One Small Step for Feminist Foreign Policy
This weekend’s meeting of female foreign ministers will be a historic achievement—and not nearly enough for the world’s women.
On Sept. 21 and 22, Canada will host the first-ever meeting of female foreign ministers, as part of a package of commitments it made to prioritize women’s issues under its G-7 presidency this year. Currently, about 30 women lead their countries’ diplomacy, including eight in Europe, 10 in Latin America and the Caribbean, five in Africa, and others in Asia, Australia, and the region.
The Montreal meeting will be historically unprecedented in its display of female power on the world stage. But symbolic achievements shouldn’t suffice. It would be a tragedy not to use the opportunity to focus attention on concrete ways to improve women’s status globally and advance what has been called a “feminist foreign policy.”
The Canadian government seems to agree. “This meeting is an historic opportunity to have a range of discussions amongst women foreign ministers,” said Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, “including such topics as international security, reinforcing democracy, diversity, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. It is important to bring these voices together.”
The concept of a feminist foreign policy was first popularized in 2014 by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who will be in attendance this weekend. Wallstrom has described a feminist foreign policy as “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women” and a “precondition” for achieving Sweden’s wider foreign development and security policy objectives. Gender equality is a right on its own, she argues, and is also the most effective means for achieving other goals, such as the eradication of terrorism, economic growth, and improvement in health.
Reactions to Wallstrom’s ideas have ranged from giggling to outright hostility. Numerous Canadian officials—including outspoken, self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—have spoken about the backlash they have encountered in launching policies with the word “feminist” attached to them. Nonetheless, pieces of this idea have been adopted over the years by countries around the world, including in the United States. Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie Bishop, spoke openly about making gender equality central to global peace and security. And the United Kingdom’s former foreign secretary, William Hague, made ending rape in war a priority of his policy platform during the country’s G-7 presidency.
In the United States, the Obama administration never pursued a feminist foreign policy under a single institutional umbrella. But the State Department, under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, did craft a collection of issue-specific foreign policies on various gender issues, including a U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally; a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (which dozens of other countries had also adopted well in advance of the United States); and a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.
These were groundbreaking for the United States at the time but still fell short of Sweden’s full embrace of the concept. That’s consistent with the pattern elsewhere. Most countries that talk about a feminist foreign policy aren’t really implementing it; they’re simply adding aid programs for women. A truly feminist foreign policy would have to be more ambitious; either it must enshrine women’s rights across the government or it’s not deserving of the name. As Wallstrom has written, including in a recently released a handbook on the concept, such policies must aim to allocate sufficient resources to achieve gender equality, and they must disrupt male-dominated power structures, from the tables of diplomacy to the design of foreign assistance programs.
This weekend presents an opportunity to hone, define, and refine the idea of a feminist foreign policy and articulate feminist foreign-policy goals that governments everywhere can strive toward. “So much progress has been made [in Canada] with the Feminist International Assistance Policy, the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, as well as the gender focus in their progressive trade agenda and the new defense policy,” said Diana Sarosi of Oxfam Canada. “We now need to bring it all together in a feminist foreign policy to ensure coherence in all components of Canada’s foreign actions, including arms sales.” That should be the model not just in Canada but everywhere.
Accomplishing these goals will require a clear-eyed view of the policies that have been developed to date and the challenges they have faced. The first critique regards scope: Does a policy only address so-called “woman’s issues,” such as wartime rape, or does it seek to advance equity across all relevant social divisions—gender (including gender identity and orientation), age (including adolescent girls as well as aging women, young gay men as well as women of reproductive age), race and ethnicity, and other facets of identity? A further, and equally critical, scope question concerns whether all facets of a country’s foreign policy, ranging from aid to trade to development, have been involved.
Scope also relates to budget. This is perhaps the most fundamental issue in today’s context of shrinking foreign aid budgets, which severely threaten a government’s ability to achieve transformational change. Canada is a good example. The country made headlines last summer with its announcement that within five years, 95 percent of its aid initiatives would be dedicated to advancing gender equality. But the fine print reveals that the primary aim of these aid projects would not necessarily be to advance gender equality but rather merely to affect it in some way. Furthermore, this is a larger percentage of a shrinking pie: Critics point out that Canada’s budgets for official development assistance, while slightly larger since 2016, are still hovering around a 50-year low in real terms.
This isn’t a problem unique to Canada. In the United States last year, the Trump administration cut many programs for women, including $350 million from reproductive health. The administration has also neglected to staff the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department and proposed numerous approaches to gut foreign assistance architecture and budgets. Among the G-7, only the U.K. reached the international goal of 0.7 percent of spending on foreign assistance last year, and data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that despite growing commitments to spending foreign assistance dollars on gender equality, the percentage of projects whose principle aim is advancing gender equality or women’s rights is persistently lagging, up to only 4 percent last year.
Finally, there is the issue of rights. At stake here is whether foreign policies include the complete body of women’s rights—including the more politicized components, such as family planning and access to abortion, that have become the most embroiled battleground in today’s diplomatic discussions, from the United Nations to the G-7.
For example, in the G-7 meetings this year, U.S. representatives refused to accept any discussion of “sexual and reproductive health and rights”—a body of rights that had been officially recognized in the latter years of the Obama administration and which includes the right to access contraception and abortion, the right not to be raped, and the rights of LGBTQ people to live free of violence and discrimination. This year, the Trump administration stripped all reference to these rights from the State Department’s Human Rights Reports, an essential source of information for reporting on abuses and holding abusive governments to account not only in U.S. diplomacy but for various other governments around the world and also for businesses assessing where to invest operations abroad.
The United States has also torpedoed similar language in U.N. resolutions. This should be no surprise: Under the Trump administration, any foreign policy that relates to women is led largely by ideologues who have counseled abstinence-only health education and conditioned billions of dollars of U.S. health assistance on providers refusing to offer, refer, or advocate for lifesaving abortion, thereby severely compromising health outcomes in poor countries. The Trump administration has even asserted that the United States will no longer recognize reproductive rights, a core commitment in international law accepted by both Republican and Democratic administrations since the Cairo conference on population in the early 1990s.
The final frontier for this issue is that leaders must address the criticism made by civil society and women’s groups that a feminist foreign policy is undercut by defense policy. Here even Sweden is under fire: When Sweden announced the world’s first feminist foreign policy in 2014, and then a year later signed a deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a country where adult women are still legally defined as dependents under male guardians’ care, it came under a storm of criticism for being hypocritical. This was not only because of Saudi Arabia’s poor record on women’s rights but also because those weapons presumably would be used in conflicts that hurt women.
The goal of critique is not to shame those governments that have been brave enough to try. Instead, we should critique with an eye toward strengthening the overall approach. Successful feminist foreign policy will also require overcoming political constraints. The Canadian government has admitted it is already confronting backlash ahead of the country’s elections next year.
But the way we talk about these policies almost matters as much as the policies themselves. The answer should not be to stop using the word feminist, but rather to foster a conversation in which gender equality is not presented as a zero-sum battle where men lose and women win. In reality, it is a rising tide that raises all ships. The more the world leaders can present their ideas in that light this weekend, the better for all.
Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. @lyricthompson