In February, the Kremlin announced that Russia is tightening its ban on same-sex couples adopting Russian children. A new law prohibits single people in countries that allow same-sex marriage from adopting children from Russia, one of the world's largest sources of children for adoption. (Adoptions by Americans were banned early in 2013 for different reasons.) This follows a pattern. Last year, Putin signed a law prohibiting "propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations" that can be seen by minors. Just before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he allowed that gays and lesbians could attend but urged them to "leave the children in peace." At present, a bill is before the Russian parliament that would ban people in "non-traditional" relationships from contracting with surrogate mothers.
Commentators ascribe this moralism to domestic Russian politics, arguing that Putin is shoring up his conservative base of support. No doubt that's true, but that's not the whole story. Putin is thinking internationally as well, positioning Russia to lead an anti-Western coalition along moral as well as geopolitical lines. In a speech last December, he pledged to defend "family values" and reject moral relativism, pointedly observing that this message appeals to "more and more people across the world who support our position."
The message resonates. When it comes to culture, America and Western NGOs are global aggressors. For a long time, we've been promoting contraception and abortion throughout the world. More recently, we've promoted gay rights as well. The U.S. Department of State's Global Equality Fund, dedicated to advancing LGBT rights, is one among many initiatives, some government sponsored, others carried forward by international organizations. In these and in other ways, progressives in the West are carrying the war on traditional culture to the rest of the world. Reproductive rights, gay rights--they're the new White Man's Burden.
The Catholic Church has experienced the cultural aggression of Western progressives. A recent report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child chides the Vatican for failing to adopt "a comprehensive child-rights based approach," which of course means adopting the usual progressive views about gender and sexual morality. Not only does the committee's report require excluding the "discriminatory expression 'illegitimate children'" from canon law, it also expresses concern "about the Holy See's past statements and declarations on homosexuality which contribute to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents and children raised by same sex couples."
This sort of browbeating goes on throughout the world, backed up with the carrot of funds for special projects or the stick of sanctions, including withdrawal of foreign aid. For example, in 2011, David Cameron pledged to cut foreign aid to countries deemed unfriendly to homosexuals.
This new imperialism, like the old imperialism, is bound to create ill will. In response to Cameron's threat, a Ugandan official rejected the "bullying mentality" and said he was "tired of these lectures" that treat Ugandans as "children." Actions have followed. The Ugandan legislature passed draconian antihomosexual legislation. Recently, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a law criminalizing homosexuality. Whatever one thinks of the morality or wisdom of these laws, they're not coming forward in a vacuum. They represent calculated counter-responses to Western pressure. They win praise from those in Africa who see the West as representing unalloyed libertinism. The same is true in the Middle East and elsewhere.
And who can blame them? In early February, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power joined forces with two members of the rock band Pussy Riot to discuss "disturbing trends" in Russia. In 2008, the band participated in a staged orgy designed to mock then-presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev's call for Russian women to have more children. In 2012, in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the band engaged in an uninvited protest performance for which they were arrested and eventually sent to jail.
In itself, the episode at the U.N. was unexceptional. Power is the sort of person who likes to compliment herself for being a progressive among progressives. But an astute foreign observer notes the context. American foreign policy is at present trying to domesticate Iran and salvage democracy in Ukraine, neither of which is possible without Russian cooperation. Thus, the message is clear: When it comes to American foreign policy, our cultural imperialism takes precedence over our geopolitical goals. Power is so confident in the triumphant rectitude of her moral sentiments that she doesn't think twice about the diplomatic costs of promoting the cause of Pussy Riot.
Were I a political leader in Iran, Pakistan, Kenya, or any other country worried about the ways in which rapid economic development dissolves traditional...