“The mistreatment of the LGBT community is rightly viewed as a canary in the coalmine: a warning that democracy has gone off the tracks.” So say Andras Simonyi, once a top Hungarian diplomat, and Jamie Kirchick, a prominent conservative writer, in an essay on how the United States should respond to Russia’s new antigay laws, which have created an uproar in the West. These laws and the upcoming Sochi Olympics have put a spotlight on the treatment of gays in Russia.
Simonyi and Kirchick see laws like this as a fundamental “dividing line between liberal and illiberal societies...a litmus test of societal decency.” “This is going to be the dividing line between grown-up nations and those that will be left behind,” said Simonyi on Friday. Speaking at a panel entitled “LGBT Rights: A Geostrategic Issue for Democracies,” the pair urged the United States to use visa and asset freezes under 2012’s Magnitsky Act against Russian individuals involved in “gross violations” of the human rights of gays. And they warned that Russia intends to use gay rights as a wedge to strengthen its influence in its neighborhood, at America’s expense. “The homophobia of this regime is part of the neoimperialism of the Russian government,” said Kirchick Friday. “They’re using it to stir up anti-EU sentiment in Ukraine right now.... The Putin regime can tell Ukrainians, ‘you wanna protect Orthodox Christianity, you stay with Moscow.’ And he’s using this all throughout the former Soviet space. So this is a geostrategic issue for him, which is why it needs to be a geostrategic issue for us.” One panelist at the Friday event even complained that the State Department “appears to care more about the START treaty [reducing nuclear arms], the Syrian chemical weapons ban, and so forth, than it does about democracy in Ukraine or LGBT rights.”
This kind of approach to gay rights in foreign policy has many problems—problems identical to any human-rights-based foreign policy. First, should we, as the last panelist suggested, place the human rights of foreigners on foreign soil on par with grave issues like the threat of weapons of mass destruction? Are gay rights, and human rights more broadly, truly “geostrategic”? Second, do we as a country have the moral standing on gay rights to create, as the panelists repeatedly suggested, “teaching moments” with other states, with us in the role of teacher? Third, a closely related matter: do we intend to internationalize a newly acquired feature of our culture? Fourth, the most important of all, would Kirchick and Simonyi’s approach actually improve gay rights in places like Russia?
Those who advocate a prominent role for human rights in American foreign policy usually embrace a common argument—that disrespect for human rights at home is a warning sign that a country will promote instability beyond its borders, while countries pushed to respect human rights will behave more constructively. Thus, for instance, the Rwandan genocide was followed by a bloodletting throughout the African Great Lakes region, with the Rwandan government (drawn from the side of the victims) an active sponsor of violence in neighboring states. Thus, Saudi Arabia rules repressively at home and supports Islamic extremism abroad. Thus, Nazi Germany went from Kristallnacht to launching a continental war and an international campaign of genocide.
Yet human rights remain separable from international aggression. Even a human-rights-free approach to international security is plausible—for example, if the United States were to ignore domestic human-rights violations altogether, but respond forcefully and resolutely to aggression across borders, the world would surely not come to an end. And human rights certainly deserve a role in U.S. foreign policy. Our closest allies share our values; relations with allies that don’t are testier and more reversible. We would like to think of ourselves as a force for good in the world, and our global leadership is strengthened when other states see us as a lawful, fair and generally benevolent power. Yet that doesn’t mean that we must make human rights a central priority, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should be willing to put vital interests like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons on equal footing with them.
In the case of gay rights, all this is even clearer. Kirchick and Simonyi’s claim that gay rights are a “canary in a coal mine” for democracy is questionable. Most democracies for much of their history have had antigay laws that were backed by antigay cultures. It is a moral outrage, for example, that Britain’s sodomy laws drove a national hero, computer scientist Alan Turing, to suicide. Yet Britain at the time was a stable and fully democratic country, and it was a reliable ally of the United States. We zealously punished and marginalized gay Americans for decades—and committed more serious and systematic abuses against African Americans, Japanese Americans, and others. Yet to argue that the United States was not a democracy prior to, say, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011 is mere dogmatism.