Many factors have undermined the appeal of America’s political system: gun violence, partisan polarization, inadequate health care, income inequality. But they’re all linked to racism. And—as during the civil-rights movement—America’s moral authority abroad is intimately tied to its willingness to confront that racism. That’s a big part of the reason why, in the year Barack Obama became president, approval of the United States jumped 33 points in Germany and France, 26 points in Indonesia, and 22 points in Mexico.
Right now the Americans putting themselves at risk to protest racism are inspiring the world. They’ve sparked copycat demonstrations in Australia, Hungary, Japan, and other countries. Earlier this month, the fans of a Korean boy band raised more than $1 million to support Black Lives Matter. The more America’s leaders repress or ignore this mass movement against racism, the more they confirm international suspicions that America’s political system is broken. But if the movement accomplishes tangible change—a sweeping new federal law overseeing police conduct, for instance, or a substantial shift of local resources from police to social services—some of its moral authority will infuse America’s political system itself.
That won’t change the fact that China’s economic clout is rising and America’s is falling. It won’t help American policy makers respond to the Chinese firm Huawei’s dominance in 5G network equipment or Beijing’s fortifications in the South China Sea. But combatting racism against black people will enhance America’s stature—and mark a welcome shift from President Donald Trump’s approach to China, which has amplified anti-Asian racism. As King understood, self-improvement is a far more productive and ethical way to approach global competition than jingoistic self-righteousness.