Why we need a feminist foreign policy to stop war

Feminist foreign policy is au courant, but what does it mean in practice? Foreign policy informed by feminist analysis must confront masculine hegemonies in state military-industrial complexes that fuel and fund conflicts.


“Feminist foreign policy” appears to be the flavour of the month. While we are still trying to understand what that means, we have Margot Wallström to thank for popularising the term. On being appointed as Sweden’s foreign minister in October 2014, Wallström said that under her leadership Sweden would become the only country in the world to conduct a “feminist foreign policy”.

The fact that the “F” word was voted as one of the top 10 words to be bannedby Time Magazine readers in 2014 certainly suggests that it has currency and provokes debate, not least of all in the realm of international affairs. Though Wallström is the first to coin her foreign policy “feminist” she follows Hillary Rodham Clinton as US Secretary of State 2009-13, and William Hague as UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 2010-14, in embracing a gender perspective on international security, development and aid.

Hague made “tackling rape in warzones” the lynchpin of his Foreign Secretary tenure. Hague considered the suppression of women’s rights to be “the single greatest continuing injustice in the world… the greatest single source of untapped potential available to humanity, and the vital missing aspect of conflict resolution world.” Clinton made empowering women in developing countries one of the six key principles of U.S. international development policy.

So what does a feminist foreign policy mean in practice?

In a speech in Washington DC in February this year Wallström argued that “discrimination against women enables threats to peace and security” and that “greater gender equality is therefore not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our foreign, development and security policy objectives”. In so doing, she implied that feminism is anoverall approach to practicing foreign policy rather than a single-issue focus on sexual violence in conflict or the economic empowerment of women in developing countries, as Hague and Clinton advanced.

Like Hillary Clinton, Wallstrom mentions the importance of the “take me to your women” rather than your (read: male) leader approach when visiting conflict-affected countries in particular. This approach to diplomacy and peace talks means consultations have to happen outside formal channels because women are often literally not there, recalling that New Yorker cartoon where one man suggests “why don’t we ask the women in the room” and the realisation dawns among the men around the table that there are none.

UN Women states that women have been just 4 % of signatories, 2.4 % of chief mediators, 3.7 % of witnesses and 9 % of negotiators between 1992-2011. Following her previous role as the UN Secretary-General’s first ever Special Representative on sexual violence in armed conflict, where she was tasked with carrying out the Security Council’s women, peace and security agenda, Wallstrom strongly believes that including women in peace and security decision-making will help create the conditions for sustainable global peace.

Here we can think of women’s peacebuilding leadership even under duress in places like Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine. At the UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings last month in New York at panels organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the women’s rights organisation, Madre we heard from Syrian women who against all odds are organising local efforts to meet the everyday needs of people living under conflict or fleeing extremist violence. The activation of grassroots civil society in Syria, crucially led by women, under the most difficult conditions is the untold story of the civil war.

But how can these women community leaders participate in the high politics of peace negotiations from which women have for the most part been completely excluded? This is where leaders like Margot Wallström and William Hague come into the picture. They are crucial interlocutors resourcing and opening spaces for actors who are making a material difference to conflict prevention and peacebuilding on the ground and without weapons. This is the stuff of feminist foreign policy.

So far, so good – but is a feminist approach compatible with the use of military force and with increasing military budgets? With respect to Sweden’s credibility in international affairs Wallström asserts that it is “not down to our military capacity but rather our stand on human rights, democracy, development assistance.” She adds that Sweden will advocate for stronger international positions on disarmament and development if elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2016 (2017-2019). Yet Wallstrom’s embrace of feminist foreign policy has been forged against the reassertion of Russian aggression in Ukraine; with Vladimir Putin flexing his muscle abroad with threats of force in the Baltics and even sending submarines to Australia’s northern coastline during the G20 meetings in a show of Russian machismo. With realpolitik at the border, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy deploys both feminine ‘soft’ and masculine ‘hard’ power. A human rights-based foreign and security policy is advocated for alongside a 150-year tradition of Swedish neutrality and self-defence which is resourced by increasing military spending and a domestic arms industry that must export weapons to be viable.

Herein lies a fundamental contradiction from a feminist perspective. How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy? This conundrum applies to the United Kingdom and the United States as well: how can you be a force for good in the world supporting human rights and conflict-resolution but with a large trade including in arms with countries like Saudi Arabia? Sweden’s answer to this conundrum has been unfolding in recent weeks in some “splendidly undiplomatic”- we might say, ‘feminist’ diplomacy towards Saudi Arabia.

In March, Wallstrom declined to sign a cooperation agreement on arms exports with Saudi Arabia also following the blocking by Saudia Arabia of her speech to Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo in March that criticized the Kingdom’s treatment of dissidents and women. In so doing, Wallström is the first foreign minister to seek to implement Article 7 of the UN Arms Trade Treaty ratified in 2013, which requires state parties to prohibit the export of arms if they will be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law or to commit serious acts of gender-based violence or violence against women and children. Saudi Arabia is known to have an atrocious human rights record with respect to its own citizens. It is currently engaged in a military bombing campaign on Yemen which is having devastating effects on civilians. The country is also believed to be supplying weapons to the Syrian regime, where over 200,000 have been killed, many of them civilians. What more evidence could you need to legally rescind an arms deal?

The ease of doing business to make war

In revoking the arms export deal, Wallström is negotiating the tension between Sweden’s human rights-based foreign policy with its self-defence military capacity. She is also righting past abuses of state power in the case of the Swedish Defence Research Agency’s secret “Project Simoon” to help Saudi Arabia build an anti-tank missile arms factory, exposed in 2012 by Swedish radio.  Soon after announcing Sweden’s decision to revoke the export deal, Saudi Arabia retaliated by denying business visas to Swedes and recalling their ambassador.  Meanwhile Wallström was the subject of public approbation in the Swedish media by the eons of Swedish multinationals concerned about the impact on their exports, the likes of Volvo, Ikea, H&M, so popular with especially female consumers globally. Wallström was also visited by King Olaf who tried to persuade her to renege on her decision, while the EU states have stood by, silent by all accounts.

This is a feminist fable for our neoliberal times. Even with a “feminine” social democratic government in power, the fable shows just how hard it is to address the unregulated global arms trade – one of the root causes of conflict – when it is so lucrative and inseparable from most transnational business and global trading relationships. Moreover, the fable reveals the spontaneous solidarity of a diverse group of captains of industry and of state power, nearly all men, who support the accumulation of profits over people’s lives and basic freedoms. This is patriarchy at work – and a feminist foreign policy worth its salt needs to confront regimes of masculine hegemonies and the unequal entitlements that hold such hierarchical political economic orders together at every level.

As WILPF Secretary-General Madeleine Rees has argued on 50.50, Margot Wallström shows us what can be done when we put principles and human decency above “business as usual”. She may have derailed an arms deal in undiplomatic circumstances, but feminist foreign policy must be undiplomatic if it is to be transformative.

To stop wars, we need to hold to account transnational business power, because it increasingly shapes state policies more than it is shaped by them, and because it has the power to uphold human rights, to be ethical, responsible, and responsive to consumers. And we need to refocus our advocacy for international peace and security on state power. More than ever, states value masculine qualities of competitiveness, aggression and strategic rationality, with many governments turning their back on the security and wellbeing of citizens and non-citizens as the analysis on the growth in arms expenditures and tax breaks for multinational business relative to austerity in state budgets for public health and education shows.

Gendered economic structures determine the limits and the possibilities of security and foreign policy, but the politics of democracy including in countries like Sweden, the United States and European states, are the principal means through which these structures are established and transformed. Exposing the connections between state military complexes and transnational business will enable us to better understand how power works to fuel and fund conflicts around the world.

A feminist foreign policy must have as its central goal the long-term prevention of conflict and violence. It must identify the gendered globalized structures that contribute to violence and conflict such as economic inequality and insecurity. And it must link demilitarisation and disarmament to investment in people-centred development and justice. In this way, Margot Wallström’s approach is similar to Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s (WILPF) century-long approach: that is, foreign policy needs to start at home with, to take one example, saving on weapons to spend on alleviating child poverty as the leader of the SNP in the UK, Nicola Sturgeon is doing in the run up to the UK general election. With Hillary Clinton getting ready to run for the US Presidency, promising to be the country with the highest military spending’s first female commander-in-chief, it will be important to keep a close check on the connection she makes between feminism and foreign policy. Above all, foreign policy worthy of the adjective “feminist” must support and resource non-militarised solutions to conflict and challenge the self-interested masculine hegemonies in the state and private sector that perpetuate the business of killing. Towards this end, establishing a US Department of Peace – an idea muted by many in the past – would clearly demonstrate the prioritizing of peace-building through international aid and development initiatives.  In approaching old problems using peaceful means, an initiative of this kind would be a vital step in institutionalising a feminist foreign policy.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy.

Jacqui True is Professor of Politics and International Relations, and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Monash University. Her book The Political Economy of Violence Against Women (Oxford, 2012) won the American Political Science Association’s 2012 biennial prize for the best book in human rights, and the British International Studies Association International Political Economy book prize in 2013. Follow her on twitter @JacquiTrue

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