Cultural Bias Clouds US Policies on Weapons of Mass Destruction

It's a problem that exists across the global security establishment, and we're headed in the wrong direction.

By Bonnie Jenkins

Inkstick Media publication.

Many recent US policies regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use and proliferation involve not only Russia but countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria and in some cases China, India, and Pakistan. The US also has many WMD threat reduction programs, to prevent WMD terrorism, in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The multitude of these policies and programs are focused on regions of the world that are populated by people of color. At the same time, few people of color take part in the decision-making on those policies and programs, or in the implementation of those programs. A logical and yet rarely asked question, particularly by those making plans, is how our processes might be different if there were significant input by people of color? If one were to apply a cultural lens to WMD issues, what might one see that is different? The question is a challenging one because, as of now, significant diverse lenses are not in those discussions.

Weapons of mass destruction issues, whether arms control, nonproliferation or threat reduction, have as their background a foundation in science, whether biology, nuclear physics or chemistry. As such, there is a tendency to believe that scientific knowledge is required to work in these fields. This belief may also lead one to assume that the decision-making regarding these issues is secondary to the science. In this view, the limits of science will dictate discussions on WMD related policies, and one’s background, cultural perspectives, and personal histories are not, therefore, a significant factor. However, while science may dictate the parameters of policy discussions, decisions are also based on political, financial and other factors. Importantly, the perspectives, cultural background, and biases of those taking part in discussions are an inherent part of the policies agreed to and decided.

When engaged in most policy discussions, policymakers do not often consider or factor in how their positions on issues are affected by the biases they hold. Most people would like to believe they have no prejudices, notably none that would influence their decisions on policy. People making decisions not only do not know that this is an issue but do not know that their viewpoints and culture are themselves shaping the positions they take. Unconscious biases can affect the process of discussions, as well as the final decisions made.

Horace McCormick noted in “The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace” in 2015 that there is a universal tendency toward unconscious bias because bias is rooted in the brain. “In other words, our brain evolved to mentally group things to help make sense of the world.” Unconscious bias occurs because we have prejudices that we may be unaware, mainly when those biases are unchallenged. Not having diverse perspectives in the room means the history of US decision making on WMD has lacked a cultural lens. With this factor in mind, one should ask, what are the beliefs of those in the room regarding these countries? How do those biases affect discussions? Would those decisions be different depending on the presumptions the policymaker has of that country or the people of that country? While we cannot determine how past choices on WMD policies, or others US foreign policies for that matter, may have been different had there been significant people in the room who represent diverse cultural perspectives, it is not too farfetched to assume that a decision may have been different had there been different cultural lenses present. Unfortunately, we may never know. In 2018, we still do not have many examples to help us test that theory on WMD issues.

Maybe it is easier to consider what we possibly lose if we do not have policies that benefit from a cultural lens in the future. We should ask ourselves, what potential strategies are not pursued in developing a plan regarding India, for example, when there is a lack of voices from India or the diaspora at the table? What are the unforeseen avenues for addressing a problematic global issue that might not even be raised in the discussion, because those at the table do not have a varied perspective? How can we possibly be sure that the policies we are adopting on critical global issues are the best and have the most likely chances for success as well as sustainability? Just the fact that we are dealing with people from a different culture whose perspectives are not ours, and who have their own cultural biases, would speak to a need to understand those cultures better in our deliberations.

Unfortunately, the numbers show that the US policymaking establishment on issues of global affairs is going in the wrong direction. US government entities such as the Department of State face a substantial lack of people of color at the decision-making level, including those with the rank of Ambassador. People of color make up only about 10% of the Senior Executive Service ranks and approximately the same percentage in the Senior Foreign Service. In a recent article, “White and Male: Trump’s Ambassadors Don’t Look Like the Rest of America,” Robbie Gramer and Jefcoate O’Connell note that of the 119 Ambassadors Trump has nominated to date, 91% are white. An improved cultural representation at think tanks and other institutions that feed into the policymaking process is also essential, including in Congress, where the number of people of color who serve as top House and Senate staff is also quite small.

There remains an untapped wealth of knowledge from people of color who can help provide substantive expertise and a cultural lens to our policies. Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) is, for example, developing a listserv of diverse individuals who can be engaged on issues of peace and security, including WMD. The US will only increasingly face global challenges where different lenses are needed, including in the areas of climate change, infectious disease, and weapons of mass destruction. There needs to be a willingness to step aside to allow more diverse voices in the room. We need to see if there are unique ways to approach a policy decision, particularly since choices we make today have a significant impact on the future actions and decisions of others. At the very least, all policymakers can benefit from a better understanding of their own unconscious biases to help ensure they are aware of how their perspectives impact their input on WMD and other global threat policy discussions.

Bonnie Jenkins is the founder and president of the Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) nonprofit organization. She is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of Global Connections Empowering Global Change LLC.

Bonnie Jenkins