White privilege, institutional racism, unconscious bias, identity politics — these terms have become the currency of political debate in the US and the UK. But race is not just a domestic issue. At a time when global power is shifting, arguments about racial equity are also becoming part of the geopolitical struggle.
Ranked by purchasing power, the world’s largest economies are now, in order, China, the US, India, Japan and Germany. But the world’s most important political institutions still reflect the political and economic power balance of 1945. The five permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council are the US, Russia, China, the UK and France.
The fact that four of the “perm five” are predominantly white countries arguably represents an international form of “white privilege”, inherited from the age of empire. It looks unsustainable when roughly 5.8bn of a global population of about 7.6bn live in Asia and Africa.
China is one of the privileged five, however — and that limits Beijing’s appetite to push for reform. The idea of India and Japan gaining a permanent seat at the world’s top table would not be particularly welcome in Beijing. Regional rivalries — between Nigeria and South Africa, or between Mexico and Brazil — have also helped to slow the impetus for reform at the UN.
Nonetheless, arguments about race are becoming part of the contest between the US and China. Enraged by the growing Western criticism of its treatment of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has tried to turn the tables — pointing to America and Australia’s historic mistreatment of indigenous peoples and to the colonial histories of European powers.
Current racial tensions in America also provide Beijing with talking points. Lijian Zhao, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted recently that the US and its allies “do not have qualifications to lecture on China, when so many lives are lost from Covid-19 and people like George Floyd cannot even breathe”. The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper in China, published an article charging that the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangement between the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is an “axis of white supremacy”. On a more positive note, the Chinese government has sought to build alliances in Africa by arguing that China and African nations are linked by a shared struggle against colonialism.
Anti-colonial arguments are also part of India’s foreign policy discourse. When a group of British MPs recently debated farm protests in India, the Indian government summoned the UK ambassador to protest. A newspaper article by Kanwal Sibal, a former head of the Indian foreign ministry, accused Britain of “being stuck in its colonial mindset”.
But the anti-racism argument flows in both directions. The Bharatiya Janata party government in Delhi is often accused of favouring India’s Hindus at the expense of the country’s Muslim minority. Critics of the Chinese government charge its approach to Xinjiang is rooted in a form of ethnic-nationalism that seeks to impose majority Han culture on the whole of China. China sometimes seems to treat ethnic Chinese outside the country as part of a greater Han community that owes some loyalty to Beijing regardless of their actual nationality.
Despite the apparent turmoil over race relations in the US, some foreign-policy thinkers argue that the west will ultimately find that its racial diversity is a source of strength in international affairs. Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of New America, a think-tank, argues that anti-racism should be incorporated more systematically into the making of US foreign policy. She thinks that a foreign policy establishment that was not dominated by white men might focus less on great-power competition and more on issues of global equity — such as the equal distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
If America were ever truly perceived to be a global champion for racial equality, it might even reap a benefit in the international battle for hearts-and-minds with China. The long-term goal would be to contrast a multicultural US with an ethnocentric China.
But the debate is unlikely to be that straightforward. The global promotion of American ideas on racial equality is not always the best way of winning friends overseas. Even some US allies regard it as a new form of American cultural imperialism. Emmanuel Macron, president of France, has complained that an alien ideology of group identity is being imported into France from US universities — trampling over France’s own republican tradition which downplays racial identities and stresses common citizenship.
The current emphasis on racial politics both in the US and the wider world is unlikely to pass. While the surge in interest grew out of unanticipated events, such as the killing of Floyd and the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, there are deeper structural forces at work. Shifting demographics and new concentrations of wealth are challenging power structures that once seemed firmly embedded. As that happens, the global argument about racial justice is only likely to intensify.