Diplomacy and Policing

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by Ambassador Edward J. PerkinsFirst appeared in Huffington Post’s Black Voices on April 7, 2015

Protests and demonstrations over the past two months at the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice have ignited debates across the United States and around the world. The ensuing discussions about race, democracy, citizens’ rights to assemble and protest, civil disobedience, and how public servants and institutions should interact with the people they serve have wide domestic and international consequences.

These events have put American diplomats across the globe in the position of having to reconcile a vision of the society we aspire to be with the often uncomfortable realities that we live with. In many ways, this situation is similar to that faced by American diplomats in the period after World War II when racial segregation in the United States had a negative impact on our foreign policy and image abroad. Situations like this are, and have always been, tough problems for American diplomats. Yet, this current conversation is one that our diplomats everywhere should embrace. A number of U.S. diplomats have reached out to members of The Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) about navigating tough moments like these, when they must continue to represent the U.S. Government abroad even when they are uncomfortable with what is happening at home.

As individuals, the Constitution gives us the right to express our opinion candidly. On the other hand, when we become diplomats, representing our country and government abroad, we commit to supporting the policies of our elected leadership, whether or not we personally agree with them. If we are unable to do so, the ethical and honorable thing to do is resign. There are those who believe that public criticism of America by American officials abroad undermines the efficacy of what we are assigned to do. Others, by contrast, see such criticism as the implementation of the ideals we hold most dear. Some question how diplomats can actively promote U.S. foreign policy while disapproving of domestic issues. In my view, American writer James Baldwin expressed it best — “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” The right to love, criticize, and thereby improve our own country is fundamental to our very identity as Americans. It is the foundation of our democracy.

For the diplomat, however, this poses a thorny problem. Do we lose credibility as a nation when we demand from another country what we struggle with ourselves? If we refuse to see our own problems, or ignore them as we are making such demands, that is probably true. But, our ability to point to the ongoing debate at home — that includes criticism of our institutions, peaceful protests, respect for citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly, calls for equal representation, treatment, and protection under the law, and the heated civil discourse about how the state should serve its citizens — is a powerful example to share with foreign audiences. To show that we,  too, are regularly challenged with how to effectively implement democracy, even as we champion it, adds to, rather than discredits, our message abroad.

We can tell those audiences that criticism of government institutions does not equate to a lack of respect for them or a desire to undermine them. In fact, it shows quite the opposite: the strong desire of the people to strengthen them.

The U.S. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to train and professionalize police forces in other countries. We fund these programs because we recognize the importance of a professional, well-trained police force to the establishment of a democratic society. Globally, we seek to ensure that people have police forces they can trust, because we know that this balance between security and freedom is vital for a democracy to thrive. When community confidence in the police erodes, however, so too does the strength of state institutions, as well as the space for civil society to freely express itself.

Just as we eventually realized that racial segregation in the U.S. harmed our diplomatic efforts and image overseas, we must also take stock of how what is happening in our country today affects our efforts to promote respect for rule of law and human rights abroad.

Americans who have participated in the peaceful hands-up-don’t-shoot demonstrations around the United States and in other countries are engaged in the same type of peaceful, productive engagement that the United States has encouraged around the world.

Like so many other current and former U.S. Government officials, I have been asked whether I am embarrassed by the ongoing protests and marches against racial profiling and excessive force by some law enforcement officers in the United States. I have also been asked whether in times like these it is harder to represent the United States abroad. To both questions, I emphatically answer, ‘No.’ I know that this view is shared not only by many members of my organization — which includes current and former U.S. ambassadors — but also by a number of active duty U.S. diplomats who are engaged in meaningful conversations right now about how to address this issue head-on in a way that is both honest and constructive.

A commonly-heard chant during the protests is, “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.” I couldn’t agree more. Democracy is messy, and it is often uncomfortable. The United States is not perfect; no country is. An unintended consequence of these peaceful protests, however, is that they have allowed us to share our struggles with other countries, and have fostered more candid conversations with those enduring their own growing pains in the process of democratic evolution.

If we are to effectively represent the United States abroad, we must remain aware of the issues back home. As individuals, if our voices can help tilt the balance of justice in the right direction, we have a moral obligation to speak. As officials, however, we must speak through appropriate channels.

The United States is often lauded as the most diverse country in the world. People in every corner of the globe know our history and are aware of our public struggle for Civil Rights. Our on-going evolution on this issue is one of the things about America that others admire most. Therefore, the way our public institutions treat minority communities — the way they treat all Americans — represents the proof of the democratic values we aspire to and espouse. The current debate on police — community relations in the United States is a perfect opportunity to show that our diversity, our struggle for civil rights, and our determination to be a society that respects freedom of speech are values which ultimately strengthen us as a nation.

We are resilient and on this too ‘We Shall Overcome.’

Ambassador (retired) Edward J. Perkins, President, Association of Black American Ambassadors, Washington, DC

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