“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.
A second point. With widespread support for gay rights having arisen in America only in the last few years, it would be strange for us to claim moral authority over other states. Our own president, after all, opposed gay marriage until 2012, and his multiyear “evolution” on the issue reeked of political opportunism. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) with strong bipartisan support in 1996; our executive branch defended its lawfulness until 2011; and it was only put out of action—by a 5-4 split decision in the Supreme Court, not by a vote in Congress—in June of this year. And this law had real and severe effects on gay Americans—for example, on the binational couple in this video. One of the panelists, former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch, even said that “we had a law...that was as horrible as any law you can ever imagine short of having to kill gay people for being gay...it said you people, because of who you are, will get no federal benefits.... Technically Russia, up until we got rid of DOMA, was better than us on the books. So I don’t think we should have a tremendous amount of arrogance about how we treat our gay people.”
While Birch’s reading of DOMA is rather extreme—and failing to extend federal recognition to gay couples, however wide those benefits may be, is simply not on par with what Russia and other countries are actively doing—it would be strange for us to make Russia’s odious measure a central sticking point in the relationship given our own recent history. Other countries know our views and laws have changed so recently, and will discount our claims of urgency and moral authority accordingly.
Third, we must recognize that the issue of gay rights is laden with cultural baggage. Our foreign policy already asks countries to adopt our political system (heck, we even criticize the human-rights situation in Sweden ). Should it also ask other countries to adopt our culture—indeed, a feature of our culture that very large numbers of Americans (myself not included) still oppose?
This is closely tied to the final point, the practical impact of policy goals like those suggested by Simonyi and Kirchick. If the United States, through legal measures like the Magnitsky Act and through loud public rhetoric, attempts to push other states to become more gay-friendly, will that make life easier or harder for gays in those countries? Will it make their eventual acceptance more or less likely? Audience members at the panel noted that the prospect of Western legal measures is a deeply divisive issue among LGBT activists in Russia for this very reason.
Kirchick and Simonyi suggest that the Russian elite longs to be seen as Western, as civilized, and that they can accordingly be pushed toward the West’s new position on gay rights. Yet opposition to gay rights permeates Russian society—even if the elite moves, much work will remain. And the United States cannot push Russia in a vacuum, with no consequences. There will inevitably be backlash if a country widely perceived as a rival attempts to tell Russia that its values are wrong. Some of the backlash will be legal. Russia responded to the Magnitsky Law by banning adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. European countries that have considered Magnitsky-like measures have been threatened with a similar ban. These adoption bans do far more harm to vulnerable Russians—children seeking adoption—than they do to Americans, who can simply adopt from other countries. Moscow has shown itself willing to cut off its nose to spite its face. If we take firm measures intended to protect Russian gays, we should not be surprised if the Russians take measures that harm them—and Russia has far more power to harm its gay citizens than we have to help them. Among the people, the practical consequence of a Western progay campaign could be even worse. Extreme nationalists are behind the most serious antigay violence. Nationalists, as a rule, do not appreciate other countries telling them what to do. They might only step up their kidnappings and torture.