Black Lives Matter as a national security imperative

Black Lives Matter as a national security imperative
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The Black Lives Matter protests and the ensuing social, political, and economic responses can serve to make America better positioned in an era of great power competition. Protesters and their allies are demanding just, inclusive institutions that redress grievances, promote equality, and offer broad-based opportunities to all communities. Driving justice reforms at home will challenge our near peer competitors, Russia and China, and highlight their profound governing weaknesses.

There are clear policy distinctions between successful and fragile states. Modern states that innovate, invest, and prosper have inclusive political institutions, functional governments, and a respect for the rule of law. Conversely, fragile states at risk of conflict, conquest or collapse suffer from authoritarian leaders and extractive institutions that fail to provide social, economic, and political opportunities for their citizens. America now has a choice. Do we continue to refine and improve our justice system? Or do we allow grievances to undermine the legitimacy of our institutions? The human toll of these policies is clear — citizens of fragile states are poorer, less educated and die earlier.

In the era where Russia and China will each seek to extend their influence, markets and military might, the Black Lives Matter protests give America a clear advantage.


To begin, the Russian and Chinese governments rest on fragile foundations. Both are ethnonationalist states that define their common heritage, history, and future along ethnic lines. The problem, of course, is that each country has a rich diversity of ethnic, religious, and language groups that may not accept an ethnonationalistic governing structure indefinitely — particularly during periods of economic downturn, pandemic, or other existential crises.

Russia, for instance, has 140 million citizens with nearly 200 different ethnic groups, multiple language groups totaling 20 percent of the population whose native tongue is not Russian, and a Muslim population between 10-15 percent. Russia continues to maintain a low boil internal war with Chechnya, its province in the North Caucasus. Rather than effectively addressing Chechnyan grievance, the conflict became a rallying cry for global jihadists, seeding fighters throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

China, ten times larger than Russia, officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups numbering 105 million people. If the minority population of China were a country, it would be the 14th most populous on earth. Nearly 30 percent of Chinese citizens do not speak Mandarin as their first language. Christianity is booming in China; soon it could become the world's largest Christian nation. One million Muslim Uighers live in concentration camps in Xinjiang province; these concentration camps undermine Chinese state legitimacy and regional influence.

Russia and China also face other fissure points. Both have serious urban/rural divides and limited LGBT protections. Ironically, perhaps, for post-communist societies, both Russia and China face similar levels of wealth inequality as the United States. Given that both of these states have authoritarian governments that control media and preclude dissent, the world may not appreciate their inherent structural weaknesses and may overestimate their geopolitical strengths.

The opposite is true in America. Cable news and social media heighten political polarization, nationwide protests, a failing economy, and a resurgence of COVID-19. America appears as a chaotic, weakened, and declining power; yet, with a constitutional history of decentralized government, enumerated individual rights, a free media and a talented people, the United States may simply be better prepared than Russia and China to face the challenges of the next generation.


The American experiment to create a more perfect union has certainly been flawed at times, but the Black Lives Matter protests offer an opportunity to reform law enforcement, build a better justice system, and create a more fair society. To be that beacon, the nation must take four steps.

First, the public and private sector must draw from the deepest talent pool possible where merit and opportunity provide the basis for a competitive, future-looking nation. America cannot lead the next century without including all of its people.

Second, federal and state governments must address racial and equality grievances so that law enforcement and justice systems are effective, fair, and inclusive. The African American community must have confidence that these systems are credible and safe. An improved justice system can then serve as the foundation for economic development and prosperity.

Third, the United States must be better prepared for a complex, multi-risk future. James Madison said it best when he wrote in Federalist 41 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” Our nation simply cannot adequately confront emergent military and other geo-political challenges without the cohesion and integrity of equality from enlisted to senior officer ranks. Anything less than equality papers over long-standing American fissures and leaves us susceptible to foreign manipulation.

Fourth, America historically has had a deep well of influential power. Future threats will require that the United States build a more inclusive diplomatic corps to attract allies and put adversaries on notice. A diverse diplomatic core would illustrate American commitment to strengthening our bonds with scores of nations. Further, the United States can deploy intelligence agencies that draw from all corners of society to present a more nuanced counter to Russian and Chinese espionage threats. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has acknowledged that “to be successful against increasingly complex global threats, the intelligence community  must employ and develop a dynamic, agile workforce that reflects diversity in its broadest context and includes all aspects that make individuals unique and America strong.” The future requires that we diversify influential power today.

In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Black Lives Matters is a clarion call to advance justice, liberty and freedom. The diversity of America is its strength against ethnonationalist states. Bending the arc will help America blunt the challenges from competitors that have no aspirations to be that city upon a hill.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.