By Brad Settelmeyer
A remarkable scene unfolded in Miami a few weeks ago: hundreds of people were in the streets advocating for action against a foreign government and an elected official called on the United States to militarily intervene and prevent the government from further harming its own citizens.
Cuba was the government in question. Many of the Miami protesters were part of the Cuban diaspora and the official was a mayor of a nearby city. Their response, following a wave of protests and violent government crackdowns in Cuba, was understandable.
Yet it illuminates the glaring disparities in the US response to different foreign conflicts, and the demographic reasons underlying this difference.
Cuba is far from being the only country in crisis. Rebellions against state tyranny and the resulting regional instability are present throughout the world, including in one of the worst conflicts to occur in the Horn of Africa since the Italian invasion of the mid-1930s.
The humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, surpassing the 1983-85 famine, has pitted local insurgents from the Targaryen rebel group against a joint onslaught of Ethiopian and Eritrean Federal Forces. Even regional forces have been contributing troops.
The conflict between the insurgents has gotten so bad that bodies have been reported floating down a river through Sudan.
But US streets were silent and few voices expressed concern for the deadly ongoing conflict. Almost no elected officials promoted US action to help end the crisis, with only high-ranking members from the State Department and various executive offices openly condemning the violence in Ethiopia.
It would seem, from the reaction of citizens and elected officials, that there were no crises at all in the Horn of Africa.
How could this be? How could an armed conflict with hundreds of thousands of people on the verge of starvation be a less pressing issue than a crackdown on protestors?
Geographical proximity might initially explain the US’ greater concern for the Cuban crisis, but this reasoning is thrown out the window in light of the hyper interconnectedness between modern nations. Events in Ethiopia can impact the US just as significantly as those in Cuba.
Demographic data suggests another answer. People who are citizens or have close ties to a nation (called a nation’s diaspora in academic circles) profoundly influence how nations like the US respond to developments in diaspora groups’ home countries.
Cuban diaspora (many of whom fled the Castro Regime in the mid to late 20th century) constitute one of the largest diaspora groups in the United States, totaling around 2.7 million people. In comparison, the Ethiopian diaspora comprises only around 251,000 US citizens. While diaspora groups’ size is just one of many variables, it largely determines their impact on US policy.
Media coverage also reveals how vocal domestic actors can cast global crises in different lights. Let’s look at two headlines from two different news companies, with about a two-week period in between when they were first reported.
A headline from CNN portrays Cuba’s protests as heroic acts of resistance against an unjust justice system. On the other hand, The Hill’s headline blandly states that US President Joe Biden had sent a special envoy to the Tigray region, not specially to deal with the humanitarian crisis but likely a major part of the envoy’s mission.
While the US government can pursue any action it deems fit in response to civil disturbances or humanitarian crises, it should be aware of how the diaspora affects its desire to interject itself into these conflicts. Diaspora groups’ advocacy for change pushes the government into often unwise foreign entanglements in hopes of bolstering its support among constituents.
But while this is a key determining factor in the US’ response to international crises, it cannot fully explain it.
US policy can be counterintuitive: while politicians might have caring words for the Cuban people, they have taken significantly more action on the situation in Tigray. Although executive offices addressed both international crises, the Cuban riots seemed to elicit a strong public response and the Ethiopian crisis a more diplomatic one.
In recent weeks, street protests have been quashed by an authoritarian government, and bodies float down Sundanese rivers. Both are travesties, but one has a more prominent place in the hearts and minds of the American people.
Domestic pressure is key to understanding why the US public considers certain conflicts important for the US to intervene in, and why others do not elicit any response. Issues like the Tigray region crisis are still acted on, but issues garnering a stronger public response clearly result in more vocal responses from the US government.
Keeping this in mind will help savvy predictors distinguish between global issues that will win American rhetoric and those that will actually attract American action.
Brad Settelmeyer is a recent master’s student at Northeastern University and an editor for the Review. His interests include conflict resolution and humanitarian crises.