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'Defining Advertisement For The American Model': How Protests May Affect U.S. Image


Could the protests that have swept American cities since the killing of George Floyd open the door to a U.S. foreign policy win? That is the case being made by Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat. Sen. Murphy argues the U.S. has lost moral standing in the world over the past three years, but that this moment of reckoning at home presents a chance for the U.S. to reset its image and influence abroad. He writes about this in Foreign Affairs magazine, and he joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, welcome.

CHRIS MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So make the case here.

MURPHY: Well, the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s ended up being a big foreign policy win for the United States. Why is that? Well, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Truman administration submitted a brief, and in that brief, they argued effectively that Soviet propagandists all over the world used the miserable and unconscionable race relations in the United States as an advertisement as to why countries should not align themselves with us, that our words did not match our deeds when it came to equality and freedom. And it was the civil rights movement that helped make the case to the world that, in fact, the United States was willing to at least be in a constant process of evolution.

This is another one of those moments. I know the conventional wisdom is developing that these protests and the Trump administration's aggressive response to it has not been a great advertisement for America. But in the end, if we're able to really have a reckoning with our mistreatment of African Americans, then it's a symbol to the rest of the world that this democracy still functions.

KELLY: You've just given me a zillion things I want to follow up on. Let me start here. Among those who are watching events unfold here in the U.S. are Russia, are China, are many others who would be all too happy and are all too happy to use social media and other tools to try to divide Americans, not unite Americans. Do you really think they're watching right now and thinking wow, we should all sit back and admire and learn from this civil rights moment unfolding in the U.S.?

MURPHY: So why does Russia spend so much time trying to undermine our democracy? Part of it is they want us to be inwardly focused so that we can't contest the world for political space. But it's also because a functioning U.S. democracy makes it a lot easier for the democracy movement in Russia to get legs. If our democracy doesn't look too attractive, then democracy in general doesn't look very attractive.

KELLY: What do you say, though, to critics from abroad who watched, say, the photo op this month on Lafayette Square across from the White House, and who ask, how dare the U.S. lecture us on civil rights, on human rights when the U.S. dispersed protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets?

MURPHY: I think it's difficult, and that's why, you know, what I'm surmising is that the movement that emerges from this moment is that foreign policy boon for America. But that movement has to spring forth. I mean, we have to build a second civil rights movement. We have to beat Donald Trump. And part of that narrative has to be that America looked at the treatment of these protesters and rejected it. Remember; you know...

KELLY: I mean, I have to press you, though, here. And I don't mean to sound super cynical, but what do you say to those same critics from abroad who will be watching and who ask, how dare the U.S. lecture us on freedom of the press when journalists covering these protests have been targeted and injured?

MURPHY: And I guess that's what I'm saying, is that we have an election coming up as well. And in that election, we have the opportunity to correct course and say that this kind of treatment of the press and this kind of treatment of protesters is not allowable. And it's a reminder to the world that if you live in an autocratic country, citizens of China and citizens of Russia don't have that ability to stand up and change the treatment of the press or to give protesters more rights. And so our ability to sort of emerge from a dark time with lightness surrounding us, either through a protest movement or an election, it is at its foundation an advertisement for the American model and our ability to self-correct. We've never claimed we're perfect. What we have claimed is that we have the ability to correct ourselves when we're wrong, and this is an opportunity for us to do that.

KELLY: That is Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thank you very much.

MURPHY: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.