Why are inclusion and diversity important? If asked, most people would probably say that everyone deserves a fair shot regardless of their background, how they look, or what they believe. The U.S. Navy’s Inclusion and Diversity Goal and Objectives document mentions warfighting performance and reaching peak potential as reasons for pursuing it. Others, including the Naval Institute’s Board of Directors, say that inclusion and diversity are important because without them, the Sea Services would be ineffective at fighting. Each of these arguments is valid, but they do not quite paint the whole picture. Why should the military, and the Sea Services in particular, make it a priority to foster inclusion and diversity onboard the nation’s ships and in its barracks? Inclusion and diversity, it turns out, have an immense bearing on great power competition.
During the summer 2020 protests, the Black Lives Matter movement touched almost every facet of society, and U.S. adversaries were watching. China has since lambasted the United States for “deep-seated” issues such as racism, holding the Chinese autocratic model as a more effective guarantor of prosperity than U.S.-style liberal democracy. This presents the United States with both a problem and an opportunity to prove China and other detractors wrong by showing that people of all races and backgrounds can work together under American liberal democracy. The Sea Services, as the first defenders of those values and often the face of the United States abroad, are front and center in this moral struggle.
Human Rights Are Integral to the Mission
Much of the United States’ claim to maintaining a worldwide presence and advancing its interests abroad is that its leadership is required to protect other liberal democratic allies and to offer a helping hand to people who want those values for themselves—or, as President Biden put it, that “democracy can still deliver for our people and for people around the world.” The Sea Services are the tip of the spear for carrying out that mission, which means there is a moral and ideological dimension to what they do. But that dimension is quickly undermined if the services fail to uphold liberal values themselves. If they lack diversity and inclusion or tolerate racism in any form, they cannot say they represent the values of liberal democracy they are charged with defending.
This idea is not new. During the Cold War, the racist policies of segregation and Jim Crow were stains on the United States’ moral claim as the guarantor of freedom in the struggle against communism. The Soviet Union used the optics of America’s domestic race-related protests during the Civil Rights movement to frustrate U.S. foreign policy aspirations. While the United States objected to the Soviet Union’s poor human rights record under communism, Soviet propagandists asked why the United States tolerated “shameful poverty” and carried out hate crimes against minorities.
Both China and Russia speak in similar ways today. Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the S.V.R., purposefully took steps to inflame racial tensions, trying to incite violence by white supremacist groups. China also has criticized the United States on several occasions, including during its first major dialogue with the Biden Administration in Alaska. Not only do these critiques seriously hinder the United States’ ability to object to the human rights abuses of its authoritarian adversaries—like China’s maltreatment of its Uighur minority or Russia’s jailing of dissidents and the well-documented war crimes it has committed Ukraine—but they demonstrate that both China and Russia see the issues of inclusion and diversity as part of a strategic battle.
The inclusion and diversity policies of the United States government, therefore, are front and center in the environment of strategic competition. This is especially true for the military, which is often regarded as a cross-section of American society and acts as a bellwether for American life. If the Navy can successfully improve on the inclusion and diversity problems it identified in its Task Force One Navy (TF1N) report, it can serve as a model for American society—much as it did when the military racially integrated in 1948. However, if the military fails to deliver, it will mean strategic consequences in the competition with China and Russia.
Why this Matters to the Sea Services
The Sea Services are often the first point of contact between the United States and its allies or its potential allies. Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who visit foreign ports represent the government and its values on foreign shores; they are diplomats, whether they know it or not. The degree to which these ambassadors represent the nation’s values is in measure with the degree to which they reflect an accurate cross section of the country. If the forces are not diverse and inclusive—from the enlisted ranks up to the senior leaders—it sends the signal that the U.S. government does not value diversity enough to ensure an accurate cross-section is represented.
The diversity of the Sea Services also imparts legitimacy to what they do. When these services are comprised of a good mix of the nation’s people, the actions they take more accurately reflect the will of the American people. If a ship conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, for example, it matters whether its crew is all-White or represents the diversity of the country. It sends a signal to China that the United States and her people are unified in protecting freedom of the seas and opposing China’s malign acts.
Contrast America’s diversity with Russia’s or China’s military forces. Recently, Russia’s military units have primarily been comprised of the ethnicities that are dominant in the units’ home regions. China uses its majority-Han military to maintain order in restive ethnic regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. As both adversaries struggle with inclusivity within their own military structures, the U.S. armed services should recognize that a strong inclusion and diversity policy could be one of the United States’ biggest strategic advantages. If the Sea Services can succeed at implementing the recommendations from TF1N, it will gain a serious asymmetric advantage against its competitors.
How Does this Change the Sea Services’ Posture?
Recognizing the importance of the issue, the Sea Services should consider three issues as they continue to shape their inclusion and diversity policies.
First, service members need to know why inclusion and diversity matter at the level of strategic competition. The Sea Services must teach this as part of diversity training, including the historical role accusations of racism played during the Cold War and how similar accusations are being made today. If junior service members learn how better inclusion and diversity will give us an edge over our adversaries, they will not only gain a greater appreciation for how important their job is, they will also be more inclined to buy into implementing these policies.
Second, commanders need to understand that the stakes are higher than ever. Perhaps for one reason or another in the past, some leaders felt they could tolerate some racist tendencies in their command climates. This was never acceptable, and there was never an excuse for failing to get inclusion and diversity right. But in an age of strategic competition, there is even more reason not to get it wrong. Especially with the prevalence of social media and the speed at which videos can go viral, the Sea Services cannot afford to let any racism or discrimination get a free pass. While Russian and Chinese commanders struggle with their nations’ own diversity issues, Americans in the Sea Services can show that—starting with them—liberal democratic values do deliver for all members of society.
Finally, Sea Service leaders should recognize that inclusion and diversity policies can be a double-edged sword. They can be controversial, and that can mire the services in pointless political debates and sow division. We must avoid the pointless political squabbles over issues like whether certain books on the CNO professional reading list are too “woke.” Arguing over such things detracts from the mission and trivializes the real problems that many sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen face. This is true for both sides of the political aisle—everyone must rise above the pettiness of the political fray and understand the importance of these policies.
The way the Sea Services treat their own people matters immensely for each individual sailor, Marine, and Coast Guardsmen. It matters because it affects how they fight alongside one another and how they come together in times of trial. That is what the CNO means when he says that sailors are the Navy’s asymmetric advantage, and it is likely that the Commandants of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard think the same of their service members. But inclusion and diversity also matter immensely in the context of strategic competition. The Sea Services must continue to push forward until racism and discrimination are eradicated from the ranks. Only then will the Sea Services live up to the ideals of the liberal democracy they protect.