The Obergefell Effect: Gay Marriage and US Foreign Policy

No matter what one thinks of the historic Supreme Court decision establishing the right of gay couples to marry, it is bound to have an effect on the conduct of US foreign policy – perhaps quite a substantial one.

The United States is a global empire: what we do impacts the world at large, and especially those countries closest to us, i.e. Europe and the Western hemisphere. While most of Western Europe already recognizes same-sex nuptials, Italy and Germany are holdouts, and the US Supreme Court decision is likely to energize the movement for marriage rights in those countries. Also, as Buzzfeed’s J. Lester Feder points out, Colombia is facing a decision on the issue soon, with their Supreme Court about to decide a case challenging the lack of legal recognition for gay couples. Our own court’s affirmation of gay rights in this area is likely to influence the Colombian decision.

So, on the one hand, this development in the US is likely to draw us closer to our peers in the rest of the world. However, as Stephen Walt puts it, “it is likely to broaden the gulf between states where homosexuality is becoming a non-issue and those where it is still persecuted and even same-sex unions are illegal.”

Three areas of the world where this gulf promises to grow wider are the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Asia, too, is problematic.

Even as gay pride marches took place across the US, and gay people and their supporters celebrated the court’s decision, in Istanbul the police turned water cannons on marchers, driving them into side streets and making a number of arrests. Turkey, a NATO ally, is eager to join the European Union, but if they keep this up the gulf Walt speaks of is likely to grow wider and keep them out. And Turkey is far from alone in this alienation from the West.

The internationalization of the culture war doesn’t bode well for the US presence anywhere in the Middle East. Turkey – a key base for US operations in Syria, and a major military asset for US forces in the region – is just one example. The implications for the rest of our alliances in the Middle East are even worse.

Saudi Arabia, historically the anchor of our regional presence, is already at loggerheads with Washington, and Obergefell vs. Hodges will weaken ties that are already fraying. In the Kingdom, the punishment for homosexuality is death, and hostility to sexual diversity is pervasive throughout this primarily Muslim region. No Middle Eastern country recognizes same-sex unions, and Israel, for all the pink-washing, is no exception. (Although homosexual acts are not illegal in the Jewish state, and gay people are allowed – required – to serve in the military, as are all citizens but for the ultra-Orthodox.)

The effect on our eternal “war on terrorism” may be bigger than anyone now realizes. Obergefell vs. Hodges hands ISIS a propaganda victory on a silver platter: they can now point to the “decadent” West and raise the specter of America’s gay hordes descending on the Middle East to sodomize the pious into submission. While that imagery may be a bit over the top, that’s what war propaganda is all about: projecting disturbing imagery in order to manipulate the gullible. And you’d better believe Islamist propagandists will take full advantage of the opportunity. (By the way, ISIS routinely executes gay people in the most demonstratively brutal manner imaginable: they drop them from tall buildings.)

The idea that “they hate us for who we are” has always rung false, at least to my ears. And yet while the concept of “blowback” – that our foreign policy of global intervention invites reprisal – is still valid, our conflict with militant Islam has grown way beyond that. Now that we are in an all-out military conflict with groups like Al Qaeda and its offshoots, who we are and what we represent in their eyes becomes a major factor in the struggle for hearts and minds.

What this means is that according gays full marriage rights in the US is going to make it that much harder to accomplish the main objective of US military planners, which is to win over the peoples of the region and shrink the radical Islamists’ pool of potential recruits.

The same is true of Africa, where homosexuality is mostly illegal (South Africa being the prominent exception). In Kenya, Uganda, and elsewhere, governments have literally declared war on homosexuality, and are actively campaigning to root it out. As we seek to further militarily penetrate Africa in heedless pursuit of every “terrorist” gang that raises its flag, the identification of homosexuality with colonialism – already a meme in what we used to call the “Third World” – will increasingly prove an obstacle in our path. Ironically, what we might call the Obergefell Effect will also hurt so far tentative US attempts to rein in anti-gay persecution in those African countries where we do have some influence.

Another area where the Effect will be felt is in our relations with Russia, with whom we are already engaged in a fast-accelerating propaganda war. Russia has recently enacted a series of viciously stupid laws targeting gays, and their state propagandists are deploying a version of the homosexuality-equals-US imperialism meme. In the countries of the former Warsaw Pact Obergefell is certain to have an impact.

While the legal status of gays varies depending on whether they live in Poland – where it’s legal – or Ukraine, where being gay is not illegal but can get still you in big trouble, societal hostility to homosexuality is endemic throughout the region. Far-right wing movements in Ukraine and Hungary, already infused with anti-Americanism (for both good and bad reasons) are likely to seize on this – and in Hungary in particular, where the ultra-right is on the rise, this may have a discernible effect on the government’s relations with Washington. A rising neo-fascist party in Greece, the Golden Dawn movement, routinely attacks gay people, both physically and rhetorically, and the generally conservative Greek society is not notably inhospitable to gays. The point is that Russia is currently courting both Greece and Hungary, and it’s conceivable the Obergefell Effect could enable Moscow to use it as a wedge issue.

Eastasia, too, will feel the Obergefell Effect, at least to some extent, especially in countries where homosexuality is both illegal and something of a political issue, like Malaysia. India bans all homosexual acts, as do Bangladesh and Bhutan. Indonesia has no nationwide anti-gay laws, but Muslim provinces are allowed to apply Sharia law and the punishment there for homosexual acts is severe.

What all this means is that the Obergefell Effect will tend to isolate the US precisely in those areas of the world where it is contending to establish hegemony: the Middle East, Africa, southeastern Europe, and, to a lesser extent, Eastasia.

Perhaps the worst impact of the Effect will be inside the United States itself, where policymakers are constantly inventing new reasons to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations. As I pointed out here in 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the US will henceforth be pushing a gay rights agenda on the rest of the world is a recipe for disaster – especially for the people it is supposedly designed to help. Hectoring foreign governments, while preening in a penumbra of our own moral purity, is only going to create a backlash abroad that will hurt the very people we are supposedly concerned about.

Not that this matters to those pushing this agenda: the lack of gay rights in, say, Russia is just another stick to beat Vladimir Putin over the head with, and is aimed at an American and West European audience. Such rhetoric, aside from establishing one’s liberal credentials, is meant to mobilize the liberal public behind Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia and colonize the former Soviet bloc.

And so while supporters of gay marriage are celebrating their victory, they would do well to remember that every burst of sunlight has its darker aspect. Outside the US, the Obergefell Effect will make it harder for Washington to impose its will on the rest of the globe – and, simultaneously, make it more determined to do so. And that does not bode well for the cause of peace.


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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].