The Flag Stands Alone

Flying Pride flags at U.S. embassies abroad is a counterproductive, divisive practice which privileges domestic constituencies over national interests.

It’s June, which means that Pride Month is upon us. If you haven’t noticed the public virtue-signaling yet – whether it’s from woke corporations, police departments, or even sports teams – I’d suggest you get your eyes checked. Rainbows abound, as do the increasingly militant demands and exaggerated claims of LGBT activists across the country. Conservatives have pushed back against these progressive aims, with varying degrees of intensity and success. In short, the month of June has become a full-on culture war. Still, all of this domestic cultural strife is par for the course, although it has ramped up in intensity as of late. What is truly disturbing, however, is how this divisive cultural progressivism has infected our foreign policy.

“Politics stops at the water’s edge” is an old, idealistic adage that has more often than not been ignored throughout American history. Politicians of all stripes tend to use American presence abroad – in peace and war – to elevate their domestic policies and ideas. For instance, the 1790s Quasi-War against France had as much to do with internal arguments between factions headed by Jefferson and Adams as it did international relations. Presidents past and present have harshly critiqued the foreign policy of their predecessors, with some going so far as to criticize America itself abroad – see President Obama’s remarks during his early time in office, for example. Clearly, this is not a new phenomenon.

What is far less common, and thus more concerning, is the export of controversial cultural ideologies from the sphere of domestic debates to that of global affairs. And that brings us back to Pride Month.

Under the Biden administration, American embassies around the world – from the Holy See to Papua New Guinea – have raised the LGBT flag to fly just beneath that of our country for the month of June. Oftentimes, this is not the rainbow flag of yore, but the so-called Progress Pride flag – a celebration not only of same-sex attraction, but of radical racial and gender ideologies. This version of the flag was raised by Ambassador Eric Garcetti over our embassy in India, to name just one location where this contentious culture war issue was promoted on par with the symbol of the nation itself. The flying of these flags – and any other than that of the United States – on the premises of U.S. embassies abroad was prohibited under Mike Pompeo during the Trump administration. The Biden team revoked this policy, allowing these flags to fly alongside that for which hundreds of thousands of Americans have sacrificed and died over the past two and a half centuries.

In this policy, the prior administration had it absolutely correct: the American flag should stand alone at the top of the flagpole at U.S. embassies across the world. There are many reasons for this stance, most of which are not solely applicable to the Pride flag, but also other designs. As any vexillologist will tell you, flags are inherently political and have been since their very creation. Flags symbolize communities, whether they are religious, local, identitarian, cause-based, or national. They are intended to send a clear message to the observer about the community they represent; essentially, flags are a form of branding. Embassies are also part of the national brand-building process, as they are the physical manifestation and representation of the nation overseas. These buildings serve as a focal point for our diplomatic efforts and symbolize our national interests and values, especially through the flags they fly.

The Stars and Stripes – symbolizing freedom, human rights, economic liberty, prosperity, innovation, and openness – is our national brand. These values, which have been critical to the nation since its founding, resonate around the globe with people who seek their own version of the American Dream. There is no need to supplement that powerful, clear image, and there is no place for its dilution with other, competing political symbols. These political messages are often contentious and driven by domestic concerns and constituents; they have no role whatsoever in international diplomacy. Our embassies are intended to promote America to foreigners in their own lands, not to signal to political lobbies in Washington.

Although flying Pride flags and promoting gender ideology abroad takes up media attention and makes Democrats look good to their base voters, it distracts from very real issues that are brushed aside. It also showcases the Biden administration’s blatant hypocrisy in its statements versus its actions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement commemorating Pride Month placed the “otherization” of LGBT people at the core of “authoritarian power grabs and attacks on institutions of democracy globally,” linking political legitimacy with cultural attitudes on everything from gay marriage to transgender surgeries for minors. Despite this lofty rhetoric, the Biden administration has continued to negotiate a sweetheart nuclear deal with Iran – a nation which executes or forcibly transitions gays. This is but one example of the blatant hypocrisy which undermines the purported seriousness of the Biden administration’s message.

The Progress Pride flag flying over the American embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

The political ideologies represented by symbols like the Progress Pride flag are often even more controversial abroad than they are at home. Because of this disconnect, endorsing these symbols as on par with the American flag itself is entirely counterproductive. It is virtue-signaling that focuses on imagery over action and promotes the hobbyhorses of American progressives over the cultures in which our embassies reside. Those foreign cultures are almost always more conservative than our own, especially that of American leftists. Flying these flags over our embassies alienates local audiences, who see the U.S. as shoving our own progressive ideology down their throats. That antagonism makes it harder for us to properly advocate for the incremental improvements in human rights which have actually benefited these marginal populations.

Regions like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are not going to be transformed into progressive utopias overnight, so piecemeal progress is the best we can reasonably hope for. If the U.S. wishes to defend human rights abroad – a noble and deeply American prospect – we need to adapt our approach to the culture that we are trying to influence. That means focusing on concrete steps to improve the lives of those on society’s margins instead of flying radical flags and pushing woke ideology that is only uncontroversial on a left-wing college campus. Progressive cultural imperialism is not the way to win hearts and minds.

A case-in-point is Papua New Guinea, which is a highly Christian nation with very socially conservative views – a prime target for the State Department’s flag crusade. The Pride display at the embassy in Port Moresby so alienated locals that the embassy had to ask demonstrators against it to refrain from violence. This not only botched any potential we had for pushing the Southeast Asian nation towards a less-harsh LGBT policy, it also hurt America geopolitically. Papua New Guinea is a key strategic nation in the Sino-American competition and unforced errors like this one diminish our ability to advance American interests in the region. Diplomats in Beijing are licking their lips greedily at the opening the Biden administration has left them.

We need to prioritize American national interests when dealing with international diplomacy, especially on the ground in foreign lands. Diplomats must leave the divisive social politics and culture warring to the home front and focus on their job: representing the American people – all of them – abroad. That means promoting the uncontroversial ideas that America has stood for over the past two centuries, the values symbolized by the Stars and Stripes. We cannot afford distractions when it comes to foreign policy, especially in such a tumultuous geopolitical age. It is beyond time that we refocus, reprioritize, and reset our diplomacy. Raise the flag and embrace our shared values, but let its message stand alone.

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