In December 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. interrupted himself during a speech on desegregation to discuss an event on the other side of the world: the prodemocracy uprising then being quashed in Hungary. “Our minds leap the mighty Atlantic,” he told the National Committee for Rural Schools, because we are “concerned about the Hungarians as they confront the desperate situation that they stand amid everyday.” By “desperate situation,” King meant the Soviet invasion that, while suppressing a popular revolt against Communist rule, had taken about 2,500 Hungarian lives.
Although King was sympathetic toward the Hungarians seeking freedom, he was far less sympathetic toward their boosters in the Eisenhower administration. “It is strange,” he remarked, “that the American government can be so much concerned about the Hungarians and have not the slightest concern about the Negroes in Mississippi and Alabama, in Georgia, in South Carolina. Unless we in this nation wake up and decide to do something about the condition in America, we will never be able to defeat communism.”
In linking America’s racism at home to its ideological competition abroad, King was drawing a connection that has been largely absent since the killing of George Floyd. In the United States today, the debate over America’s intensifying rivalry with China is, for the most part, occurring independently from the debate over police violence. But separating the two is a mistake. King’s words offer a reminder that the best way for the United States to regain some of its shattered moral authority overseas, and credibly argue that its political system is superior to Beijing’s, is to ensure that the movement sparked by Floyd’s death succeeds.
In the first two decades of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, African American leaders insisted again and again that only by confronting its own racism could the United States appeal to people emerging from colonial racism in the developing world. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, an African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, exulted that the decision would “stun and silence America’s communist traducers behind the Iron Curtain” and “impress upon millions of colored peoples in Asia and Africa that idealism and social morality can and do prevail in the US.” Conversely, when an all-white jury acquitted the murderers of Emmett Till the following year, the chair of the NAACP said the jurors deserved “a medal from the Kremlin for meritorious service in communism’s war against democracy.”
Many in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also linked progress on civil rights to success in America’s struggle against Soviet Communism. And after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the United States Information Agency—which worked to burnish America’s reputation abroad—claimed that “we have crossed some sort of watershed in foreign judgments and perspectives on the racial issue in the US.” That was a huge overstatement. The urban unrest of the late 1960s showed foreign observers that white supremacy in the United States was alive and well. And the Vietnam War showed them that racism shaped not just domestic policy but foreign policy too.
Nevertheless, the civil-rights movement—alongside other factors—helped America win the Cold War. In part because of that movement, by 1977 a racially progressive white southerner, Jimmy Carter, was president, and a former lieutenant to King, Andrew Young, was his ambassador to the United Nations. The timing was fortuitous because, as the University of Nebraska’s Thomas Borstelmann details in his book The 1970s: A New Global History, the decade witnessed a new global focus on human rights. In the 1975 Helsinki Accords, both the United States and the Soviet Union pledged to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” That pledge, the historian Vladislav Zubok has argued, “proved to be a time bomb under the Soviet regime.” By 1980, Polish steelworkers had launched the Solidarity movement, which would help bring down the Soviet empire. The Helsinki pledge proved less of a time bomb in the U.S. because, despite America’s ongoing racism, it had given African Americans the vote.
Today’s competition between the U.S. and China is less ideological than America’s struggle with the U.S.S.R. Beijing’s primary selling point is its ability to generate economic growth. Unlike their 20th-century Soviet counterparts, China’s leaders aren’t launching an ideological challenge to liberal democracy and offering their own system as a global alternative. They’re simply arguing that, at least in the United States, democracy doesn’t work. And from the 2008 financial crisis to repeated government shutdowns to the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, America’s leaders have been making China’s argument easier. Across the world, people still overwhelmingly support democracy as a concept. But when the Pew Research Center in 2017 asked non-Americans whether they like “American ideas about democracy,” a plurality said no. From 2003 to 2018, according to Pew, the percentage of respondents who said “The government of the United States respects the personal freedoms of its people” dropped 46 points in Germany, 40 points in France, 37 points in Canada, 34 points in Australia, and 19 points in Japan. In a recent study of different nations’ “soft power”—the power to attract, rather than coerce—the United States ranked first in cultural production and high-tech ingenuity but 21st in the quality of its political institutions.
Many factors have undermined the appeal of America’s political system: gun violence, partisan polarization, inadequate health care, income inequality. But they’re all linked to racism. And—as during the civil-rights movement—America’s moral authority abroad is intimately tied to its willingness to confront that racism. That’s a big part of the reason why, in the year Barack Obama became president, approval of the United States jumped 33 points in Germany and France, 26 points in Indonesia, and 22 points in Mexico.
Right now the Americans putting themselves at risk to protest racism are inspiring the world. They’ve sparked copycat demonstrations in Australia, Hungary, Japan, and other countries. Earlier this month, the fans of a Korean boy band raised more than $1 million to support Black Lives Matter. The more America’s leaders repress or ignore this mass movement against racism, the more they confirm international suspicions that America’s political system is broken. But if the movement accomplishes tangible change—a sweeping new federal law overseeing police conduct, for instance, or a substantial shift of local resources from police to social services—some of its moral authority will infuse America’s political system itself.
That won’t change the fact that China’s economic clout is rising and America’s is falling. It won’t help American policy makers respond to the Chinese firm Huawei’s dominance in 5G network equipment or Beijing’s fortifications in the South China Sea. But combatting racism against black people will enhance America’s stature—and mark a welcome shift from President Donald Trump’s approach to China, which has amplified anti-Asian racism. As King understood, self-improvement is a far more productive and ethical way to approach global competition than jingoistic self-righteousness.
As in 1956, both the United States and its main global foe face movements demanding human rights. Given the repressive nature of its empire in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union could not permit freedom in Hungary. Given the repressive nature of Communist Party rule, China cannot permit freedom in Hong Kong. But if America’s renewed civil-rights movement succeeds, it will reinvigorate American democracy. And, in so doing, it will reinvigorate the deepest source of American power for the global competition ahead.