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.
Read: ‘It’s been setting in on me that this is like a cycle’
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.