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Do hawks care about gay rights?
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Popular wisdom in the online right has it that US foreign policy hawks really care about gay rights and have made it their mission to promote gay rights around the world. One particularly influential essay is Richard Hanania’s ‘Russia as the “Great Satan” in the Liberal Imagination’, where he claims “foreign policy elites are from the same class that gave us the Great Awokening” and “you should assume that they take their attitudes with them when thinking about international affairs”.
As an aside, I’m not sure whether Hanania still believes what he wrote in that essay as his views about Russia and Ukraine have changed a lot over the past year.
Nonetheless, the main contention of ‘Russia as the “Great Satan” in the Liberal Imagination’ is that the arrest of feminist punk band Pussy Riot in 2012, and the subsequent passing of a law banning “gay propaganda”, was the “turning point” that made friendly relations between the US and Russia impossible.
Although other countries have stricter anti-gay laws, Russian opposition to LGBT “triggers American elites more”, Hanania argues, “because Russia is a white nation that justifies its policies based on an appeal to Christian values”. By contrast, “homophobic Muslims or Africans will never inspire all that much righteous fury in these people”.
Is that what’s going on? While Hanania’s surely right that liberals have a double standard when it comes to Christian versus Muslim homophobia, I doubt that many “foreign policy elites” care much about the arrest of Pussy Riot or the passing of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. I think they hold a negative view of Russia for independent reasons, namely that it openly challenges US primacy and was trying to split the Western alliance.
In this essay, I argue that the apparent pro-gay stance of US hawks is largely explained by factors other than them caring about gay rights. I’m not saying they don’t care about gay rights; some of them probably care a lot. It’s just hard to explain the data if you assume that’s their primary motivation.
As far as I can tell, US foreign policy first became noticeably pro-gay during the Obama administration. In 2011, the president signed a memorandum directing agencies “to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons”. This rhetoric was toned down during the Trump administration, but then dialled back up under Joe Biden. When the latter took office, he signed a memorandum reaffirming efforts to “promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons everywhere”.
US institutions aren’t the only ones that have gone woke on LGBT; NATO has too. In 2017, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted in support of “International Day Against Homophobia”. In 2021, the organisation hosted its “first-ever conference on LGBTQ+ perspectives in the workplace”. And in 2023, Stoltenberg made a video in which he said that “I value every member of the LGBTQ+ community and I am proud to call myself your ally.” This matters because the US wields disproportionate influence within the alliance.
Before considering alternative explanations for US hawks’ apparent pro-gay stance, let’s review the evidence concerning whether they really care about gay rights.
The first thing to say is that not all US hawks are particularly pro-gay. Although the “America First” wing of the Republican party stands against the “Globalist American Empire”, most Republican elites are still hawkish on foreign policy – including against Russia. And they take this view despite caring far less about gay rights.
Mike Pompeo has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “planned genocide” to create a “new Russian empire”. Yet when he was Secretary of State, he banned US embassies from flying the LGBT flag. Lindsey Graham is a fervent Russia hawk, but has opposed federal recognition of gay marriage as recently as this year (even though he himself is possibly gay). The American Enterprise Institute supports arming Ukraine, but has criticised what it calls “LGBT virtue signalling”. Some hawks worry that such “virtue signalling” will undermine US interests.
Put all that to one side. Even the party that claims to care a lot about gay rights doesn’t let such concerns interfere with supposed American interests.
Of the ten countries that received the most military aid in 2021 (the year Biden signed his pro-gay memorandum) four are ones where homosexuality is illegal. Of the ten states that Wikipedia lists as “American allies” in the Middle East, five are ones where homosexuality is illegal. Indeed, the US maintains military bases in half a dozen such countries.
America defended Kuwait against an invasion that might have seen it permanently annexed by Iraq. America toppled Iraq’s government and oversaw the implementation of a new constitution. America did the same thing in Afghanistan and then kept troops there for twenty years. You’d assume that such actions would have bought the US some influence? Homosexuality remains completely illegal in all three countries.
After literally rebuilding two countries’ governments from scratch, America didn’t bother to ensure that homosexuality was made legal – presumably because doing so would have undermined its influence. (Anti-gay laws in the Middle East largely reflect the views of the population.)
Hanania argues it’s only white, Christian homophobia that “triggers American elites”. But as I’ve said, I don’t think that’s true of most foreign policy elites, even if it is true of rank-and-file liberals. I think people like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton care far more about American primacy than they do about gay rights. Both held conservative views on homosexuality until public opinion shifted and it became expedient for them to hold liberal views instead.
What’s more, the Biden administration has been condemning the lack of gay rights in some non-white countries. A few days ago, Biden threatened sanctions against Uganda over the passing of the “Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023”. No sanctions have been threatened against Saudi Arabia or other “strategic partners” in the Middle East, however. As Freddy Gray notes, “if you have enough oil, you get to persecute homosexuals”.
Of America’s five main “enemies” – China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea – only two criminalise homosexuality. Compared to some of America’s “allies” then, Russian laws aren’t particularly anti-gay.
Respect for gay rights can’t really explain why US hawks support Ukraine over Russia either, since the former isn’t much less homophobic. Neither country recognises same-sex unions and both have a constitutional ban against gay marriage. In the latest wave of the World Values Survey, 45% of Ukrainians said they would not want homosexuals as neighbours – which is higher than in both Poland and Hungary. (Though the figure in Russia is even higher.)
So what factors other than caring about gay rights can explain the apparent pro-gay stance of US hawks?
The first is simply that it’s a good excuse to go after regimes like Russia and Iran, which hawks view as a threat to US primacy and which they would have gone after anyway. It doesn’t particularly matter that some US “allies” are as or more homophobic because few people notice the inconsistency.
The second is that it’s an effective way to get liberal voters to support a hawkish foreign policy, as Glenn Greenwald has argued. In my view, this is the main reason for all the pro-gay rhetoric and virtue signalling in US foreign policy. Liberal voters really care about LGBT. So they’re much more likely to support a strong “national defence”, and a continued US presence overseas, if they see those things as a force for promoting gay rights.
Of course, this comes at the cost of lower support among conservatives, who balk at all the pro-gay rhetoric and virtue signalling. But the hawks are ahead of the game: public opinion is shifting further toward gay rights, with younger generations becoming even more pro-gay than older ones.
Hawks also need support from left-wing voters in Western Europe, who have traditionally been hostile to NATO and the US presence there. (When he was young, German Chancellor Olaf Schulz – who recently took the unprecedented step of sending German tanks to Ukraine – railed against the “aggressive-imperalist Nato”.) This article by Lily Lynch shows how NATO used feminist and cosmopolitan rhetoric to win over the European left, and although it doesn’t mention LGBT, I’m sure pro-gay rhetoric has the very same purpose.
My argument isn’t that US hawks are against gay rights; many of them, I suspect, genuinely support things like gay marriage, gay adoption and gays serving in the military. The point is that they care much more about US primacy and their pro-gay stance is largely a means to that end. When the two are in conflict, they invariably come down on the side of US primacy. Which is why they’re happy to cooperate with some of the world’s most homophobic regimes.
Image: LGBT flag on US Embassy in Russia, 2020
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