President Putin gave Russia's equivalent of the "state of the union address" today, and in much of the western media the headline quotes concerned Putin's stand in favor of conservative values -- particularly homophobia. While Russia claims not to discriminate against gays, the country has been targeted by gay-rights activists for its law against "propaganda of non-traditional relations." Putin considers this a measure of cultural self-defense against "so-called tolerance" that "equates good and evil."
You wonder what American conservatives make of Russia these days. Putin himself is still distrusted by many who see him as a would-be if not de facto dictator, but some cultural conservatives see him as a rightful ally, presuming the U.S. to be culturally conservative, against Muslims and other bad elements in the world. Not every self-styled conservative in America is a libertarian, and one's opinion of Putin may be shaped less by how much power he seems to have, or how he may abuse it, than by where and when he applies state power or the moral influence of his office. To some, Putin may be a secular counterpart to the African clergy whose opposition to homosexuality leads many Americans, even in the South, to treat them as spiritual leaders. To others, he remains a menacing statist. Whether one conservative recognizes someone else as a fellow conservative depends on what you and he seek to conserve. At the same time, the American and global left may feel tempted to treat Putin as more of a bad guy in all fields of politics than he really may be. The question for everyone is the extent to which the gay-rights question should decide who's a good guy or bad guy politically. A case can be made that the battle for gay rights is the great global civil-rights struggle of the 21st century, the indisputable moral equivalent of past struggles against anti-semitism, apartheid, etc. Whether it's the only necessary struggle of our time, or even the most important, remains subject to debate. A nation's attitude toward homosexuality may properly decide whether individuals will do business with it, but other nations have more to take into account. Americans across the ideological spectrum like to perceive Putin as a bad guy for one reason or another. It will be history's prerogative to decide what he really was, but it's diplomacy's obligation not to make such judgments lightly now. In short, Putin's stance on homosexuality may make the American left more Russophobic now than the American right, but it should no more be a deal-breaker when our nations have common interests, or when he has just criticisms of our policies, than it should make him an unconditional hero to homophobes or those who strangely find him a more macho leader than his American counterpart.