The Missing Realism of Biden’s Pro-LGBTQ Foreign Policy

The new administration has committed to far-reaching human rights goals that could easily backfire.

People wave a rainbow flag as they celebrate the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in West Hollywood, California, on Nov. 7, 2020.
People wave a rainbow flag as they celebrate the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in West Hollywood, California, on Nov. 7, 2020. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

In nearly 70 countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense. In Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the death penalty is among the punitive legal options for same-sex conduct. In five more countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates—there are conflicting legal arguments about potential penalties, but execution is on the table.

This is rightly considered a human rights dilemma across the West. In the United States, it is also now treated as a foreign-policy issue.

In 2019, U.S. foreign aid to the 11 nations listed above exceeded $7.4 billion with billions of dollars more authorized in arms sales. It may have been with that in mind that President Joe Biden issued a memorandum in February declaring LGBTQ rights a foreign-policy priority. In the memo, Biden directed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights” of the LGBTQ community and to combat foreign governments’ criminalization of it. He also required U.S. agencies to consider the impact of programs on LGBTQ rights when making funding decisions, promised swift responses when rights abuses occur abroad, and ordered a 100-day review to rescind old policies inconsistent with the memo.

This is an impressive litany and consistent with Biden’s campaign promises. And the most direct path forward would be to work with Congress to begin conditioning some foreign assistance and arms sales on the decriminalization of the LGBTQ community around the world. But the administration is also in danger of overpromising. Delivering consistent and effective defenses of global LGBTQ rights is going to be tough—and, in some cases, impossible.

Anti-LGBTQ transgressions are, of course, only one expression of entire political systems devoted to wholesale violations of human rights. In China, millions of Uighurs languish in concentration camps. Iran regularly executes minors and imprisons dissidents, and Tehran-sponsored terrorists routinely attack civilian populations around the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned women protesting their right to drive and charged them with treason, even after the driving ban was lifted. The Kremlin has taken to trying to kill political opponents with internationally banned chemical weapons. It should be little surprise that the regimes that treat such crimes as a legitimate method of securing their domestic authority also include vulnerable LGBTQ individuals among their targets. Indeed, it may be impossible to fully guarantee their protection in any world where such regimes continue to exist.

That’s not to suggest focused efforts to protect LGBTQ people aren’t capable of making a difference. But here, too, the politics are complicated. The current composition of the United Nations Human Rights Council includes three states with the death penalty as an option for same-sex activity, with another 11 having lesser but still criminal penalties. In countries like Yemen, which in 2019 received nearly $700 million in U.S. foreign assistance, the United States possesses powerful leverage. In theory, tying some of that aid to LGBTQ decriminalization could cause meaningful change.

But it’s not that simple. Take the Yemen example: The country has been mired in a devastating conflict since 2015, with 24 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. In the hierarchy of priorities, ending the conflict is the easiest path to saving the greatest number of lives and thus will always be the priority for most citizens and their government. Even if the United States could quickly resolve the humanitarian crisis (a difficult ask), Yemeni society is staunchly anti-LGBTQ—trying do more than just incrementally liberalize Yemen in the midst of famine and conflict will be a Sisyphean task. Many devout Muslim leaders insist their faith is incompatible with LGBTQ rights. While some Islamic groups based in the West have started to adopt a softer tone, globally many have not. The Saudi state security agency has denounced homosexuality as extremism (along with feminism), and the supreme leader of Iran recently stated his belief that “there is no worst form of moral degeneration than [homosexuality].”

Even in Europe, there is a real risk that pushing countries such as Hungary (where same-sex conduct has been legal for decades) to recognize gender changes and same-sex marriage under the law could result in a backlash. (Less than half of Hungarians polled by the Pew Research Center said homosexuality should be accepted by society.) Eastern European culture wars are very real. Indeed, Russia is lurking in the wings and positioning itself as a defender of so-called traditional values in order to exploit U.S. pressure for liberalization to its advantage. For example, laws passed in Hungary in May and December 2020, respectively, that ban legally changing one’s “sex at birth” and define marriage and adoption rights as exclusively heterosexual mimic Russia’s summer constitutional amendments and earlier laws. Standing up for marginalized communities to ensure their safety is a necessary mission, but pushing conservative and divided societies too hard too fast could result in even more regressive laws.

All of this argues for the United States to be thoughtful in its strategy of protecting LGBTQ rights. Trying to force societies to legalize same-sex marriage and gender changes (in addition to decriminalization) is all too often labeled as cultural imperialism. Broader acceptance of these sensitive issues has to happen organically to be successful. After all, the United States itself did not legalize same-sex marriage nationwide until 2015.

Nonetheless, speed bumps on the road to greater global LGBTQ freedoms cannot be an excuse to do nothing, which has generally been the U.S. approach. The right choice is not revolution. Rather, it is finding a ratchet that works: For countries receiving U.S. assistance or purchasing U.S. arms, it is right to demand that the death penalty for homosexuality be put aside. Going forward, more aggressive advocacy may well pay off. Just over seven months ago, Sudan abolished both flogging and the death penalty as punishments for same-sex relations. There is more to do, and the United States should set aside support for local activists who are working to abolish anti-LGBTQ practices.

In the end, human rights promotion must be about marking success, not about political signaling at home. The challenge ahead consists of translating a genuine and legitimate commitment into global policies that work.

Lance Kokonos is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC (AEI).

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