Centering Feminism in Progressive Foreign Policy

By Dustin Johnson

Arguing for progressive foreign policy, especially in the United States, can feel like a Sisyphean task. Many of the goals put forth in this blog, such as ending sanctions, challenging militarism, and dismantling our nuclear arsenal seem as distant as ever. Consequently, it is important to highlight areas of progressive foreign policy advocacy and practice that have made substantial advances over the past decade. Feminist foreign policy, while still often greatly flawed in its design and implementation, has achieved remarkable acceptance, both in US foreign policy platforms and globally. While further progress is required for feminist foreign policy to challenge the core security ideologies of the state when it comes to war and militarization, its combination of foregrounding intersectionality and the rights and security of the most marginalized, and its growing mainstream acceptance demonstrate its importance for achieving a progressive foreign policy.

Several states have put in place foreign policies that they claim are feminist. Sweden was the first state to adopt what it explicitly described as a feminist foreign policy, and France, Luxembourg, Mexico, and Canada are following suit. Several civil society organizations work to promote feminist foreign policy, such as the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP) in the UK and Germany, which recently hosted an official side event at the Munich Security Conference on feminist foreign policy that featured ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Mainstream foreign policy publications such as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs have both published articles on feminist foreign policy. And its prominence has led to a great deal of scholarship on the issue: a Google Scholar search for “feminist foreign policy” turns up 650 results, similar to the number for “progressive foreign policy.” While the feminist foreign policies of these states leave much to be desired, and I expect not all readers will agree with the wisdom of engaging in fora such as the Munich Security Conference, it is remarkable the extent to which feminist foreign policy has entered the mainstream. 

Feminism takes many forms across scholarship, advocacy, and practice, so it is important to first discuss central concepts that are necessary for feminism in progressive foreign policy. Feminism asserts that gender is a core organizing principle of human societies, and seeks to challenge and end gendered oppression, discrimination, and violence. How to apply these principles in foreign policy? The definition advanced by the CFFP is particularly good:

A Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is a framework which elevates the everyday lived experience of marginalized communities to the forefront and provides a broader and deeper analysis of global issues. It takes a step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most marginalised. It is a multidimensional policy framework that aims to elevate women’s and marginalised groups’ experiences and agency to scrutinise the destructive forces of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and militarism. CFFP believes a feminist approach to foreign policy provides a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the hierarchical global systems of power that have left millions of people in a perpetual state of vulnerability.

This definition focuses on the intersectional nature of feminism in foreign policy and understanding the connections between, and power relations arising from, various forms of hierarchy. To illustrate what this looks like in practice, consider reducing and ending war and armed conflict, a central goal of progressive foreign policy.

Gender is a central concern in many aspects of war. Many of the ways we think about war inherently draw on gender: violence and aggression are usually seen as masculine, as is the need to protect the state against an external threat. Violence is legitimated through the need to protect something or someone portrayed as defenseless, which is constructed as feminine. These gendered understandings often become explicit in the justification of violence, such as the idea that the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary in part to protect Afghan women from the (male) Taliban, or in El Salvador during the civil war where guerrilla recruitment of children was seen as necessary in order to protect women from the government forces. The majority of those responsible for the planning and conduct of war are usually men; while the number of women in such institutions has substantially increased over the past few decades in many states, their presence alone is not enough to change these institutions’ masculinist nature. 

Gender also figures in how we think about the victims of war, and who is considered a legitimate target. Women (and children) are assumed to be civilians, while military-aged men are by and large assumed to be combatants, often regardless of their actual status. Consequently, wartime sexual and gender-based violence is given less attention despite its prevalence during war, and has largely been ignored when perpetrated against men and boys. Male civilians are often lumped in with assumed combatants in airstrike death tolls, or looked on with greater suspicion as refugees than women and children. Perhaps most starkly, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, aid agencies focused on the evacuation of the most vulnerable civilians prioritized women, children, and the elderly, in many cases leaving civilian men and older boys to be massacred. 

Centering feminism and attention to gender in foreign policy would require policymakers to acknowledge these aspects of war as important and take them into account in planning and implementation. A feminist foreign policy would question whose interests are taken to be most important for the security of the state, and the view of what security entails would be broadened and made more holistic. When considering arms transfers, their human rights implications, especially for women and for vulnerable groups, would be a central concern. When weighing options for intervening in a conflict, exacerbating it and thereby worsening harm to civilians would be given more priority, as would the background conditions that contributed to the conflict and how they might be addressed. This would place more emphasis on diplomacy and conflict prevention.

Consider a topic previously discussed on this blog, the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen. The war has had devastating impacts on civilians, from being killed in airstrikes to acute malnutrition to lack of medical care. A feminist foreign policy approach to this crisis would focus first and foremost on the security needs of Yemeni civilians, especially the most marginalized. It would treat collateral damage as a threat to US national security interests rather than an unfortunate but necessary cost of conflict. The narrow focus on terrorism and the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen would be replaced by a holistic view of the conflict’s causes, including the US’s influence on them, and how bringing a negotiated end to the conflict would best serve the interests of the Yemeni people, and those of the United States.

Unfortunately, states’ feminist foreign policies have so far most failed to live up to ambitions when it comes to armed conflict and repression by allies. Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has received a good deal of support from various civil society organizations, but its continuation of arms sales to repressive regimes, including the Saudi and UAE governments, have received considerable criticism. It is easier for a feminist foreign policy to have influence on areas such as reproductive health, development assistance, or promoting women’s involvement in peace efforts, as these are already seen as more “feminine” as opposed to the “masculine” nature of hard security concerns. This can be seen in the support for and criticism of Sweden’s FFP linked above, or Canada’s focus on development aid in its feminist international assistance policy while opposing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Stronger political will, backed by activism, will be needed to challenge the central and gendered role of violence in the state and its foreign policy. 

In part, the failures of feminist foreign policy thus far stem from states falling into the trap of collapsing the concept of “gender” into a sole focus on “women.” Such an essentialist view simply reinforces gendered stereotypes, such as women being seen as naturally more peaceful and cooperative, while ignoring how gendered oppression can also harm men. It equates gender balance with equality and equity rather than justice, prioritizing the numerical inclusion of women without challenging the structural barriers that exclude women in the first place. Failure to explicitly take into account how gender is constructed and organizes relations of power risks creating structures that continue perpetuating patriarchy even as women’s participation increases, rather than smashing it outright. 

The dangers of reading “gender” as “women” also underscore the importance of intersectionality in feminism. Numerous other organizing principles in human societies (such as race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) play an important role in constituting and organizing relations of power, and do so in combination with one another. Consequently, feminism that is blind to class can end up reinforcing classism (such as only helping middle class women), while feminism that is blind to race can reinforce racism and only help white women. Such an approach to feminism tends to do little to actually challenge patriarchy, only making it somewhat more accommodating. The reverse is also true: addressing classism and racism without considering gender will perpetuate harm to women. 

Pursuing effective feminist foreign policy, therefore, will require dismantling the misconceptions of gender and feminism that are prevalent in mainstream policymaking, as they lead to a focus only on policy areas seen as feminine, and the numerical inclusion of more women in important roles. While the growing number of women defense and foreign ministers globally should be welcomed, emphasis should be on the nature of the policies they support and implement.

In US foreign policy, our involvement in wars such as that in Yemen, and our massive arms exports to repressive regimes, are a clear area that a feminist foreign policy would challenge. The current administration’s attacks on sexual and reproductive health through the UN and development aid are also a central concern. Adopting a feminist foreign policy can help the US and other states change their normal practices that cause considerable harm around the world. It will also give us a better basis for making tough foreign policy decisions on issues such as interventions and sanctions. These and many other questions in foreign policy involve significant tradeoffs. Approaching them with a critical, feminist lens helps us to understand them better, question who the tradeoffs benefit and harm, and place concern for the most vulnerable in the center of these discussions. Doing so can transform the practice of foreign policy and help create a better world. 


Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies in Gothenburg, Sweden. His PhD research focuses on gender and the practice of child protection in UN peacekeeping. He is originally from New Mexico. You can find him on Twitter at @WarAndCoffee

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