Feminist foreign policy - imperative for a more secure and just world


Kristina Lunz and Nina Bernarding, who are leading the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy in Germany explain why a peaceful world will remain an utopia without a feminist foreign policy.

Frauen gegen Donald Trump

This article is part of our special on "Feminist Foreign Policy".

When people dare to be visionary we see the most profound changes in history; changes which can fundamentally impact the traditional distribution of power in society and lead to a more inclusive concept of how we envision a future that works for all. Demanding something that has not yet been articulated requires particular courage especially in times when the conventional, the conservative, and the presumably long overcome principles of fascism are rising internationally. Margot Wallström is such a visionary. In 2014, the Swedish Foreign Ministry declared her country’s foreign policy to be feminist.

Sweden’s visionary step

For Wallström’s country, this might not have been the most radical decision as the government had already presented itself as adhering to feminist ideas. But for most of the world it most certainly was. ‘A feminist foreign policy – what does this even mean?’ was the question articulated by journalists and commentators everywhere upon Sweden’s announcement. Wallström has shared how she has even been met with giggles. Based on a liberal feminist perspective, a Swedish feminist foreign policy means a focus on the four Rs: rights for girls and women, resources for gender equality work, equal representation of all genders, and ‘reality check’, or the research and facts feminist foreign policy is built on.

Sweden’s declaration of a feminist foreign policy has been a true game changer as it initiated the institutionalisation of a new concept and opened space at a state level to question the status quo of foreign policy. This is not to say that a feminist analysis of foreign policy is anything new. In academia it has been gaining traction since the 1980s. Even during World War I, women’s rights activists and female peace activists gathered in The Hague, Netherlands, to demand an end to the Great War. However, from that time – when women were still denied the right to vote – until today where patriarchal structures still privilege men’s experience and ideas, a feminist analysis of international relations has historically been regarded as a niche topic which has suffocated under the weight of political realism.

Changing the narrative

Sweden’s introduction of a feminist foreign policy has been a game changer as it marks the first time a state has prioritised its feminist vision of a more peaceful world over centuries old conventions which fail most of the population and the majority of states. In implementing a feminist foreign policy, Sweden has inspired other countries, including Canada, which announced its feminist development policy in 2017 and is currently working on its own feminist foreign policy. It has also encouraged other initiatives and alliances, political parties including the UK’s Women’s Equality Party, and MPs of the German Green Party. Indeed, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP) would not exist in its current capacity had it not been for the courage of Wallström, who herself is standing on the shoulders of giants.

The feminist foreign policy movement is a marathon. We are fighting for an approach to foreign policy that recognises discrimination against political minorities and calls out gender-based and sexualised violence as expressions of patriarchal structures instead of dismissing them as occasional acts of violence. A feminist foreign policy effectively and wholeheartedly implements international treaties and resolutions that strengthen the rights and participation of women and other political minorities, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It is an approach that stays mindful of discrimination due to race, class, age, gender, religion and disability, and how these can become interwoven to lead to a wide variety of discrimination. Ultimately, a feminist foreign policy must always be intersectional.

What is a feminist foreign policy?

By focusing on the needs and perspectives of underrepresented groups in foreign policy, a feminist foreign policy puts the individual rather than the state as the main referent of security and aims at fostering human security, defined as

“safety from the constant threat of hunger, disease, crime and repression and the protection from sudden and hurtful disruption in the patterns of daily life, whether in homes, jobs or communities”.

Secure states do not automatically correspond with secure people; in fact, secure states can also render its own people insecure.

As such, a feminist foreign policy firstly means acknowledging that injustices, including, but not limited to, gender inequality, exist globally. Secondly, a feminist foreign policy proactively contributes to eradicating those injustices and to overcoming patterns of oppression and exclusion, such as white supremacy and patriarchy. Not only are human rights universal rights, but sustainable peace and the prevention of conflict will remain a utopia without feminist foreign policy. Research such as Valeria Hudson’s indicates that most significant factor in determining the level of a country’s peacefulness is its level of gender equality. It is this ever-growing body of research that has led Wallström to her famous remark: “Feminist foreign policy is smart policy. It is not just the right thing to do”.

If states around the world, including Germany with its Policy Guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts and Building Peace, are genuinely serious about building peace and preventing conflict, foreign and security policy must be focused on the eradication of injustices and inequalities, the prioritisation of human rights as the approach to national security, and the redistribution of power, locally and globally. Feminist foreign policy is exactly this. It acts as a tool to analyze power: Who has it, who uses it, how is it being sustained, and for what purposes? It calls into question who gets to speak or make decisions, who has been silenced, and whose needs and experiences are prioritised and regarded relevant. Only by analysing these power dynamics through a feminist lens are their consequences understood to be destructive.

Feminist foreign policy is about questioning the status quo, and acknowledging that just because something has been the norm for decades, it does not make it right or fair, precisely because the establishment of many of those norms, structures, and processes have been shaped by a small percentage of the population.

A feminist foreign policy demands a radical re-prioritisation of the concerns of foreign affairs. Most importantly, a feminist foreign policy means abandoning the militarisation of security structures. A feminist approach to foreign policy rejects the common belief that “more weapons equal more security and nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of security because they are the biggest, baddest weapons”, as Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, puts it.

A feminist foreign policy is uncomfortable with the fact that organisations like the NATO – a military alliance built largely on the belief that security derives from the capacity to dominate – are seen as guarantor for our security. A feminist foreign policy welcomes the establishments of peace ministries, such as recently established in Canada and Ethiopia, as it demonstrates that peace is as important to foreign policy as is national defence.  

A feminist foreign policy is uncomfortable with the fact that four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a body whose mandate is the maintenance of international peace and security, according to the UN Charter, are amongst the world’s five biggest arms exporters. Together with Germany, the US, Russia, France and China accounted for 74 per cent of all arms exports in 2013-17. Instead of being the international club of the top arms exporters, the UN Security Council members should be trailblazers for promoting peace and the eradication of inequalities worldwide, which act as the basis for most conflict. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom recently published their guidance note for Security Council members ‘Towards a Feminist Security Council’ clearly outlining how measures including strengthening partnerships with women civil society, prioritising gender conflict analysis, and ensuring action on disarmament would lead to a more peaceful world. The guidance is no less relevant for Germany, which just started its 2-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. What Germany is planning to do and what it should do in particular with regard to implementing the Women, Peace and Security agenda is discussed in this web dossier.

Apart from fostering human security and equality, overcoming militarism would also free-up millions of Euros: The three-times Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Scilla Elworthy and author of ‘Business Plan for Peace’ comments: “We are spending (US)$1686 billion annually on militarization, when $38 billion would bring clean water and sanitation to every child on the planet.” Calculating the costs for preventing conflict and war she adds: “We could have prevention for $2 billion dollars while we are spending $1686 billion on militarization.”

Apart from re-aligning the analysis, objectives, and priorities of foreign policy, a feminist approach to foreign policy also challenges the modus operandi of current political processes. It means ensuring equal participation across all hierarchies in all institutions shaping and implementing foreign policy, from ministries to embassies and implementing partners. It constantly evaluates whether political processes allow for equal influence of the politically marginalised, and actively seeks the cooperation of civil society actors promoting gender equality and the rights of political minorities. A feminist foreign policy also acknowledges the continuing colonial legacies within foreign affairs and actively works to overcome them. Most importantly, a feminist foreign policy always champions co-operation over domination. It fosters partnerships and inclusion over of domination and exclusion. It emphasises the shared communalities of human beings across the globe instead of reinforcing divisions and distinguishing between “us” and “them”.

Women, Peace and Security

Feminist foreign policy is built on and encompasses – but goes beyond – the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS agenda). The WPS agenda’s founding document is the UN Security Council’s resolution 1325 (2000) and its seven follow-up documents. The success of WPS is the success of feminist grassroots organisations and civil society, rooted in the aforementioned 1915 The Hague Peace Conference, and have been demanding gender equality within international relations for decades.

The WPS agenda further stipulates that global inequality is a matter of war and peace. As international conflict research has repeatedly demonstrated, with Frances Stewart leading the way, the greater disparities amongst different groups of people, the more likely violent conflict within or between societies is, particularly if these inequalities are persistent over time, between socially distinct groups, or if those marginalised do not have the opportunity to for their voices to be heard in political processes. Peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to hold for at least 15 years, when women are involved in the peace process leading up to the agreement. Countries with high levels of gender equality are also less prone to violent extremism. Indeed, women’s equality is more important for a state’s sustainability than democracy and GDP.

The power of inclusivity

Yet, knowledge and research alone rarely shake up dominant structures and conventions. Representatives of political minorities, including women, remain massively under-represented in political positions and processes, including peace negotiations. This makes it impossible for the peace agreement to adequately reflect the needs and interest of 50 percent of the population. This is detrimental for a society emerging from conflict as a new, more peaceful chapter of a country is supposed to be initiated. This will only work if inclusivity is the guiding principle as a society cannot reach its full potential based on the needs and rules of a few.

However, even in Colombia, where the peace process is oft-cited as one of the world’s most inclusive, women and other marginalised groups of society were not invited to the negotiations initially, but instead had to lobby their way in. The feminist analysis of the peace accords and the inclusivity of the process is their success. In Catalina Ruiz-Navarro’s article in this web dossier, she describes the Colombian peace process from a feminist perspective, and underscores that there is a different way to understand security than solely through the male perspective, as is visible in Colombia, where since the signing of the peace deal women human rights defenders have been increasingly attacked.

The different impacts of policies  

Feminist foreign policy means nothing less than genuinely trying to understand the different impacts a policy has for those of all genders, classes, and races. However, these differentiating impacts are often not considered in the academic nor practical sphere. University of Oxford lecturer and CFFP Advisory Board member Dr. Jennifer Cassidy writes: “from Kings, Sultans, Princes, Emirs, Prime Ministers, to their governments, envoys, and representatives, men have functioned as the primary authors and facilitators of the geopolitical order since the beginnings of human history”. She further argues that this androcentrism, a reflection of the standpoint of white, Western males by whom the field is dominated, silences the experiences of women and political minorities and denies them their agency.

To give a concrete example, Erin Kamler argues in this web dossier that a feminist foreign policy towards Myanmar via international organisations and institutions cannot include non-targeted sanctions, which the EU is currently looking into. She writes: “The international community (and the EU in particular) should refrain, however, from blanketly imposing sanctions on Myanmar as a way of putting pressure on the military, as such sanctions would likely hurt the thousands of women working in various precarious labour sectors (such as the textile industry), as well as the activist CSOs who continue to do critical work.”

Feminist foreign policy - a gain for sustainable global security policy

If any country or institution is serious about preventing conflict, achieving the SDGs, and promoting peace, a foreign policy focused on the eradication of inequalities – in other words, a feminist foreign policy – is imperative. “If we don’t have a feminist foreign policy, we are failing. Failing ultimately to understand what foreign policy should be about”, says NATO’s Clare Hutchinson.

A feminist foreign policy has the potential to be the most promising response to growing populism and authoritarianism globally, from the US, to Brazil, Hungary, and beyond. So, if feminism – the fight for intersectional equality – has been one of the most successful social justice movements for decades, then this movement has the power to interrupt one of the most exclusive and elitist sectors of our society: foreign policy. If we truly seek a sustainable global security policy, feminist foreign policy is a must.

This article is part of our special on "Feminist Foreign Policy".