Report

Biden Takes Small Steps Toward Feminist Foreign Policy

Biden’s push for gender equality is a huge change from Trump, but experts stop short of calling it a feminist foreign policy.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks about the pending nominations of key foreign-policy and national security officials.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks about the pending nominations of key foreign-policy and national security officials to the new administration in Delaware, on Nov. 24, 2020. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

During his first months in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled a radically different approach to women and gender issues in foreign policy than his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose administration led the charge to pare back international efforts on sexual and reproductive health.

Spurred by a diverse coalition within the Democratic Party, Biden repealed some Trump-era policies driven by the Republican Party’s evangelical base, such as the Global Gag Rule banning international nonprofits that provide abortion counseling or referrals from receiving U.S. global health funding.

During his first months in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled a radically different approach to women and gender issues in foreign policy than his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose administration led the charge to pare back international efforts on sexual and reproductive health.

Spurred by a diverse coalition within the Democratic Party, Biden repealed some Trump-era policies driven by the Republican Party’s evangelical base, such as the Global Gag Rule banning international nonprofits that provide abortion counseling or referrals from receiving U.S. global health funding.

On International Women’s Day, Biden signed an executive order to create a new White House Gender Policy Council, which is meant to coordinate gender policy issues in the government and assess how the coronavirus pandemic will impact women’s health issues worldwide. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield were chosen to head the U.S. delegation to the 65th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women earlier this month—the first time the United States will be represented at the White House-level and by two women of color in the event’s history.

He has also filled his cabinet with more women than any of his recent predecessors, matching the record set by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, often in roles never before held by a woman, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. Biden’s administration is on track to come closer to gender parity than any other in U.S. history, a stark shift from the makeup of Trump’s cabinet.

The changes so far come as a relief to some experts and advocates that criticized Trump’s policies, and they offer a glimpse into what the next four years of U.S. policy on global women and gender issues might look like.

“There’s some really promising and strong signals that the administration is making a deep substantive commitment to policy that advances gender equity and equality both at home and abroad,” said Rachel Vogelstein, director of the women and foreign-policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It’s not unusual for the United States to alter course on women and gender issues when the White House changes party control, particularly on abortion. But under Trump, the shift was much starker, as anti-abortion advocates in the administration sparked diplomatic battles with some of the United States’ closest allies to quash United Nations and other international diplomatic initiatives on gender issues and sexual and reproductive health.

At one point in 2019, the Trump administration sided with Saudi Arabia and Malaysia against European allies like Sweden at the U.N. in a push to weaken global protections for women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Washington sparked another spat with European allies when it almost vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning sexual violence, alongside China and Russia, because Trump administration officials said language in the resolution condoned abortion. In 2019, the Trump administration pushed G-7 countries to water down a declaration on gender equality, angering counterparts in Canada, France, Germany, and other major economies.

Biden administration officials insist these types of diplomatic spats are a relic of the Trump era, as the administration works to repair strained relations with allies. “One of the main differences is how mainstream​ed gender issues are really ​becoming—in terms of strategy across the board and how it is very much a priority for this administration—very clear,” said a State Department official in the Office of Global Women’s Issues who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. The official said the department was adopting a more intersectional approach to gender mainstreaming, a change evidenced by the diversity seen in this year’s U.N. delegation and State’s International Women of Courage Award recipients.

“I do think there are significant differences and that this is not only a sea change but a dramatic step forward,” Vogelstein said.

But advocacy groups are still pressuring Biden to do more. The president has yet to name nominees for many senior administration posts that would oversee women’s issues, including an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. While some senior State Department posts sit empty for months, how long Biden takes to name such an envoy is a barometer of how genuinely his administration prioritizes women’s issues, experts said. It’s also unclear how much traction the Gender Policy Council will have inside the government as Biden works to staff his administration; the big question is whether the council will be able to advance these issues both within the sprawling government and across foreign policy.

When it comes to incorporating women’s issues into foreign aid spending, the United States has a lot of catching up to do. Even as global foreign assistance to boost women’s equality reached record levels, the United States remained a laggard, earmarking just 20 percent of its foreign aid to advance gender equality and empower women, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s below the average of 42 percent for other OECD countries in the study and a fraction of that spent by countries such as Ireland, Sweden, and Canada.

The big question is whether Biden can restore a progressive agenda for women after the damage done during the Trump years. Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women, pointed to the kind of foreign policies championed by countries like Canada and Sweden that explicitly prioritize women’s equality as a precursor to peace and development.

“I would ask somebody in the Biden-Harris administration what they think about a feminist foreign policy,” she said.

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report. 

Katie Livingstone is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.