Theme Panel: Race, Racism, and International Security

Race, Racism, and International Security

Co-sponsored by Division 19: International Security
Full Paper Panel

(Chair) Errol A. Henderson, Pennsylvania State University; (Discussant) Sonal S. Pandya, University of Virginia; (Discussant) Joshua D. Kertzer, Harvard University

Session Description:
Against the backdrop of growing nativism and racialized conflicts in countries around the world, IR scholars are beginning to contemplate the role of race and racism – long considered as purely domestic issues – in shaping foreign policies and key facets of international security. This panel contributes to the emerging scholarship on race and racism in international relations, with a focus on international security. We bring together scholars who advance diverse theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches to the subject, ranging from critical International Relations and qualitative case studies to the quantitative study of public opinion surveys and experiments. Zoltán I. Búzás theoretically engages how race factors into reputation costs in IR, exploring the role of concerns about appearing (non-)racist in shaping US nuclear policy in the 1950s and information campaigns during the Cold War. Yoon Jin Lee draws from insights in critical International Relations to discuss the theoretical and practical implications of racial underpinnings for democratic credibility. David Ebner explores the racial microfoundation of foreign security policy preferences, demonstrating the key role white identity and racial conservatism in shaping public support for U.S. defense spending. Finally, D.G. Kim highlights the increasing racialization of contemporary U.S.-China relations, with a focus on how the Chinese media discuss growing anti-Asian racism in the United States and the effects of such political rhetoric on Chinese public support for hawkish foreign policies.


Race and Reputation in International Security
Zoltan I. Buzas, University of Notre Dame

Do concerns about appearing racist matter in international security? What is the impact of such concerns, if any, on US foreign policy? These questions are especially timely in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the proliferation of white supremacist groups in the US, and increased Sino-American competition for allies in the Global South. International Relations (IR) has little to say about these timely questions even as it has examined similar reputational concerns, such as those about appearing irresolute. This paper combines the reputation literature in international security with interdisciplinary studies of race to articulate a racial reputational account that addresses these questions. It fleshes out the main elements of the reputational concern of appearing racist. It then explains how under specific conditions this concern shapes US foreign policy by (1) leading to rhetorical reputation management that aims to burnish the country’s racial reputation as anti-racist or at least non-racist; and (2) by providing incentives to refrain from behaviors seen as racist by the relevant audience. The paper illustrates these arguments in two case studies: the Korean War (1950-53) and the first two Taiwan Strait Crises (1954-55 and 1958). It shows that racial reputational concerns reinforced US nuclear non-use, because nuclear bombing was widely seen as racist in Asia after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These concerns also nudged US decisionmakers to launch information campaigns to improve the United States’ racial reputation, a key issue in the Cold War competition with Communists for Asian allies. The paper concludes with promising future research avenues.

Race, Culture, and Trust in Democratic Credibility
Yoon Jin Lee, Wellesley College Department of Political Science

Democratic credibility is considered a key aspect in signaling resolve in various strategic settings of interstate bargaining. The notion rests on political accountability and domestic audience costs that make backing down in salient international negotiations very costly to the democratic national leader. Building on incisive insights in critical International Relations scholarship, I argue that this belief in democratic credibility is strong and taken-for-granted in Western democracies, particularly within the Anglosphere, due to the higher levels of general trust in democracy and general distrust in authoritarianism. In democracies outside of the Anglosphere and in varieties of authoritarian regimes, where there are lower levels of general distrust in authoritarianism, the key variable of an actor’s resolve in interstate bargaining may not necessarily depend on self-governance and the democratic regime type. In this paper, I discuss the theoretical and practical implications of racial and cultural underpinnings for democratic credibility.

Race, Racism, and Public Support for U.S. Defense Spending
David Brooks Ebner, University of Delaware

The United States federal government budgeted $705 billion for defense in 2021 – outpacing its closest competitor, China, by nearly $500 billion. Despite a seeming lack of bipartisan consensus on virtually any other issue in American politics, our two major parties, along with the support of their voters, routinely agree to these large expenditures regardless of which party controls the presidency or congress. Politicians in the United States, by virtue of being a democracy, rely on the public to support spending a large portion of their tax dollars on defense. While studies find that majorities of Americans support current spending and defense policy, the story is more complex. This paper advances the argument that race and racism play a central role in shaping the attitudes and opinions of the American public. Using data from the ANES (1986-2020) I find that white Americans who express a strong attachment to their racial identity, those who believe their political fates are tied to other Whites, and those who reject racial progress are all significantly more likely to support high levels of defense spending. The findings of this study make significant contributions to our understanding of both white racial identity and public opinion regarding foreign policy in the world’s most powerful military power.

Anti-Asian Racism and Chinese Public Support for Hawkish Foreign Policies
D.G. Kim, University of California, San Diego

The recent rise in anti-Asian hate incidents in the United States has sparked debates on issues of domestic racial justice and deep-seated racism against Asian Americans. IR scholars have paid little attention to how growing anti-Asian racism might affect contemporary U.S.-China relations and more specifically, how the issue potentially shapes foreign policy discourses and public opinion in China. In this paper, I first investigate the way the government-sponsored media in China discuss growing anti-Asian racism in the United States. I focus on how Chinese elite rhetoric frames the issue as the manifestation of white supremacy and as the extension of U.S.-led efforts to contain the rise of an adversarial Asian power. Second, I field a series of survey experiments to assess the impact of such top-down political rhetoric on Chinese public support for hawkish foreign policies, ranging from Chinese military actions in the South China Sea to the expansion of Chinese military and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific. I also examine whether such messages influence the Chinese public’s ethno-racial attitudes, expressed as anti-White and ethnocentric sentiments and pan-Asian identity. The paper contributes to understanding the foreign policy implications of domestic racism and the increasing racialization of Sino-American great power competitions.

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