Police Abuse

How Injustice at Home Damages the US Position in the World

The upheaval over police abuses has damaged America's image in the world, especially coming on the heels of other blows to American "soft power." We can and should do better.


Over the last few days, several different friends, relatives, and members of the media from foreign countries have reached out at least in part to ask whether I am safe and well. One was even a high-ranking public official in his own country.

For the record, I'm happy to assure everyone that my family and I are safe and well, and that life in northern Virginia has been essentially normal these last few days (or at least as normal as it gets during the pandemic).

However, the fact these people thought they needed to inquire about my safety is just one of many indications of the severe damage the crisis caused by police abuses such as the death of George Floyd and resulting protests and riots have done to the image of the US across the world. Such queries are usually directed at people in the midst of natural disasters, or those visiting a dangerously unstable authoritarian state.

The harm to the standing of the US is even greater because these events come on the heels of several other blows to America's image, such as Trump's brutal family separation policy, multiple trade wars with allies, the badly flawed handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and so on.

Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian propagandists are having a field day:

Officials in Iran, mainland China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korean and the pro-Chinese government in Hong Kong have all called out U.S. President Donald Trump after he told state governors to "dominate" those protesting the death of George Floyd — something that he has criticized other nations for doing in the past. Trump has also claimed without evidence that the protests are illegitimate, and described the protesters as "terrorists," "thugs" and "lowlifes…"

Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, also called out the U.S. at a news conference in Beijing. He said the protests "once again reflect the racial discrimination in the U.S., the serious problems of police violent enforcement and the urgency of solving these problems."

Zhao, whose government has put more than 1 million Muslim-minority Uighur people in detention camps, urged the U.S. to "safeguard and guarantee the legal rights of ethnic minorities…"

Russia, which meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in part by exploiting movements like Black Lives Matter, also condemned the latest violence.

"The United States has certainly accumulated systemic human rights problems: race, ethnic and religious discrimination, police brutality, bias of justice, crowded prisons … to name a few," Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Even before the events of the last few months, surveys show that the US image in the world has declined since 2016, driven in large part by widespread revulsion at the Trump administration's policies on trade, immigration, and other issues. In most countries, Trump was viewed much less favorably than such brutal despots as the rulers of Russia China. During the 2016 campaign, Trump famously claimed that other nations were "laughing" at the US and that he would take steps to strengthen our position. Today, more and more of the world views us with derision, contempt, and revulsion—and foreign leaders are laughing at Trump more openly than with any of his recent predecessors.

In response, we can (correctly) point out that US police abuses are nowhere near as bad as the massive human rights violations practiced by Valdimir Putin's and Xi Jinping's regimes, that several European countries have higher pandemic death rates than we do, and that the US is a victim of double standards.

But at the end of the day, it is unavoidable  that the nation that seeks to lead the free world is going to be held to a higher standard than the Putins and Xis of the world. And we should work to meet those standards, rather than evade them. We can and should aspire to more than being not as bad as the likes of Russia and China.

America's position in the world does not depend only on "hard power," such as having a powerful military and a large and productive economy. It also critically depends  on "soft power"—the appeal of our ideas and our political and economic systems to the people of the world. Foreign governments—especially democracies—are more likely to cooperate with us if we have a favorable public image with their people.

As during the Cold War the US is engaged in a a war of ideas with authoritarian states, most notably China and Russia. Unlike during the Cold War, our current adversaries lack an ideology with broad, international appeal. Few people outside of these two countries are enthusiastic about Chinese or Russian nationalism, or about these two powers' authoritarian systems of government. Nonetheless, we are doing poorly in the war of ideas, largely through our own errors, rather than because of any great skill on the part of our  opponents.

During the Cold War, US leaders—including political conservatives—well understood the the importance of the war of ideas, and that winning it depended in significant part on the image America's domestic policies projected abroad. As legal historian Mary Dudziak recounts in her important book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, one of the reasons why the federal government began to support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was the growing recognition that ending racial discrimination would boost the US image in the world and counter communist propaganda.

Even at its awful worst, American racial oppression in the twentieth century was not as bad as the horrific mass murders of communist states, or their repression and deportation of entire ethnic groups. But US leaders of the Cold War era knew that we could not prevail in the war of ideas merely by being less awful than the communists. We had to do a lot better than that.

As was the case during the Cold War, cleaning up our own house is a key element of winning the war of ideas internationally. There is much we can do to curb police abuses, reform cruel immigration policies, stop self-destructive trade wars, and address other issues that have damaged the US image in the world in recent years.

We should not necessarily reverse any and all policies that are unpopular abroad. But, as with desegregation during the Cold War, there are many ways for us to improve our image abroad by doing things that are also right in themselves and beneficial to US domestic policy. Such measures as curbing police misconduct and racial profiling, letting in refugees fleeing the oppression of our adversaries, and ending trade restrictions that damage our economy can benefit Americans at home at the same time as they strengthen our position in the world.

If we want to win the international war of ideas and thereby make our America's position in the world great again, we have to pay more attention to the ways in which what we do at home affects our position abroad. Right now, we're a long way from being able to say we're winning so much we can be sick and tired of all the winning.

UPDATE: I have made minor additions to this post.


NEXT: How Adversarial is the Relationship Between African Americans and the Police?

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  1. Countries that don’t like the US fall into two groups: 1) those that rely on our direct aid or on our lion’s share of contributions to multinational organizations (UN, NATO, WHO, etc.) and 2) countries that don’t rely on either. I’m more inclined to worry about what the latter think than the former.

  2. I am reminded of what Pope Benedict XVI said about clerical pedophilia in the US “It must be something in the water.” Just because we have a free press and one that particularly wants to exploit anything that might embarrass those their journalism professors hated does not necessarily mean things are much worse here. What is ignored elsewhere is exposed and fought over here.
    I knew a Dane who in 1966 said proudly that Denmark did not have racial problems. He did admit his town had no blacks, Arabs, Latinos, or Asians. So, no problems.
    The issues of police brutality almost always arise from individuals already identified and who would have been fired from any private employer. Not all unions deserve Woke support.

    1. The problem of clerical Pedophilia in the Catholic church was NOT confined to the US.

      1. Indded. It seems a measure of the Church’s still-extensive influence that many of its top leaders did not end their lives disgraced or in prison.

    2. So we should be ruled by private employers? Is that what you’re saying? What is your violent mind trying to say?

      1. Of course the pedophilia is not confined to the US. We openly discuss everything, at least if that discussion serves Progressive ends, like criticizing the Roman Catholic church. Elsewhere, those discussions are never even attempted. This makes us look bad to those who do not even try to think about the difference in openness.
        There should be a ban on public sector unions. If you tried as a union leader to bribe a CEO of a corporation for support on better wages and benefits and that CEO accepted your money, both of you would end up in prison. If you give money to a candidate for the promise of better wages and benefits he gets elected and you look to be a hero to the union. Police unions use their political clout to allow their members to get away with behaviors that would get them fired in the private sector. Most of the demonstrations demanding reform are in cities that have not had a Republican mayor for decades, some for nearly a century. If liberal thought alone could do it, it would have been done long ago.

        1. This was, in fact the topic of today’s homily at my church: Assuming all blacks are criminals, assuming all whites are racist, assuming all cops are oppressors, and, yes, assuming all priests are pedophiles: They’re ALL the same sin. People are individuals, and entitled to be treated as such, and it’s a sin to treat a person otherwise.

          1. Not all cops are oppressors, but all, or very nearly all of the ones who aren’t deliberately and knowingly cover for the ones who are.

            1. Every profession and group does that. Hiding the bad apples dates back to Roman times. Even the teacher’s unions cover up pedophiles, for chrissakes.

  3. And somehow the fake outrage that is the pretext for the preplanned rioting looks bad to the rest of the world. I would think that if the goal is to make the rest of the world love us, as Ilya seems to suggest, that these riots pretending to be protests would be considered by him to be unAmerican, and not in this country’s interest.

    1. Let’s go back to the “arrogant American” of the 1950’s when we didn’t care what the rest of the world thought….

      1. The problem is that we are stilling living with the consequence of that arrogance. Much of the bad feelings to the US have their roots in that time.

    2. You think this was preplanned? SOROS, I presume?

      Being crazy also does not help our standing in the world.

  4. We have the dollars and we have the nukes.

    So if the rest of the world doesn’t like us, it can go firetruck itself.

    We should have nuked Iran in 1979, we should nuke North Korea today. China and Russia we can deal with economically, a total trade ban with it understood that any country that trades with them no longer has diplomatic relations with us. No more US $$$, no more sending your students here to steal our technology.

    It’s time for America to start giving other countries the middle finger, and for people like Ilya Somin to decide which country he is loyal to. Seriously, George Mason wouldn’t (couldn’t) exist without a massive handout from the US Government, and if he isn’t loyal to it, he shouldn’t be teaching there.

    1. Yes, good plan, nuke everybody who doesn’t like us, and somehow — will Donald Trump build a wall? — keep the radiation from escaping their borders.

      A better plan is to stop having a foreign policy. Get rid of embassies, ambassadors, treaties, military bases outside the country, tariffs, and probably a lot more. Let Americans decide who to pay attention to, who to do business with, who to visit. Let foreign politicians learn that the US is no military threat, let them come begging to Americans as individuals for foreign aid, let them understand that it is a matter of public relations, not corruption behind closed doors, that will get their people the aid their leaders crave.

      1. The problem is that we tried that in the 1930’s and it didn’t work.
        And that was when having two oceans was a defense.

        1. Really? We did away with embassies, ambassadors, everything, in the 1930s?

          Hint: eliminating government foreign aid, embassies, ambassadors, etc is not isolationism. You probably equate chaos and anarchy too.

    2. As insane and revolting as this comment is, it represents the general outlook of a pretty broad swath of Americans. Perhaps this indicates we shouldn’t hold ourselves out as a world leader. Maybe America getting knocked down a peg or two on the world stage isn’t so bad – just dresserts and all.

      1. We spent 50 years — 1939-1989 — saving Europe from its own stupidity. We are the only country that didn’t demand tribute in response.

        I say firetruck all the undeserving bastards.

      2. As opposed to saintly China and Russia and pretty much any other country who’s every held the dominant position in history.

        1. Look at what Great Britain did — deporting the Scottish to Ireland (where they became the Irish Protestants) so as to control both countries, creating problems that linger to this day.

          They also deported the Acadians from what is now Nova Scotia and shipped them down to Louisiana where they became the “Cagins.” And did some nasty things in India, etc.

          Somehow, I don’t think the US is all that bad….

  5. All they have to do is listen to the US media. Media is in high heaven praising the social purity of protesting despite being in the middle of a pandemic. People are being shot and killed in the middle of this ruckus. NY police police woman the latest Floyd casualty

  6. “In most countries, Trump was viewed much less favorably than such brutal despots as the rulers of Russia China.”

    And that says everything that needs to be said about how much such opinions should be respected. A triumph of taste over morality.

    1. Exactly. I would go one step further: they know we most certainly are not the type of country to have slave camps or gulags, and yet think we are the worst ever (or thereabouts). That is an objectively repulsive opinion, and I’m unclear as to why we should care about what such evil people think about us.

      There’s a certain segment of people who think that if they look down on us enough, we will kiss their bums. However, the proper response to such condescension is to just walk away.

      1. But if you want to make the world a better place, you need to deal with that kind of double-standard.

        Letting our pride get the better of us would just result in a more chaotic and violent world. The world is better with us as a superpower, and retreating into isolationism or realpolitik would screw over many, many people.

        1. “Dealing with” a double standard and “humoring” a double standard aren’t the same thing. We need to openly point out the double standard, and shame those who engage in it.

          A task made harder by our own media becoming a 5th column, of course, but that just means we need to shame them, and get to work on replacing them.

          1. I don’t see what the utility is in whining to the international community that they don’t treat us right.

            Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

            And being the best doesn’t mean we needn’t look at our flaws and try and get better. I disagree with Prof. Somin on this point – struggles like this are part of the American narrative that many countries admire in us and try to replicate, to greater or lesser success.

  7. This is a post in a law blog????

    Seems more like agitptop.
    Shameful stuff. The Resistance continues and America suffers.

    Where is the outrage over what the FBI did to abolish the peaceful transition of power?

    1. You must be new here. All Somin posts is agitprop.

  8. Who cares….really does anyone care what some European peasant thinks about us?

  9. Ilya, let’s start by recognizing that you dislike Trump and move on from there. Can we filter this article through the anti-Trump matrix?

    I mean after all we’re here on Reason. If a President decides that the country is being screwed by the trade disaster he’s inherited from his inept predecessors, isn’t he free to adjust the relationship to benefit his own population rather than continue to subsidize the entire world off the backs of Americans? Is that reasonable?

    Border..is the President not also free to close the border to those parents who risk the lives of their children by dragging them 1000’s of miles without adequate food, water, provisions because they seek American paychecks without coming through the front door. Does the child abuse start then, or does it begin when a parent rents their kids to someone trying to look like a refuge family? Is it reasonable to place the abusive parent in a jail cell and hold the child separately so they might stick around while waiting for their case to come up? You know how felons flee sometimes? Reasonable again.

    Is it reasonable to place responsibility for Covid 19 programs on the governors who are normally underworked? After all, they are the CEO statewide, not Donald Trump. It’s their job to handle it. Is it reasonable for you to question the governors’ abilities?

    Ah ..the rioting. Didn’t it begin in a city which has obviously been ignoring the fact that it had bad cops on the payroll? A warm fuzzy socialist state, city, should have weeded out its abusive cops long ago if the socialist management at all levels truly cared about Black Live Mattering. Isn’t this a reasonable assumption? Why is it that so many leftist-run states and cities have such horrendous crime profiles, bad cop episodes, yada yada yada?

    Donald Trump is doing just fine for those who still care about our country without being fascists.. we’re just normal Americans who want our country back, and we are taking it back.
    The rest of the world needs to clean up its own act. Some world leaders are actually brave enough to follow our lead, most are not.

    1. And another thing.. universities need to be dropped from the entitlement program and fend for themselves.

    2. Keith Ellison is the Minnesota Attorney General — he could/should have done something about that corrupt police departments use of a neck hold that the rest of the state had banned. And he is a Black activist — so why isn’t he held accountable?

    3. I see little wrong in this comment.

  10. Why does America have to worry about its international image? The problem doesn’t seem to bother the PRC, or Russia, or Iran, or the EU…

  11. The nation whose leaders displayed in the very act of its birth “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” has not, in this respect at least, become wiser with age.

  12. The ‘injustice’ everybody is losing their mind and is the one reason that justifies spreading a killer plague over kills ~250 black people a year assuming every single police interaction is completely unjust.

  13. Good points.

  14. Right now, we’re a long way from being able to say we’re winning so much we can be sick and tired of all the winning.

    Says who? A law professor?

  15. Sometimes I fear that the comment section of this blog is becoming a gathering place for foreign propaganda bots.

    Sometimes I WISH this were the case, but fear that this is where all too large a segment of domestic opinion is heading.

  16. “However, the fact these people thought they needed to inquire about my safety is just one of many indications of the severe damage the crisis caused by police abuses such as the death of George Floyd and resulting protests and riots have done to the image of the US across the world.”

    Complete nonsense. This same phenomenon has been observed since before WW2, and is entirely attributable to the fact that media always focus on sensationalism. Gangster movies and lurid stories of gangster violence like the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 firmly planted the image of a violent America in the minds of foreigners. They were often surprised that, upon traveling here, they observed no violence at all! Cowboy movies and serials further solidified that sense. Nor are we in the US immune from the same media-fueled misconceptions about other nations. In general, everyone is somewhat deceived by their inevitably highly filtered view of the world. You were probably one of those people who didn’t understand how Trump could’ve won since everyone you knew voted for Clinton. In fact, that still seems to be your primary hang-up.

    The entirety of

  17. These protests were organized precisely to damage US reputation. I’ve been in Rome since March and the opinion here is, how can a nation that gave the world Obama, Oprah, and Will Smith be the world’s most racist? Europeans are questioning their own models of government even before the riots and capitalism is, no surprise, the suspect. Exactly as planned.

    1. It’s never been better to be a minority in America.

      The fact Lebron James is free to be a douche is a good example.

  18. I agree that world opinion is lower on the priorities list than other problems, but that’s only because of what is higher on the list of problems.

    Currently we have a president who doesn’t care about civil liberties who just used the military to remove peaceful protesters, a president who openly sides with white supremacists, a president who may or may not accept the results of an election if he loses re-election and will likely encourage his heavily armed thuggish base not to accept it either, an election that was already going to be one of the most divisive and acrimonious in US history, an economy in the toilet and millions of unemployed people with nothing to do except get more and more angry, and finally, a pandemic that is likely going to return with a vengeance thanks in part to the protests. Oh, and unprecedented national protests that don’t seem to be abating. What could possibly go wrong?

    It may be that a year from now, we’ll have gotten through this fine and it will be business as usual. I sure hope so. But a big part of me feels like I’m in Italy watching the rise of Mussolini. If that part of me turns out to be right, conservatives who helped elect Trump may find that there are some things worse than national health care, and real, genuine fascism is one of them.

    1. That is just total bullshit. You’re being gaslighted about those protesters being peaceful, but I suspect the gaslighting is happening with your own cooperation.

      We have a serious problem in this country: Better than 90% of the media are now openly partisan in favor of the same party, and have tossed aside all restraint about how they go about their self-perceived job of tearing the opposition down.

      And as for Trump not respecting civil liberties, half the left’s complaint about him is that he IS respecting civil liberties, ones they want crushed.

      1. Assuming your 90 percent figure is correct ( and I’m not agreeing that it is), does it occur to you that the reason the media tilts left is that the qualities that make a good journalist- being curious about the world, recognizing there is more than one side to a story, believing in democracy, wanting to know all the facts – are also qualities that tend to skew left? Or, at bare minimum, don’t skew toward the current Republican Party?

        1. The reason it happened is that the one solitary thing the left is good at is subversion. “The long march through the institutions” is a real thing. For too long the right priortized doing over ‘talking’, not appreciating enough that ‘talking’ really drives what the next generation wants to do.

          But the left understood that, and applied themselves to ruthlessly taking over every media and educational institution in sight. So today the left controls all but a handful of schools and news outlets, and has locked the right out of most of them.

          The right’s own fault, they lost by default. Now they have to build all those institutions up from scratch, while the left attacks them from the high ground of the schools, media, and will turn the full power of the government against them at the first chance they get.

          Really, the only advantage the right has IS that subversion is the only thing the left are competent at, so they keep running what they take over into the ground.

    2. ” a president who may or may not accept the results of an election if he loses re-election and will likely encourage his heavily armed thuggish base not to accept it either,”

      Do not even start with that. After the Russian collusion hoax, the sham impeachment, the attempts to sway electors, and the Left’s complete and total unwillingness to accept the results of 2016, I do not even want to hear it. Take your projection and place it at the lower end of your alimentary canal.

      1. So just to be clear, if Trump loses the election, your expectation is that both he and his base will accept the results with equanimity?

        1. There’s a million miles of middle ground between accepting the results with equanimity and a coup to keep Trump in power.

          Did Hillary accept the 2016 results with equanimity? Hell no, she’s still bitching about how she was cheated and Trump’s win was somehow illegitimate.

          You won’t win any hearts or minds by holding Trump to a standard you won’t hold your own side to.

        2. Trump leads a government that’s been trying to reject him like a foreign body since before he took office; At any given time there are multiple plots going to get rid of him, and much of the bureaucracy barely even bothers to pretend they’re interested in following his orders. Given anything like a legitimate excuse to ignore his orders, he’ll be just shouting into the wind on January 20th, maybe even sooner.

          This doesn’t mean he won’t be at least as legally aggressive as Gore was in 2000 if the result is even moderately close, it doesn’t mean that he or his supporters will be happy about his losing. And if there’s a GOOD case to be made that the election was stolen all Hell will break loose. So I highly recommend the Democrats refrain from “finding” too many ballots in car trunks in close states, unless they want to see what it’s like when the other side decides to riot.

          But if he’s clearly lost, he’s out of there without a fight.

          1. Guys, I didn’t say I thought it was a sure shot certainty that there would be a civil war if he loses. I said it’s enough of a possibility to be worrisome given his authoritarian tendencies, his willingness to encourage violence and his lack of respect for democratic institutions. We are, after all, talking about the guy who just used the military against peaceful demonstrators.

            You all may be right and I hope you are. We’ll find out soon enough.

            1. If the military doesn’t back him because he’s no longer legally commander in chief, it won’t get very far.

              His political supporters are not an army. It would take months to organize them into an army assuming they were even interested in going there.

              No, there won’t be a civil war over Trump unless the US Military backs keeping him in power. Absent that, worse case we get another round of riots no worse than the current riots.

        3. Are you stupid?

    3. a president who may or may not accept the results of an election if he loses re-election

      If (as is looking increasingly likely) Trump loses the election, the new president will take office on 1/20/21. Trump almost certainly will complain that things were rigged or unfair, or that the Democrats cheated. But the presidency will change hands without issue. I am happy to bet any sum of money you would care to risk.

      But a big part of me feels like I’m in Italy watching the rise of Mussolini. If that part of me turns out to be right, conservatives who helped elect Trump may find that there are some things worse than national health care, and real, genuine fascism is one of them.

      I have nothing but contempt for Trump, but this is complete bullshit. He has had three months of crises which are practically tailor-made for an aspiring despot to seize power, and he’s conspicuously declined to do so. Which is hardly surprising—can you imagine the amount of work being a dictator would entail?

    4. Oof. This tiresome talking point drivel.

  19. 1984 double speak. Protester sign: “White silence is violence”. NY Times editorial: Looting and rioting is not violence!”

  20. I stopped reading at “Trump’s brutal family separation policy”

    I wonder if Somin thought it was brutal when Obama had kids in cages?

    FP? Leaders of foreign democracies look at the Democratic Party attempting a soft coup for 3 years and see Venezuela and Ukraine. They must wonder if it could happen to them.

    I’m reaching a point of panic that the anarchist wing of the once great Democratic Party is going to take down the United States, brick by brick, as intelligent people support it or stand by and do nothing, because their hatred of Trump and his voters is greater than their desire for peace and stability.

    1. I love it how many people accuse Prof. Somin of being inconsistent when he is probably the most consistent person I know. To a fault, even.

      Yeah, he hated Obama’s immigration policy as well. And posted about it.

      I’m reaching a point of panic that the anarchist wing of the once great Democratic Party is going to take down the United States, brick by brick,
      This is not coming from reality, it’s coming from something inside you.

  21. I’m reaching a point of panic that the anarchist wing of the once great Democratic Party is going to take down the United States, brick by brick, as intelligent people support it or stand by and do nothing, because their hatred of Trump and his voters is greater than their desire for peace and stability.”

    Except that Trump and his voters aren’t going to let them.

    40% of likely Black voters admit that they intend to vote for Trump — that hasn’t happened since Eisenhower, if even then.
    Something like a third of the people attending Trump rallies were registered Democrats.

    1. Are you actually saying you think there’s a remote chance that Trump will get 40% of the black vote? That seems unusually delusional, even for you.

  22. Injustice like abortion?

    The annual murder for convenience of 750,000 helpless innocent human children.

    Gonna be a while to live that down.

    1. Funny how very often these non-arguments are made by pro-life people. Who do you think this is for?

  23. “However, the fact these people thought they needed to inquire about my safety is just one of many indications of the severe damage the crisis caused by police abuses such as the death of George Floyd…”

    Not to mention the fuel poured on the fire by the news media, including Reason.

    1. Friggin’ libertarians, being suspicious of the police.

  24. Standing in the world? Elites and intellectuals around the world have always hated the US. Everybody else wants to immigrate.

    The US should stop projecting power, soft or hard, and stop worrying what other people think.

  25. The fact is no nation in the world is more scrutinized than the United States. It’s the most open and transparent of nations.

    Up here in Canada, America serves as the perfect distraction from our own problems. We lack transparency, don’t have anywhere near the vibrant (if not hysterical at times) debates and get to lull ourselves into a position of false-superiority by constantly navel-gazing and repeating, ‘at least we’re not American.’

    Lucky us.

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