March 8, 2018
TSC IntelBrief: Understanding Feminist Foreign Policy
March 8 is International Women’s Day, recognized at the United Nations and by other international bodies as a day to both celebrate and reflect upon the unique space held by women as agents of change. While even in 2018 the foreign policy space is overwhelmingly male, some countries have chosen to place feminism front and center. In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to announce a ‘feminist foreign policy.’ In Sweden’s view, gender equality should not be viewed as an exclusively domestic issue, but a global human rights one to be pursued through a state’s foreign policy and security objectives.
While lacking a formal definition, a main premise of feminist foreign policy is that a state’s foreign policy and security objectives will be undermined as long as the rights of women and girls continue to be violated globally. Proponents argue that the fundamental areas of any foreign policy—security & defense and economics & trade—vastly benefit from gender equality. A number of studies have made the link between gender equality and more peaceful, prosperous societies.
Skeptics of feminist foreign policy argue that when given the difficult choice between gender equality objectives and the pursuit of national interests, states will be forced to choose the latter. In 2015, Sweden was indeed faced with this predicament: Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, was blocked by Saudi Arabia from speaking at a meeting of the Arab League following criticisms she made of Saudi human rights violations, including violations of women’s rights. In response, Sweden scrapped a lucrative arms trade agreement with Saudi Arabia and claimed not to suffer politically or economically as a result.
Since Sweden’s historic announcement, other countries have followed suit. In 2017, Canada announced a ‘feminist international assistance policy’ that places gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls ‘as the primary means to challenge poverty and inequality.’ Gender equality objectives have also featured prominently in several states’ defense, development, and humanitarian agendas—though few have committed the entirety of their agendas to a feminist policy perspective.
While many countries may be hesitant to label their foreign policy ‘feminist,’ more countries should encourage gender equality considerations to permeate all aspects of international affairs: security, defense, trade, development, humanitarian, and environmental agendas most importantly. What feminist foreign policy proponents rightly recognize is that gender equality is not a goal in and of itself; it is a fundamental precondition for a more secure and economically sound global system. At its core, feminist foreign policy holds that gender equality is the primary means for achieving a world that is safer, more just and more prosperous for men, women, girls, and boys.
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