It Takes More Than a Diverse Cabinet to Advance a Feminist Foreign Policy

The Biden administration must move beyond superficial inclusion and actively promote gender equality globally while seeking to reverse the harm done in the name of forever wars.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol Building on Feb. 5, 2019. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white in a nod to the suffragist movement. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Liberal world order is back, and ostensibly more inclusive than ever. As outgoing U.S. President ­Donald Trump’s team of grifters, conspiracy theorists, and would-be putschists torch Washington on their way out, incoming President Joe Biden continues to introduce his cabinet—most recently picking former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The new administration promises a revival of progressive foreign policy, signaled above all by the “racial and gender mix” of its leadership, as the New York Times described it. Yet, the relief at Trump’s exit risks obscuring the contest between a form of elite inclusion within the national security system and more radical challenges to that same order.

The incoming team is much-celebrated for the diversity of its membership, projecting a very different image of American power than the Trump administration’s “alpha male” nationalism. Many nominees are seasoned professionals and veterans of the Obama administration: Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield in particular advocates a much less white and male State Department.

Yet Biden’s incoming cabinet—despite its apparent diversity—is already deeply contentious. Although many women in the national security field ultimately lamented Biden’s decision not to appoint Michèle Flournoy as defense secretary, some feminist groups had mobilized to challenge her pro-war views and previous ties with arms industry giants including Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Similarly, the appointment of Samantha Power reminds critics of military interventions of the role she played in setting the stage for Libya’s second civil war, resulting in an ongoing humanitarian disaster.

Though some in Biden’s cabinet have disavowed their earlier positions—for example, on supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen—the return of so-called liberal foreign policy also promises a reversion to the violence that has long accompanied it, from drone strikes to support for Israeli settlements, and from military interventionism to authoritarian partnerships.

Cabinet diversity alone is merely a form of “woke-washing,” where a superficial or elite form of inclusion legitimizes the continuation of business as usual.

In such a scenario, cabinet diversity alone is merely a form of “woke-washing,” where a superficial or elite form of inclusion legitimizes the continuation of business as usual. Flournoy’s experience encapsulates the tensions of inclusion: Championed on gender equality grounds, she was considered too militarist by progressives. Now that she has been sidelined, a retired four-star general has been chosen in her place, himself the first African American nominated for the position. Yet, Austin has also raised eyebrows as a recent retiree from active duty nominated to a position usually reserved for a civilian, and for his link to defense contractor Raytheon.

When contrasted with the nativist machismo of the last four years, Biden’s foreign policy portends not just a renewal of alliances and an end to institutional arson, but also a reengagement with the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, and the growing movement for a feminist foreign policy, which puts gender equality at the heart of diplomatic practice.

A broad field, the Women, Peace, and Security umbrella covers everything from policies for including women in international security (including cease-fires, peacekeeping missions, and counterterrorism) to recognizing the harms that disproportionately affect them in wartime (most prominently sexual violence), as enshrined in 10 U.N. Security Council resolutions and hundreds of national and regional action plans over the last two decades.

Unsurprisingly given the animus directed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Trump administration actively sabotaged the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. It gutted the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; stripped the U.S. National Action Plan of language on sexuality, gender identity, and climate change; and undermined a Security Council resolution on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Biden’s work on the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the creation of a Gender Policy Council indicates that he will likely be receptive to progress on the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. As with previous Democrat-led administrations, the so-called Mexico City policy, which ties billions of dollars in U.S. aid to enforced silence on abortion or related reproductive rights, will be swiftly revoked.

The inclusion of racial equity as a top domestic policy priority indicates potential for a wider rethinking.

The inclusion of racial equity as a top domestic policy priority indicates potential for a wider rethinking. Perhaps unsurprising in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement going global, naming systemic racism as a governance challenge offers an antidote to a Trump administration that embodied that very challenge. The impact of racism on the American political landscape and the urgency needed to confront it were laid bare by the insurrection on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, with its cast of Confederate nostalgics and neo-Nazis.

While the Biden-Harris plan to tackle racism is currently framed as a uniquely domestic concern, it could also influence how the U.S. government conducts itself abroad. The history of race not only weighs on the society and government of the United States but also structures foreign relations: the politics of aid or health security, the membership and decision-making of international institutions, and the designation of friends and enemies.

Taking race seriously might force consideration of how American foreign policies have at the same time facilitated gender inequality, as in the entrenchment of a Saudi royal family that imprisons women’s rights activists, or deployed the promise of gender equality as legitimation for war, most infamously in Afghanistan.

In the same way that racism in the context of colonial legacies has been highlighted domestically, it is important to acknowledge them in the foreign policy domain. A progressive feminist-informed foreign policy would seek to acknowledge the links between gender inequality—domestically and abroad—and the pernicious impacts of anti-migration policies and arms sales.

Beyond acknowledging those links, the Biden administration should seek to challenge them. The nomination of Bonnie Jenkins, a seasoned diplomat the founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation, to the position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security is one positive sign.

In practical terms, the extent of inclusivity will depend on the new administration’s willingness to break with the elite consensus on international peace and security, with its embrace of forever war and reliance on the military-industrial partnership. If the new U.S. delegation at the United Nations is serious about implementing Women, Peace, and Security provisions regarding dialogue with local women’s groups and the protection of human rights defenders, it must commit to those parts of the agenda that require disarmament and the prevention of conflict, beyond simply including more women in militaries and counterextremism efforts.

Feminist perspectives on foreign policy offer a path for addressing global hierarchies and inequities, including those fostered by U.S. policies. One policy area where the commitment to equity may be tested is climate change. The promise to reinstate the U.S. government’s membership in the Paris climate agreement has been welcome news for many domestically and internationally.

Feminist perspectives on foreign policy offer a path for addressing global hierarchies and inequities, including those fostered by U.S. policies.

Climate change produces vulnerabilities in the lives of women in already precarious positions. In many cases, the same violence that undermines women’s rights and gender equality facilitates the destruction of the environment. For example, for women living in rural areas in developing economies, the impact of climate change affects their livelihoods. According to the World Health Organization, climate change-induced natural disasters are more likely to kill women than men because of disease and socioeconomic status. The recommitment to the Paris agreement thus not only underscores the return to the liberal world order but also provides an opening for the United States to acknowledge the interaction of different sources of insecurity.

In many ways, the Biden administration is a return to U.S. foreign policy as it existed before Trump. Yet, the status quo ante historically reinforced global power hierarchies that harmed women—especially in developing countries. The demand for inclusivity must go beyond superficial diversity and encompass individuals beyond Washington and relations beyond the borders of the United States. Moreover, the commitments must become action to enact substantive change. The only way this can happen is through a reflection on prior harms done as a result of U.S. foreign policies. For all the horrors it has visited, the last year has also seen global feminist and anti-racist mobilization that could provide the impetus for a different kind of foreign-policy practice.

Toni Haastrup is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Stirling. She is the co-author, with Jamie J. Hagen, of “Global Racial Hierarchies and the Limits of Localization via National Action Plans” in the book New Directions in Women, Peace and Security. Twitter: @ToniHaastrup

Paul Kirby is an assistant professorial research fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @PaulCinnam0n