Micah Zenko

Walking Loudly and Carrying a Big Stick

Why women are less inclined to start wars.


The Pew Research Center recently released a new Global Attitudes Project survey based on polling conducted in 39 countries. News headlines derived from the polling echoed the Pew survey’s title: "America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s." However, buried within the top-line results was another revelation: "Wide Gender Divide on Drone Strikes." Of the 12 countries for which Pew provided corresponding data, the female-male gap approving of U.S. drone strikes ranged from 31 percent in Japan to 13 percent in Uganda. When the same question was asked in 2012, the female-male gap similarly ran from 30 percent in Germany to 12 percent in Poland. Within the United States, the divide was 23 percent in 2012, and 17 percent this year. American women are also between 11 percent and 14 percent more likely than men to show concern that drones harm civilians, cause blowback from extremists, are illegal, and damage the reputation of the United States.

This female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force and generally persists regardless of the weapons system employed, military mission undertaken, whether the intervening force is unilateral or multilateral, and the strategic objective proposed. The gap is also one that is sustained over time and is consistently found whenever or wherever comparable questions are posed regarding prospective military options. Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University, who has written several essential works on gender differences in security attitudes, found: "There are many commonalities in the views of men and women, but the direction of gender differences is always and everywhere that women are less supportive of using military force than men."

Indeed, it is an overwhelmingly global phenomenon found in almost every single country where such questions are asked — though there are less foreign data as the United States is comparatively over-polled. Nevertheless, for example, 13.5 percent more Australian men than women approved of joining the U.S.-led coalition to depose Saddam Hussein in 2003, 14 percent more French men than women supported the intervention in Mali earlier this year, and 20 percent more German men than women think force is sometimes needed to maintain order in the world.

Since the United States has unmatched conventional military capabilities (and has a comparatively high tendency to attack other countries and non-state actors), it is useful to look closely at polls of American adults. If, like me, you are an observer of opinion polling on the use of force, you find evidence of the female-gap for different missions, no matter which type of military action is proposed, or which party is in the White House. Eichenberg examined 486 surveys of the American public between 1990 and 2003, for which a gender breakdown was provided, where U.S. military force was contemplated, threatened, or used. He found that the average gender difference for supporting the use of force was 58 percent men and 48 percent women. This is roughly consistent with data covering significant U.S. military intervention over the past quarter-century:

  • 8.5 percent more men than women supported U.S. military action in Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1990.
  • 6 percent more men supported intervention in Rwanda in 1994.
  • 7 percent more men supported intervention in Bosnia in 1995.
  • 6.4 percent more men supported cruise missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998.
  • 4 percent more men supported intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
  • 17 percent more men supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001.
  • 12 percent more men supported military action in Iraq in 2003.
  • 13 percent more men supported military intervention in Libya in 2011.

Beyond historical cases, gender differences are also found if you look at the latest polling regarding uses of force currently under debate:

  • 17 percent more men than women support the United States and its allies using force in Syria.
  • 28 percent more men think the United States should conduct cyberattacks against other countries.
  • 8 percent more men support the United States taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
  • 15 percent more men think that North Korea is a threat to the United States that requires military action.
  • 6 percent more men think that President Obama should have ordered troops to go to Benghazi, Libya, on the night of the attack on the consulate.

Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay that tried to explain why men are more likely, and women less likely, to support bombing other countries. He contended that "there is something to the contention of many feminists that phenomena like aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women." However, such mostly male characteristics cannot be changed as they are rooted in biology, and since rogue male leaders remain a fact of world politics the "democratic, feminized, postindustrial world" will not be up to the challenge of confronting them. "Masculine policies will still be required, though not necessarily masculine leaders." Responses to Fukuyama’s essay essentially accepted his gender dichotomy by defending women’s ability to wage war: "women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich; "Historically, cultures organized around war and displays of cruelty have had women’s full cooperation," noted Katha Pollitt.

The question more interesting than why women and men perceive militarized approaches to foreign policy challenges differently is: What might the policy implications of them be today? Unfortunately, many commentators who have written about this phenomenon in the past focus on the gender of combatants themselves, while ignoring the gender of those who actually decide to use force.

For example, within the U.S. military, orders to use force can only originate from the National Command Authority, a term that collectively describes the president and the secretary of defense — the apocryphal 3:00 a.m. phone call goes to the Pentagon as often as the White House. Within the Central Intelligence Agency — under guidelines that were first implemented in 2009 — only the director of the CIA has the authority to sign-off on each drone strike, or similar lethal action. America’s history shows that of the 44 presidents, 24 secretaries of defense, and 25 directors of the CIA who could have authorized using force, all were men. Thus, we have zero real-world comparisons within the United States to evaluate whether a female leader would be more or less likely to use force to confront a foreign policy challenge.

Below the level of top decision makers, women are vastly underrepresented in senior uniformed and civilian positions within the Pentagon, as is readily apparent from this picture in March, or this one in June, or this one in June, or this one in June. According to the Pentagon, women make up 20 percent of all official senior defense positions, while they are 31 percent of the CIA’s senior intelligence service. However, agency veterans tell me the percentage is much lower in the national clandestine service that is responsible for conducting lethal covert operations.

Within the foreign policy community of think tanks, the academy, and punditry, the underrepresentation of women’s voices is readily apparent, particularly wherever "hard" security issues are debated. Despite marginal improvements in the last decade, more than three-quarters of all op-eds in major print outlets are consistently penned by men, including those with a foreign policy focus. At the Aspen Security Forum in June, there were 59 featured speakers, just four of whom were women.

As someone with 15 years of experience in this community at various levels, I have come to recognize that most colleagues agree that there is something inherently wrong with this picture, and that the relative lack of gender diversity (among many other underrepresented voices in U.S. foreign policy discussions) impacts how debates unfold, and probably on what outcomes emerge. However, they are painfully uncomfortable discussing exactly what that impact is, or what should be done to expand the range of perspectives.

There are certainly many methodological problems with attempting to ascertain public attitudes by asking certain people certain questions. For instance, people who haven’t attended college or have an annual income under $50,000 tend to be more supportive of military options. And clearly, any person’s opinions about the utility and wisdom of military force will be shaped — and perhaps changed — once they assume a policymaking position and are granted access to classified information.

But as women and men do have markedly different perspectives about using military force, it is conceivable that less would be used if more women were in leadership positions. Women already in those positions think so: In a 2012 FP survey of 43 female politicians around the world, 65 percent agreed that: "The world would be more peaceful if more women held political office."  When I ask my peers about this gap, three consensus opinions emerge: 1) Women are more likely to see the other side’s point of view, 2) are less likely to see the world as a zero-sum game, and 3) are more likely to believe that bombing someone does not ultimately achieve anything.

In a 2011 poll that asked respondents "the best way to ensure peace," 8 percent more men said "military strength," while 9 percent more women said "good diplomacy." Likewise, the undervalued and essential role of women as peacemakers was the core theme of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark December 2011 data-driven speech. Meanwhile, her husband Bill Clinton recently opined that presidents who refrain from using force because of public or congressional opposition "look like a total wuss, and you would be." The time-honored connection between looking "tough," masculine, and bombing others endures, which makes military force the appealing default solution for so many U.S. foreign policy problems.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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