A brutal civil war is unfolding in Sudan, with opposing military factions engaging in all-out warfare across the nation. The clash between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has its roots in the downfall of the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, when the two forces colluded to support a popular uprising. Now these groups are fighting for supremacy, catching the country in the crossfire. Also entangled in that fracas are Western civilians and the disparate handling of their plights is telling.
Since the crisis exploded, this threat has been ramping up. Tragic stories of woe from Khartoum and its environs have been filtering out. Many civilians from Europe and the U.S. are attempting to flee the chaos; their nationality seems to be playing a role in their success in that endeavor. European nations have successfully evacuated their citizens by air, while the United States has essentially said to its citizens that they should make their own plans and should not expect the help of the American government. This is in spite of the fact that we were able to exfiltrate our embassy personnel without incident. At least 16,000 Americans remain in Sudan, many of whom are struggling to escape a rapidly deteriorating situation. Two Americans have already died during this chaos.
The blasé attitude of the Biden administration in this situation has been galling, especially in light of the swift European response. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated that “It is not our standard procedure to evacuate American citizens living abroad.” The State Department echoed these remarks, saying that it had reached out to Americans in Sudan with recommendations on “security measures and other precautions they can take on their own.” It also seemed to cast blame on those trapped in Sudan, claiming that the U.S. had warned them in advance. This disinterest in the well-being of Americans abroad is deeply distasteful, but not new.
The Biden administration rolled out this same playbook after its calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite initially claiming that only 100 Americans were left in the country after our evacuation, the administration eventually admitted that it had understated this amount significantly. We also left behind nearly 80,000 Afghan allies, abandoning them to hostile Taliban forces. In early April, the Pentagon released a report on the withdrawal, laying the blame entirely on others and claiming that the Saigon-like scenes in Kabul were evidence of a successful airlift. These two events – Sudan and Afghanistan – show a worrying trend in American foreign policy under the Biden administration: a deliberate choice to leave American citizens in the lurch during foreign chaos. This is unbecoming of a hegemonic power, something history demonstrates.
Generally, the citizens of a world-spanning power tend to be protected from abuse abroad by the fact of their citizenship. This dates back to Roman times, when the concept of civis Romanus sum appeared. That statement, which translates as “I am a Roman citizen,” was shorthand for the deterrent effect that claims of Roman citizenship had on violent actors. Everyone knew that ill-treatment of a Roman citizen could bring the world down around them. This is discussed in the Bible in Acts, when Paul is harassed by local authorities:
The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. … Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.Acts 22: 24-29
The fact of Roman citizenship forced Paul’s persecutors to desist; the certainty that the Empire would defend its own made an impact.
About 1800 years later, civis Romanus sum was revivified by a new world hegemon: the British Empire. One of the 19th century’s eminent statesmen, Lord Palmerston, brought the concept back in June 1850 when he addressed Parliament over the Don Pacifico affair. This situation involved British citizens being ill-treated by the Greek government after their property was destroyed. Palmerston saw this as an affront to British honor and the liberal cause of rule of law and sent gunboats to Greece to force a just resolution. In a speech to the Commons, Palmerston evoked civis Romanus sum:
I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.
The Lords strongly dissented from Palmerston’s approach, but the public was enraptured, seeing him standing up for British rights against arbitrary foreign despotism. An article from the Weekly Chronicle of London details this positive response:
Palmerston is the most popular man in England. The crowds that have lined the approaches to the House of Commons to cheer him every evening, and the unanimous support of the Provincial Press shew it. His own defence of his policy has placed him at the head of our Parliamentary orators and established him as the first of our statesmen. The people of England are with him. They will support the Foreign Minister who enables “a British subject to consider himself in foreign countries as protected by the vigilant eye and strong arm of his government against injustice and wrong”; and the Minister who makes their sympathy with constitutional liberty patent to the world.
That assertive approach to defending the rights of British citizens would continue through the Victorian age and was mimicked by other powers, including the United States.
In 1904 America was a rising imperial power, with citizens and commercial interests spread across the globe. When Ion Perdicaris, an American businessman in Morocco, was kidnapped by the warlord Ahmed al-Raisuli, it stoked a major foreign policy crisis. Raisuli demanded major concessions from the Moroccan sultan, threatening to kill Perdicaris if his conditions were not met. President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of State John Hay were outraged and, seeing this as an opportunity to show American resolve before the 1904 election, dispatched a flotilla of warships to the Moroccan coast. The threat of the ships’ guns and the Marines onboard forced the sultan into negotiations. After a break in the talks, Hay sent a famously curt ultimatum to the sultan: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” This forceful warning did the trick, and Raisuli’s conditions were met. Perdicaris was released and Roosevelt had his foreign coup. This bold action showed America’s resolve on the world stage and bolstered its reputation abroad.
The United States is far more dominant in 2023 than it was in 1904 – and it is at least as powerful as the British and Romans were in their heyday. So why have our leaders taken such a passive approach to endangered Americans overseas? This attitude implies that our government does not care about the fate of ordinary Americans when they are stuck in difficult situations abroad. When the administration takes care of its own by evacuating embassy personnel and refuses to do the same for regular citizens, this looks craven. Abandoning Americans to cope with foreign threats on their own will only result in more of those threats; deterrence breaks down when the State displays such ambivalence.
We need a new motto for times such as these: civis Americanus sum. This would entail a reassertion of American values like the rule of law, antipathy toward arbitrary government, and refusal to abandon our own. Not only do we have the ability to uphold these values, we have the obligation to do so. That does not mean a return to gunboat diplomacy – although it would provide a use for those currently-useless littoral combat ships. What it does mean is a determined commitment to defending the rights of Americans abroad when they are threatened or treated unfairly. Americans should not be seen as easy targets and should be able to travel with the knowledge that their nation has their back if danger arises. If American citizenship guarantees anything, it should be this.