For decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik has often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women's Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticized its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures.”
Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma.
DOING BAD BY DOING GOOD
Despite its checkered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s—the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colors after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated. There, widespread hostility to gay rights puts the United States in a difficult position. One might argue that just as Washington has aggressively advocated for women’s rights and the welfare of religious minorities across the globe, so too should it consistently and publicly back gay rights, even if that means rebuffing foreign governments. Such a forceful approach, however, contradicts the wishes of many LGBT people actually living in the Arab Middle East.
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