Militarism and violence, personified in nuclear weaponry and national flags. Cold, calculated decisions made by men seated across from each other at round tables. These images have characterized foreign policy, especially in the modern era. But how might a new perspective on international affairs change our world? Enter the concept of feminist foreign policy: a framework calling for diplomatic relations, aiming to promote marginalized women on a global scale.
A Feminist Foreign Policy
Women have historically been disenfranchised and disregarded on an international level, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these gender divides. The virus has ravaged social and economic settings alike, which has disproportionately impacted women. On a worldwide level, women are more susceptible to job losses than their male counterparts; while they make up 39% of the global labor force, they account for 54% of workplace layoffs. During the pandemic, trends such as these have largely occurred due to existing systemic inequalities between men and women; given that many occupations are segregated along gendered lines, women undertake a disproportionate amount of the burden of domestic work, which can otherwise be dubbed as “unpaid care.” Job losses are highly concentrated among these gendered occupations, and childcare responsibilities force women out of the workforce and back into the home. When women are excluded from the market, they are excluded from foreign affairs decision-making spaces — and remain disregarded when their countries facilitate international affairs strategies based on power and the economy.
Today, many movements to support gender equality are performative in nature, failing to address the systemic violence against women worldwide — especially on an intersectional level. In today’s era of the Internet and social media, performative activism — or activism done for the purpose of increasing one’s social capital — is on the rise. For the majority of the public, the feel-good dopamine hit of supporting an important cause is a mere click or retweet away — emphasizing one’s personal alliance with a cause without meaningfully reforming and dismantling problematic power structures. Social media has become a setting through which activism-themed posts are shared — posts that “bring attention” to particular issues while failing to address more fundamental concerns. With regard to the global feminist movement, social media users have tended to ignore the gendered violence that is intrinsic to governmental systems across the world, lauding the physical beauty of the women in their own lives instead of instigating purposeful change.
A feminist foreign policy champions a women-centric worldview in the international affairs realm, asserting that the experiences of women across the globe should be a centremost consideration in the formation of global affairs decisions. The concept accounts for the experiences of women along all intersections of identities — including, but not limited to, race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and religion. Specifically, the framework identifies and validates the continued oppression of women worldwide under patriarchal structures of colonialism, militarism, capitalism, and heteronormativity, arguing that affairs on an interstate level must thoroughly consider the systemic marginalization of women under many of the globe’s dominant social systems.
Furthermore, a feminist foreign policy calls for a shift in the issues of interest to policymakers in international affairs spaces. Although both literature and practice have historically conceived of global policy topics as aggressive and militaristic, a feminist foreign policy champions a more holistic perspective, advocating for the consideration of the common people in international affairs decisions. Scholars in this field note that modern international affairs tends to prioritize high competition and focus on national prosperity, rather than conceptualizing the ways in which that ideal of “prosperity” might practically look for the members of a given nation — especially those currently marginalized. National wealth and prestige might ward off potential adversaries, but with that affluence may very well come high levels of inequality on the domestic level — inequality that is detrimental, and even deadly, for oppressed populations. A feminist foreign policy recognizes these structural barriers, urging states to formulate global affairs strategies that prioritize their people.
Progress on implementing a feminist foreign policy has been mixed. To date, a diverse variety of states have explicitly acted to integrate women into their global affairs strategies, and the number of those states have been steadily increasing. The action taken by these nations includes racial justice initiatives, economic empowerment programs, and non-governmental organization partnerships. Still, this progress points to gaps between the tangible reality and the idealized future, outlining goals that might be adopted by other countries looking to increasingly accommodate women.
Despite difficulties at-large on the global affairs stage, many countries have successfully adopted a feminist foreign policy. In 2014, Sweden officially announced that its foreign policy would actively prioritize gender equality, outlining a value system which has angled its international affairs decisions towards gender equality for the past seven years. Under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, the nation announced its commitment to rights, representation, and resources for women worldwide. Notably, the Swedish government was explicit in denoting its newly adopted policy as feminist, and condemned the systemic political, social, and economic violence against women throughout the globe. Although at the time, the Swedish proclamation of a feminist foreign policy was considered unsound and unorthodox, their bold approach has paved the way for a broader global commitment to gender equality at-large.
Since Sweden’s initial policy change, many other states have followed suit. In 2017, Canada announced its Feminist International Assistance Policy, a document outlining both broad values and specific goals regarding its approach to worldwide gender empowerment. 2020 saw the launch of Mexico’s feminist foreign policy, as well as commitments by France and Luxembourg to pursue similar routes. On a worldwide scale, the framework was initially met with suspicion and uncertainty, but as prominent global actors undertake these commitments, foreign policy at-large is shifting towards a more thorough accommodation of women.
On the global level, the commitment to a feminist foreign policy has become increasingly tangible and strategic. In 2016, the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy was launched, and began conducting work on policy initiatives that have advanced the role of women in global affairs spaces. The CFFP recognizes the connections between women and climate justice, and continues to publish resources and host conferences that emphasize the importance of this convergence. They address feminism from an intersectional perspective, championing the rights of women of color who have been historically disenfranchised by their governmental systems. Today, their work synthesizes many of the urgent issues surrounding feminist foreign policy and its implementation worldwide.
Despite these developments, global affairs spaces of today often fail to explicitly accommodate women. Men disproportionately occupy positions of power in the international relations field, and the voices of women are rarely present during vital policy conversations. Furthermore, the dominant relational frameworks upheld by intergovernmental organizations are profit-minded and militaristic, favoring utility and prestige over equity and social progress. In order for a practical and effective feminist foreign policy that works for underrepresented global actors to be realized, meaningful change must be enacted on a worldwide scale.
In order to promote a feminist foreign policy, the international affairs space at-large will need to significantly shift its broad values and structures. Rather than continuing a foreign policy structure that facilitates an antagonistic rat race between powerhouse countries, and champions militaristic solutions to global issues, states on the world stage must actively advocate for marginalized peoples everywhere — especially women and BIPOC. Many of this framework’s general principles include combatting global poverty, dismantling systemic racism, and employing the private sector in the fight for gender equality. Tangibly, such value shifts might manifest in supporting (or even authoring) documents such as the Women, Peace, and Security Resolutions, which provide funding to oppressed subpopulations, hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable, and facilitate women’s participation in peace efforts.
However, a feminist foreign policy cannot merely be based in abstract ideals; it must correspond with lived reality, and actively rectify the harm that non-feminist approaches have already caused. Prominent actors on the world stage have long been perpetrators of violence, colonialism, and other hardline tactics whose effects have been felt on a worldwide level. An approach grounded in practicality must acknowledge the shortcomings of the past, and engage in active dismantling of systems of oppression. To promote climate justice, it must recognize the climate injustices that have already been done, especially in a world motivated by profit and production. In the fight for women’s equality, it must account for the years of social, political, and economic marginalization that women have endured, and address questions regarding the rights and opportunities of the future from an intersectional perspective.
The United States does not currently have a feminist foreign policy, but scholars in the international affairs field suggest that such a framework might be beneficial. According to the International Center for Research on Women, the United States must first tangibly deliver on the recognition that women’s rights are human rights, and then advocate for the liberation of women worldwide. Internal processes concerning American foreign policy must be thoroughly representational in nature, and women, especially women of color, must be present in relevant decision-making spaces — especially in a country with as much international prestige as the United States. A truly feminist foreign policy should also promote bodily autonomy, and declare the importance of women’s personal agency in the realm of sexual and reproductive rights. Finally, these principles must coalesce into support for environmental justice, especially as women continue to bear a disproportionate amount of the hardships of climate change. Women are often marginalized in the fight for increased environmental consciousness, as they represent a disproportionate majority of the world’s poor and are relatively highly reliant on scarce natural resources.
Formulating a feminist foreign policy must be an explicit move on the part of any nation, requiring bold, direct action. A feminist foreign policy necessitates a shift in values and a transition from militaristic to diplomatic tactics in dealing with actors on the world stage. It must be cultivated intentionally, with an intersectional perspective on the inherent rights and liberties of women. Although such a policy has not yet been seen on a global scale, the progress made by a variety of countries throughout the world facilitates optimism about the future.