Why America's Black Lives Matter protests strike a chord with the rest of the world
The United States is increasingly seen as a nation turning in on itself. As protests against police violence and systemic racism rocked dozens of American cities, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke of the crisis across the pond in language more often deployed when discussing intractable conflicts elsewhere in the world.
"We want to see de-escalation of all of those tensions and Americans come together," he told the BBC on Sunday.
Raab wasn't alone. A spokesperson from the European Commission emailed an unusual statement about American affairs to reporters, indicating that officials in Brussels hoped that "all issues" related to the protests "will be settled swiftly and in full respect for the rule of law and human rights."
This followed a Friday statement from Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union Commission, who condemned the killing of George Floyd and lamented "continuing discriminatory practices against black citizens of the USA."
On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the US protests were both "understandable and more than legitimate."
He added: "I can only express my hope that the peaceful protests do not continue to lead to violence, but even more express the hope that these protests have an effect in the United States."
The unrest in American cities has drawn global attention for reasons both familiar and new. The dramas of the world's sole superpower captivate audiences elsewhere far more than the obverse, with the intrigues of other countries only occasionally penetrating America's oft-insular news cycles. In some instances, the outpouring of anger over Floyd's killing - intensified by social media videos shared around the world of the incident and the diverse demonstrations that followed - emboldened existing movements over racial violence and discrimination against minorities.
In Australia, where fresh solidarity protests are planned this week, the upheaval in the United States has revived conversation around police actions against the country's long-marginalized indigenous communities - and, in particular, a 2015 incident that saw David Dungay Jr., a 26-year-old Aboriginal man, die while in Australian police custody.
"We're outraged about what's happening in Minneapolis, but really us guys home in Australia need to take a stand together here . . . because they can actually see the racism and injustice against our people," said Paul Francis-Silva, Dungay's nephew, to Australia's ABC News.
In France, too, Floyd's death rekindled memories of a 2016 incident in which Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old from the suburbs of Paris, died of asphyxiation after being detained by police. Traoré's case triggered, as my Washington Post colleague James McAuley put it at the time, France's own Black Lives Matter movement.
"How can one not think of Adama's terrible suffering when he had three police officers on him and he was repeating, 'I can't breathe,' " a Traoré support group wrote on Facebook last week. "His name was George Floyd, who just like Adama died because they were black."
This sense of grievance and solidarity gave voice to protests in Toronto, Berlin, London and other Western cities. "People all over the world understand that their own fights for human rights, for equality and fairness, will become so much more difficult to win if we are going to lose America as the place where 'I have a dream' is a real and universal political program," Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington and the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, told the New Yorker. "Let's hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers - from China, Russia, and even from Europe. It would be tragic if the Trump Administration turned a huge opportunity for the US into a moral abdication."
A dimension of the global reaction also taps into long-standing left-wing attitudes toward American imperialism abroad and hypocrisy at home. They've only been heightened by widespread antipathy toward President Trump.
"Part of it is about anti-Americanism, part of it is about the gross injustice," Marcel Dirsus, a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, told Today's WorldView in reference to solidarity demonstrations in Berlin. "But it's also about Trump, who is so unpopular in Germany that it makes many people dislike America as a whole. I think a lot of people assumed that America had already hit rock-bottom over the last couple of years but then Trump proved them wrong in the way he is handling the pandemic and these protests."
Then there's the fact that Trump's brand of ultranationalism more readily maps onto the growing divisions in other countries, with the U.S. president having explicitly made common cause with far-right movements in Europe. Animus toward Trump's America can be a vehicle for domestic grievances, too.
"It's significant that Trumpism is part of a broader transnational movement," said Georgetown University political scientist Daniel Nexon during a webinar on Monday. "US political polarization is now aligned with politics elsewhere."
But the protests abroad may also reflect an abiding admiration for the United States. "Those marching seem to show just how morally magnetic the idea of the 'good America' continues to be in Europe," Ben Judah, a British journalist, told The Washington Post.
He added that the weekend's protests in places like London's Trafalgar Square or at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate could reflect the coalescing of a new kind of transatlanticism. "Ironically, just as the old ideological West, of the G-7, transatlantic intellectuals and NATO-focused think tanks is breaking down a new kind of transatlantic experience, born out of a common virtual Instagram and TikTok world, is coming alive," said Judah.