A Feminist Foreign Policy

Last Tuesday the Swedish ambassador to Austria and the permanent representative to the international organizations in Vienna gave a presentation on Sweden’s foreign policy. Yeah, I know you’re thinking–another empty suit regurgitating prefab boilerplate. Yawn. But this was a rather unusual presentation for the standards of Viennese diplomacy (which is a lot like the standards of diplomacy everywhere else–a bunch of greying men debating the future of the world). First of all, it was an all-female panel and secondly, the topic was Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.

You see, upon taking office in 2014, Sweden’s prime minister announced the country’s (the world’s, for that matter) “first feminist government“. In the meantime, a fitting feminist foreign policy has been developed. On Tuesday, Ambassador Eduards outlined the Swedish Foreign Service action plan for feminist foreign policy 2015–2018 and its six focus areas for 2016 according to which the Foreign Service plans to contribute to all women’s and girls’:

  • Full enjoyment of human rights by strengthen the human rights of women and girls in humanitarian settings;
  • Freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence by combating gender-based and sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations and impunity for such crimes;
  • Participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peace building by promoting the participation of women as actors in peace processes and peace support operations;
  • Political participation and influence in all areas of society by promoting the participation of women and girls as actors for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development;
  • Economic rights and empowerment by strengthening the economic empowerment of women and girls and their access to economic resources, including through productive employment and decent work;
  • Sexual and reproductive health and rights by strengthening the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and young people.

Intrigued by Ambassador Eduards’ presentation, I looked for more and quickly turned up a powerful presentation by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström last March. She begins by contrasting the fate of what was at the time Sweden’s newest prince [1] and a baby born at about the same time in Bumbu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The cards are clearly stacked against the latter:

I think the DRC is an illustration of the need for a feminist foreign policy. Why? Because this is what we can report about the situation for women and girls in that country. It is extremely difficult. In short, there is a very clear patriarchal system in the rural areas as well as in the cities where women and girls have a subordinated position. They are underrepresented in all positions of power. They have fewer resources. Their health is worse. They have access to less education. They have less influence. And they are exposed to gender-related violence much more often than boys and men. The law states that the man is the head of the family and woman should obey, and this of course has effects on girls’ and women’s real possibilities to exist and work on the same conditions as men and boys in society. There has been over the years a focus on sexual violence against women and girls in the conflict areas in the eastern DRC, but actually study after study shows that men’s violence against women, also domestically, is the most common form of gender-based violence. Women’s participation in political processes is low at all levels. In the national parliament 9% are women and ministers are less than 15%. And women who participate in political life are often seen as a bit…you know.

Minister Wallström then introduces her country’s foreign policy and argues for its relevance (emphasis mine):

Academia now tells us that the feminist foreign policy is considered to be an extremely strong brand. But the feminist foreign policy is more than a brand. What is important is the realization that gender equality is not a women’s issue, but a make-or=break issue. It is a make-or-break issue in itself and for peace, security and sustainable development as a whole. A feminist foreign policy therefore defines gender equality also as a peace and security issue.

The truth is that oppression, violence ans systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls all over the world. And as you heard, there are examples in every field. One in three women worldwide have experience physical or sexual violence. Every day, more than 39,000 girls under 18 become child brides. A daunting majority of all countries have at least one legal difference between women and men, limiting women’s opportunities. And when I talk about our feminist foreign policy and what it is all about, I try to encapsulate it by referring to the three Rs: rights, representation and resources.

  • Firstly, respect for human rights and rule of law constitute a starting point for every discussion about gender equality ensuring women’s rights and access to justice must be seen as central in achieving the overall human rights agenda.
  • Secondly women must be represented at all levels of society, in parliaments, local authorities, at the negotiating table, in board rooms and in peacekeeping missions to name but a few.
  • And thirdly, resources must be distributed evenly.

These presentation were still fresh on my mind when I attended a panel discussion with the UN Secretary-General the next day on the status and prospects of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in particular as well as disarmament and nonproliferation in general. After going in circles for the better part of an hour on two intractable issues [FN2], an audience member posed the following question:

Women are key in peace building, peacekeeping and security. How can we bring more women to the table in order to achieve greater levels of disarmament and enter the treaty into force?

Suddenly it occurred to me that this whole business of nuclear weapons and the general reluctance to stop testing, to say nothing of getting rid of them, is the doing of a bunch of men. It was men who decided to pursue bombs in the first place, mostly men who built them, men who decided to use and test them and men in charge of the governments who drag their feet and block progress. The victims of nuclear weapons explosions and nuclear testing are not just men, however, but women and children, who, though they make up most of the world’s population, are never consulted.

Feeling, I suppose, somewhat out of its element, the mostly-male panel punted to the UK ambassador, Susan le Jeune D’Allegeershecque, who noted:

A question about bringing in more women probably shouldn’t be answered by a women. I think it’s a problem across the whole of the security landscape. I mean, looking around this room there is a reasonable number of women here but this is not typical. I think it is something which has to start very early on, impressing on girls when they’re at school that this is not a boy’s subject, that we all have a role to play, that we all have a responsibility is absolutely key. But there is something about feeling uncomfortable if you are the only woman or one or two women in a room full of lots and lots of men, and it’s only when you start to build up a critical mass that everybody begins to feel more comfortable. […] But I also think across history, peace building, conflict resolution, conflict prevention, have been most successful when women have been part of those efforts.

The international community acknowledged as much in 2000 with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which emphasizes participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. While progress ought to be acknowledged, male-dominated foreign (and, for that matter, domestic) policies continue to dominate peace and security outcomes the world over. In light of this dubious track record, I’d say it’s high time to make (more) room at the table for perspectives that have traditionally been disregarded, even if you can’t bring yourself to label what you do as “feminist”. Otherwise, you might end up with this as America’s future foreign policy.

 

[1]: In the meantime another has been born! See here for my treatment of the process that got that ball rolling.

[2]: How to persuade the remaining states whose ratification is necessary to do the right thing and allow the treaty to enter into force? What to do about North Korea’s nuclear testing?

 

Comments

  1. wreddyornot says:

    I’d say it’s high time FOR MALES to make room at all tables for FEMALES and to quit worrying about labels and to treat people with love and respect. Males includes deity in our faith. Nice job, though, reporting on all this.

  2. Happy to see BCC cover this topic, as one of the few Mormon international women’s issues specialists!

  3. Clark Goble says:

    I think having more women is fantastic. I think people assume the women will be what they want. More likely they’ll be women following foreign policy goals and methods more along the lines of Margaret Thatcher or our forthcoming neocon President, Hilary Clinton.

  4. When your article shifted to the topic of the panel discussion, there are a lot of assumptions here presented that are independent of fact. For example, you cite a speaker stating:

    “Women are key in peace building, peacekeeping and security. How can we bring more women to the table in order to achieve greater levels of disarmament and enter the treaty into force?”

    The unquestionable assumption behind this question is that women in positions of power or influence would result in a decrease in conflict and a deescalation of nuclear threat. But that truly is only an unproven assumption.

    In fact, the raw data suggests that the assumption may be wrong. For example, quoting from NYMag:

    “Psychologist Steven Pinker, for instance, wrote in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, “Over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force.” But how much of that is true? After sifting through historical data on queenly reigns across six centuries, two political scientists have found that it’s more complicated than that. In a recent working paper, New York University scholars Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish analyzed 28 European queenly reigns from 1480 to 1913 and found a 27 percent increase in wars when a queen was in power, as compared to the reign of a king. “People have this preconceived idea that states that are led by women engage in less conflict,” Dube told Pacific Standard, but her analysis of the data on European queens suggests another story.”

    To be fair, it is also not as simple as the idea that women tend to be more warlike than men (the authors of the study themselves hypothesize about several other potential causes for the result — including division of responsibility with their spouses), but the takeaway is that the idea that women’s political power and influence brings about more peace cannot be accepted axiomatically.

    I would prefer to see additional data to support the allegation that “across history, peace building, conflict resolution, conflict prevention, have been most successful when women have been part of those efforts.” Right now, the data (with admitted limitations) seems to be pointing towards the opposite conclusion.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    The underlying assumption often is that feminism is empowering of women and empowering women will lead to widespread adoption of liberal policy. That this is actually rather demeaning towards the diversity of women tends to get lost. It’s why so many American women don’t self-identify as feminists. (Depending upon poll typically only around 20% of women consider themselves feminists – a staggeringly low number when one thinks about it) So long as a narrow conception of liberalism is so wrapped up with feminism the very framework is problematic precisely because it devalues or rejects to the margins so many women.

    That’s why I mentioned Thatcher and (as we’ve seen with the Sanders movement) Clinton. Both simply don’t fit into the stereotype of feminism. Both are divisive figures yet unarguably fit many feminist ideals. Thatcher in particular broke into a man’s world at a time it was far more difficult to do. Further even before she did so she was a chemist with a strong career of her own. Clinton has perhaps a more checkered past yet is far more embraced by feminists as an ideal. However again it’s worth noting just how at odds with the above her foreign policy is. I think it’s unarguable that the line between liberal interventionism and neoconservative policy is thin at best. (Often the difference seems to reduce to how much France and Germany are included in decision making)

    I’d add that while it’s fine to bring up the horrible human rights that still exist in so much of the world, one’s aims don’t mean much unless one succeeds in changing the situation of people in these situations. That is consequences not lofty goals are what matter. How one combines limited intervention with changing the situation on the ground in countries like Afghanistan or Congo isn’t quite clear. (And I say that as someone very, very skeptical of nation building – as our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate)

  6. John Mansfield says:

    “One in three women worldwide have experience physical or sexual violence. Every day, more than 39,000 girls under 18 become child brides.”

    Without idealizing marriage of 17-year-olds, it can still be recognized that for the bulk of them, entering marriage is not an assault on their human dignity worthy of juxtaposition with physical or sexual violence. That someone included 17-year-olds in the tally of child brides indicates that someone was trying to boost the numbers, or had no good way of separating out older teens from the statistics.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    John I think it’s fair to have as an aim that countries in the process of modernizing adopt many of our social norms towards marriage. While I think it’s unfair to judge the past when both sexes tended to marry young, I also tend to think that especially in an era of abundant medicine, birth control, and more complex jobs that people postpone it at least until after 18.

  8. The unquestionable assumption behind this question is that women in positions of power or influence would result in a decrease in conflict and a deescalation of nuclear threat. But that truly is only an unproven assumption.

    Well, yes, it’s difficult–to say the least–to subject history to the scientific method. But let’s not let the paucity of data chain us to the status quo. Consider your queen who engages in 27% more war than a contemporary king–does this mean women are more warlike or that they are surrounded by men who consider women an easy target? Certainly I agree that in the world we know that “the idea that women’s political power and influence brings about more peace cannot be accepted axiomatically,” but to deny them a seat at the table because they too may be scoundrels seems like a too-convenient solution.

    Thatcher in particular broke into a man’s world at a time it was far more difficult to do.

    Exactly, a man’s world, which the odd exception continues to confirm. There remains work to be done, and I think the comment about a critical mass is prophetic in this regard.

    How one combines limited intervention with changing the situation on the ground in countries like Afghanistan or Congo isn’t quite clear.

    Certainly we now have a wealth of lessons on how not to do it thanks to various interventions by a host of countries not claiming a feminist foreign policy. Meanwhile, the Swedish policy has yet to celebrate it’s first birthday, so for those hungry for data, maybe it’s just too soon to tell how it will fare. That said, there is a whiff of imperialism in Minister Wallström’s presentation that doesn’t sit well with me, but since the power imbalances found abroad also exists at home we could focus our attention on changing the situation on the ground in our very own living rooms, workplaces and chapels instead.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    I think my bigger qualm isn’t that the problems are hard. They definitely are and I think we’re probably unable to really change other nations much, and what we can do will be slow. The failures in the middle east and west Asia suggest a lot of change has to come from within. Japan and Germany were different likely mainly because of how close they socially already were to our ideals but also because of how thoroughly they were defeated.

    Perhaps knowing the history of WWII and what likely would have happened were there no atomic bomb I look a bit more askew at the discussion of atomic weapons. (Admittedly I’m biased having worked a LANL on such things though) It’s not clear to me how a feminist foreign policy would have dealt with a Japanese empire that was more than happy to engage in use of their own biological weapons of mass destruction in China. To simply dismiss the development of such weapons in the dark days of WWII as “just men” does irk me more than a little. I think people forget just how many passivists thought the danger was so great so as to aid the development of nuclear weapons.

    Again though my fundamental qualms really are with the odd ways the word “feminism” gets used. In the above feminism clearly means not just having women in government but a very specific set of policy goals and beliefs about what works in the policy arena. As soon as one calls this a feminist foreign policy instead of a foreign policy by one brand of feminism one is making a claim about what “feminism” means. And again, as I mentioned, this tends to turn off people who might be strongly for female equality but who dispute those particular foreign policy goals. Given the above, is Clinton a feminist for instance?

  10. John Mansfield says:

    It is marvelous how much nuclear de-escalation there has been over the last quarter century. Nuclear concerns today consist mainly of North Korea scrapping together enough material to perform one explosion every three years, controlling material (mostly from the old Soviet Union) so that North Korea can’t build any more bombs than that, and a running con-game by Iran that if they don’t get this or that, then they waste billions on a weapons program. Even Pakistan doesn’t seem to want to waste its money on nukes anymore. That’s compared with the 1970s and 1980s when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. tested dozens of devices every year, and the U.K., France, and China ran significant active programs too.

    If feminism played a role in getting us to this point, great. If it can further disarmament today, great. If it can prevent a new global cold war that would led nations to re-arm, great.

  11. As soon as one calls this a feminist foreign policy instead of a foreign policy by one brand of feminism one is making a claim about what “feminism” means.

    The Swedish foreign minster did acknowledge the branding aspect of calling their foreign policy a Feminist Foreign Policy, and your response underlines the fact that branding can be a double-edged sword–it can attract attention, sure, but also divert that attention away from substance. That is, I believe the Swedish government provides plenty of explanation and context in order to have a constructive discussion about objectives and outcomes, but for many the term “feminist” is going to derail the conversation before it even begins.

    To simply dismiss the development of such weapons in the dark days of WWII as “just men” does irk me more than a little.

    My point was simply that the decisions to develop, build and use nuclear weapons were made exclusively by men–great minds, sure, but just men in the sense of “only” men. I acknowledged above the difficulty of ever knowing if things would have turned out differently if the panels, committees and democratically elected bodies that gave the world the Cold War would have had a similar makeup as the victims of nuclear weapons and testing. Until a critical mass of female decision makers is reached, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if things could be any different.

    It is marvelous how much nuclear de-escalation there has been over the last quarter century.

    Sure, it’s not nothing, though that dynamic strikes me as the have-nots successfully holding the feet of the haves to the fire once the Cold War cooled. But the fact that the Cold War ended is also not nothing, and here I would note the contribution of the dialogue on human rights in the Helsinki process to the demise of the Cold War, an approach that strikes me as broadly consistent with the kind of foreign policy now being advocated by Sweden.