After Michael McFaul, the current U.S. ambassador to Russia, announced that he would be stepping down from his post after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, lobbying began quickly for the president to send an openly gay replacement to represent the United States in Moscow. The Human Rights Campaign, the leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender special interest organization in the U.S.,
argues that such a step
“would send a vital message to the world that America’s belief in international human rights is as strong as ever” and “would give LGBT Russians a hopeful diplomatic role model to look to in their own backyard.” Indeed, ambassadorial appointments can sometimes have a dramatic impact on American messaging to local populations, such as sending Gary Locke—the former Washington governor and commerce secretary of Chinese descent, whose low-key style contrasted with the imperial approaches of many senior Chinese officials—as ambassador to China.
Three years ago, gay rights would not have figured near the top of the list of issues that might disrupt the Obama administration’s effort to “reset” relations after the nadir to which they had fallen in 2008—an effort in which McFaul played a pivotal role as former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. Rather, that list would have been dominated by the usual standbys: missile defense, Iran, divergent perspectives on how to react to the Arab Awakening, disagreements over humanitarian intervention and, by the end of 2011, complaints from the U.S. side about the Kremlin’s reaction to protests over the Duma elections and Putin’s return to the presidency.
Gay rights as a central organizing theme of the U.S.-Russia relationship, however, is of much more recent provenance. Prior to 2011, gay rights fell under the more general rubric of civil society issues raised by the United States amid concerns about shrinking space for political and cultural movements that deviated from the Kremlin-approved mainstream. But domestic political concerns in both Russia and the United States propelled this question to the top of the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Running for re-election at a time when the enthusiasm that propelled him to victory in 2008 was much diminished, President Barack Obama began to solidify his support among the Democrats’ traditional bases, and, after carefully navigating the question of gay marriage for years, ultimately came out openly in favor of marriage equality. Legislative and court actions struck down a number of barriers, leading to a transformation where gay rights are now seen by the U.S. foreign policy establishment as part and parcel of inalienable human rights, rather than as a cultural preference where other nations were free to disagree with U.S. standards.
Meanwhile, Putin was moving in a different direction. During his first two terms in office, the rising middle classes tended to be his strongest supporters, seeing in his policies a return to stability and prosperity. Homosexual relations had been decriminalized in Russia in 1993, and the Kremlin, during the 2000s, didn’t seem particularly concerned or interested in the issue. Disenchantment with Putin’s decision to return to the presidency for a third term, however, led to the protests in 2011 and 2012, drawn precisely from those segments of the population that previously had been bedrock supporters of the Putin approach. This has led the Kremlin to focus on developing new bases of support, which, as Andranik Migranyan recently pointed out
, means “consolidating around conservative and traditional values,” namely, “respect to family values, to the church, to state, valuing very highly patriotism and other conservative values.”
In short order, a host of new measures were passed, including bans on spreading “propaganda” about “nontraditional” lifestyles to minors and on the ability of foreign gay couples to adopt Russian children. In turn, there has been a rise in violent attacks against both ethnic minorities and gays, toward which some have claimed the authorities are willing to turn a blind eye. In the international arena, Obama has taken up the role of global advocate for gay rights, while Putin has positioned himself as the defender of “traditional values.” The Sochi Olympics has put this issue squarely in the spotlight, particularly Obama’s decision not to attend personally and to have openly gay athletes headline the American delegation. But when the games are concluded, what next?
The Obama administration has shown a dual track record of making more openly LGBT ambassadorial appointments than previous administrations while also making political appointments of people without diplomatic experience, including campaign donors, at a higher rate than his immediate predecessors. Indeed, as the Washington Post noted
late last year, “The career types have often grumbled about the White House’s penchant for going Hollywood or Wall Street and rewarding what critics think are clueless, fat-cat fundraisers with plum posts.” This is also a crucial election year, with Obama hoping to retake control of Congress for the Democrats for his last two years in office. While the administration will likely eschew an overtly symbolic choice, it might make an effort to find a seasoned foreign service officer or Russia expert who is either gay or on the record as being a strong supporter of LGBT rights and who would have the credentials to carry out the diplomatic mission.
Whether they will do this is another matter. Much depends on the assessment as to whether there is any more progress to be made in U.S.-Russia relations and whether having the right man, or woman, in Moscow will make much of a difference. In the end, the person Obama picks to succeed McFaul will signal how optimistic the president is about whether the relationship with Russia will be seen as a positive or negative foreign policy legacy of his administration.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.