than any of his non-white counterparts.
It’s time the world, especially powerful economic entities such as Europe, took a stand and refused to allow American leaders to act on their deep-rooted resentment and fear of “others” by using what is becoming a favourite weapon – sanctions.
As the Iranian foreign minister recently said, the US has an “addiction to sanctions and bullying” and unless it changes track “the entire world will unite” to force it to. The world cannot allow the weaponisation of finance to be used so indiscriminately. It must act as it is increasingly being deployed on a whim by presidents and their advisers who arguably hold deeply racist views.
Blatant racial politics is not the only area where Trump has revealed what lies beneath some coded language in American politics. For example, US leaders have always argued that American pre-eminence is the best and most trusted way to provide global stability. This is in essence the core of American exceptionalism and its fervent promotion and celebration is fundamentally premised on a belief in “racial superiority”.
Those outside the US see this rhetoric as a way to preserve American authority on the international stage. To American leaders, a world order is good only if it keeps the US in charge and maintains its role as the sole enforcer of the global supremacy of the West. If this changes, then this global order is no longer worth it. And countries that don’t embrace Washington’s powerful role in promoting this must be criticised, embarrassed and sanctioned openly.
The reason it also matters to the rest of the world is because of the importance of understanding history and having it institutionalised. The American political establishment, which will not openly acknowledge its dark history, has instead for decades skilfully used its soft power to bury the truth. This has allowed it to carefully cultivate and reinforce its supposed global moral authority.
A whole generation of young Americans, even in the era of the internet, have grown up not knowing their history beyond the sanitised versions. While many countries in the developing world are being compelled to come to terms with their ugly past, the US is going the other way, becoming more extreme whilst wilfully ignoring the dark history that is shaping its present. This view of American exceptionalism and unilateralism can be found in both of its political parties. And it is time for film producers like Spike Lee to make a film that moves beyond “Black Lives Matter” to “Foreign Lives Matter”.
But even so, we now know what a sizeable segment of America’s politicians truly believes. The world must be ready. ■
Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow