The pending normalization of full diplomatic relations with Cuba is long overdue and it is to be hoped that the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program will survive a congressional onslaught next month. That is all to the good and the administration of President Barack Obama deserves full credit for persevering in spite of nearly incessant attacks from the Israeli and Cuban lobbies both in congress and the media.
But even as the dust begins to settle the New York Times is reporting on a new existential crisis: same-sex marriages in the Foreign Service explored in an article entitled “State Department Fights for Rights of Gay Envoys.” Not that the Gray Lady is opposed to same-sex marriages for diplomats, quite the contrary. Its concern is that many highly qualified diplomats are turning down assignments because some benighted countries do not recognize same-sex unions and therefore do not accept that a man plus man or woman plus woman relationship actually qualifies as a diplomatic family. Which means that some Foreign Ministries are denying visas or accreditation for same-sex spouses. Worse still, as many countries regard homosexual behavior as a criminal offense, it suggests the possibility that some categories of Embassy and Consular family members not covered by full diplomatic immunity might find themselves arrested.
The Obama Administration is predictably outraged and is reported to be frantically working on the problem with the State Department making “securing the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world a priority” (my emphasis). But to my mind the fundamental problem is not same-sex marriage per se, which most Americans now no longer oppose, but the failure to comprehend what Embassies and Consular posts are supposed to do coupled with a characteristic inability to understand that American principles and rules, such as they are, do not have universal applicability. This is particularly true in the case of gay marriage, which impacts on sincerely held religious views and which is still a bone of contention even in the relatively tolerant United States and Western Europe.
Government at the White House level frequently does not understand how the great federal bureaucracies actually work. Contrary to the Times headline, being part of a diplomatic mission is a privilege, not a universal right, and both by law and convention the host country pretty much sets the rules on who may enter and under what conditions.
The article quotes Michael Guest, a gay former ambassador to Romania, who said “It’s increasingly a problem, as some countries have wanted to take a stand on the issue of marriage equality that isn’t really theirs to take.” He is wrong. The Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations stipulates that any country can expel or refuse to accept the presence of a foreign diplomat without providing any reasons whatsoever. Article 9 includes “The receiving State may at any time and without having to explain its decision, notify the sending State that the head of the mission or any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata or that any other member of the staff of the mission is not acceptable.” This is an option that the United States has exercised frequently in espionage cases as well as more recently in refusing to issue a visa to a proposed Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, for which the U.S. is the host nation.
The United States has also somewhat more questionably taken steps to restrict the travels of accredited diplomats with whom it is uncomfortable. Soviet era dips from Eastern Europe and Russia were generally required to get approval for traveling more than 25 miles outside of New York City or Washington and there have been similar restrictions on the movement of both Palestinian and Iranian representatives. So the host country is not obligated to accept anyone else’s standards and can in many respects set whatever rules it wishes within its sovereign territory.
Past U.S. determinations of who or what was acceptable were based on what were deemed to be security issues but the same sex marriage problem is something quite different. To be sure there have been homosexuals in government since the time of Pharaoh Khufu, and the United States Department of State has long had considerably more than its share with the once-upon-a-time understanding that it was best to stay in the closet. This was the rule in post-World War 2 America, both for diplomats and intelligence personnel, and it was largely justified by the danger of blackmail or the creation of diplomatic “incidents” as homosexual activity was illegal almost everywhere. When I served in the Rome Embassy in the 1970s one particularly flamboyant political officer who was almost but not quite out of the closet was generally accepted until he was observed regularly cruising at odd hours in the nearby Villa Borghese Park, leading to his being warned to cool his jets lest he come to the attention of the Carabinieri, who at that time staged regular roundups at gay gatherings to target what was then regarded as public indecency.
But one’s sexual preferences were rarely a problem in Italy back then and even less so now as homosexual relations have been legal since 1890. Civil unions that guarantee property rights, pensions or inheritance without regard to gender do not, however, exist in law, which means there are no same-sex marriages. One imagines that same-sex couples who go to diplomatic posts in Italy do so with a wink and a nod from the authorities at the Foreign Ministry, who are not likely to make an issue out of it. But Italian deliberate ambiguity about what constitutes a marriage is not the norm everywhere else. By one estimate 50% of all Foreign Service posts do not recognize or accept same-sex diplomatic or official couples.
The State Department sensibly insists that all of its employees should be free to accept assignments anywhere in the world, but not so sensibly it has appointed a Special Envoy for the Rights of Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people, both politicizing the issue and turning American diplomats into promoters of personal choices that many foreigners consider immoral as well as illegal. And Congress has predictably jumped on the band wagon with 100 Congressmen (99 Democrats and one Republican) calling on State to reciprocate by denying visas for families of diplomats from countries that discriminate against homosexuals.
In tackling the LGBT issue as a global crusade while also making it a major concern for U.S. embassies the White House and Democrats in Congress are not really doing anyone any favors. Overseas diplomatic missions exist to benefit broad American national interests, not to promote specific group agendas or to confront the host country on its laws and customs. Ambassadors traditionally enabled dialogue and established communications channels among nations while the consular services provided a mechanism to help ensure that American travelers and businessmen would be treated fairly by the local authorities. Having an embassy did not mean that Americans should not be subject to local laws, nor did it serve as a blunt instrument to demand that the foreigners be required to accept American values and customs.
But that vision of diplomacy was all before “democracy promotion,” much loved by Democratic presidents enamored of social engineering, for whom LGBT is almost certainly seen as a subset of democracy. And if past experience of government is anything to go by, this Obama initiative will probably morph into a War on Homophobia under President Hillary Clinton complete with a Czar and a substantial budget to pay for lots of first class travel to hotspots like Copenhagen to participate in conferences convened by gay rights activists.
In truth, the democracy cum human rights agenda has undeniably done a great deal of damage to the United States. It is still falsely cited as the one benefit that came out of the invasion of Iraq and is also used to justify the continued presence in Afghanistan. It led to the unfortunate intervention in Libya, fueled the drive to “do something” in Syria, overthrew an elected government in Ukraine and it is also behind much of the criticism of Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. In reality all the frenetic activity to turn the world into Peoria has produced little beyond trillions of dollars of debt, thousands of dead Americans and quite likely millions of dead foreigners.
And the focus on cultural and social issues is frequently a perversion of diplomacy. Some recent Ambassadorial appointees, to include Michael McFaul in Russia and Robert Ford in Syria, were intended to confront the domestic policies of local governments that Washington disapproved of rather than to engage with them in dialogue. Beyond that, America’s roving mischief makers to include the State Department’s Victoria Nuland and various Senators named McCain and Graham showed up regularly in troubled regions to harass the local authorities. To put it mildly, that is not what diplomacy is all about. Diplomacy is a process whereby no one wins everything while no one loses completely producing a result that everyone can live with. It is not about “We are right. Take it or leave it.”
It is indeed acceptable for a national government to urge greater tolerance as President Obama did on his recent trip to Africa but creating a bureaucracy to assert the global primacy of American values to include what constitutes a marriage benefits no one, least of all those being “protected,” as in many countries that would only serve to enable labeling the sexual dissidents as American agents. And the idea of punishing the families of diplomats from countries that see marriage differently is completely absurd as it will produce retaliation, damaging to genuine American interests and potentially threatening the security of U.S. diplomats overseas.
The entire feel good process of instructing others how to live derives from a peculiar American sense that we somehow understand important things better than anyone else and everyone should follow our lead. It is a dangerous conceit as it breeds resentment and inevitably leads to tit-for-tat responses that serve no purpose. The United States is already viewed negatively by a large part of the world. Adding fuel to the fire by complaining about others’ values while promoting marginal causes that inevitably will be controversial is not what most American citizens should expect from their government. Unfortunately it is all too often what we wind up getting.