Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson Unrest, and Its Effect on Foreign Policy

"Smoke filled the air, with riot police closing in on protestors, using tear gas to render them useless to fight back. It was the tenth day of unrest, with scores already arrested or injured, and one dead."

No, that is not in reference to Ukraine. It is not in reference to Thailand, or Malaysia, or anywhere in the Middle East. It's in reference to Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager nearly two weeks ago, and where Americans have come from all over to protest. Those protests have fluctuated between relatively docile and frighteningly violent - something that Americans may not be as used to experiencing directly as they are to reading about in the news elsewhere. Missouri Governor Nixon has declared Ferguson to be in a state of emergency; the state police have been called in to regain control over the bedlam - thus far, the results have been missed.

This is a foreign affairs blog, and in the spirit of international relations, the unrest in Ferguson leads me to ponder what implications our own domestic malaise have on our broader foreign policy agenda. Do they at all? I think so. The Russian Foreign Minister for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, justifiably lashed out at the U.S. on the situation, publicly saying that the U.S. should not be focused on intervention in other countries "under the false pretext of democracy and defending human rights."The Egyptian government urged the U.S. to demonstrate "respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion." Across the world, despots and dictators alike are relishing in the events unfolding here and the hypocrisy that accompanies them.

Two problems emerge from this. First, domestic turmoil undermines American credibility when we weigh in on issues abroad, such as the harsh oppression of gays in Russia or the seemingly endless uprisings and subsequent crackdowns in Egypt. The U.S. is often perceived as a defender of the oppressed, but it becomes difficult to uphold such a lofty defense when there are challenges to it so close to home. It is not unthinkable that countries take to the international stage to decry American intervention when peace - the end goal of such intervention - is not so easily attained domestically. If the problem continues to snowball and grow, it could pose a serious problem for President Obama's foreign policy agenda.

Second, criticism from those that we often criticize for human rights violations is disturbing in that it provides one more thing in common between us and them. We do not associate with the likes of Syrian President Asad for good reason - he has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the country he supposedly rules. Now, obviously there is a stark contrast between the Syrian Civil War and the unrest in Ferguson, but the principles behind both are frighteningly relative.

That is not to say that America is anything short of a bastion of human rights and respect for others. Shortcomings occur from time to time, as they do in every developed, Western nation. However, it is imperative that the U.S. does not lose sight of the broader picture, and does everything it can to calmly quell the uprising in Ferguson before its repercussions broaden in scope and impact other important aspects of American policy.


  1. Colin, great article with some interesting points raised. Do you think that these race riots are different from those in the past? Race will always be a hot button issue, I am just not sure why this time is any different. News media is now extremely sensationalist and only the shrillest voices are heard. This creates opportunities for foreign governments to spin the stories in ways that cater to their own agenda. Since the National Guard was pulled in tensions have been subsiding. Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Treyvon Martin, and now Michael Brown are all anecdotal flashpoints but data stemming from provisions in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 points to a marked decrease in hate crimes as well as fatal interactions with police. I think America is moving in the right direction.

  2. Frank - SO sorry for not getting back to you sooner. Thanks for reading the article and commenting. In terms of race riots of today and the past, I like to look at the Harlem riot of 1964. That riot lasted only 6 days, but was essentially a battle of police against blacks in both Harlem and Bed-Stuy, resulting in numerous deaths, over 100 injured and far more arrested. Obviously, there are similarities to draw between this and the riots in Ferguson this summer. However, what I find different is the overall American sentiment regarding both issues. There was certainly not as much of an outpouring of anger, sympathy for the victim and his family, or calls for a change in how we address these issues in 1964 as there was this summer. And while the police officer involved in the shooting (of an unarmed 15 year old black male) in Harlem was never found guilty of any crime, the fact that the U.S. Justice Dept is opening a civil rights investigation into police misconduct in Ferguson leads me to agree with you and say yes, I think although there are setbacks, America is moving in the right direction.