Feminist Foreign Policy and Beyond

Mar 18, 2022

A Feminist Foreign Policy for Germany Is Not Enough

The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock is in place as Germany’s first female foreign minister, while the coalition agreement commits Germany to a feminist foreign policy. But what exactly does that mean?

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock delivers a speech on national security strategy ahead of a panel discussion at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany, March 18, 2022.
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Germany has joined the list of countries that have signed up to a feminist foreign policy. However, the concept of feminist foreign policy is unclear; it is both too broad and too narrow. In this article, we assess some of the different interpretations of feminist foreign policy and outline a good approach for a progressive German government in 2022.

Female Representation

What the policy community understands as feminist foreign policy was pioneered by Sweden, which established an official feminist foreign policy in 2014 based on the 2000 UN resolution 1325, which stresses “the importance of [women’s] equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security” (WPS). In the meantime in addition to Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico have adopted some form of feminist foreign policy (FFP) and in 2020, the European Parliament called on all European Union member states to make EU foreign policy feminist and integrate gender “into all EU policies, both internal and external,” while the European Commission has released a “Gender Action Plan.”

The Swedish model of FFP is relatively straightforward, focusing on the 3 Rs of rights, representation, and resources. Do women and girls have equal rights, equal representation, and receive equal resources? Put another way: Women should be at the table influencing foreign policy decisions and these foreign policy decisions should consider the realities of women and girls in society and their often particular challenges—also in terms of resource allocation.

The greater inclusion of women is a practical, worthy goal. As the Swedish foreign ministry explains, “The policy is a response to the discrimination and systematic subordination that still characterizes everyday life for countless women and girls all over the world.” According to the SHEcurity index, a campaign spearheaded by German Green MEP Hannah Neumann, there is much work still  to do. In all of the states—EU and G20—included in the SHEcurity index, only those parliaments that have gender quotas have achieved gender parity. At the highest level of diplomacy, women hold only 25 percent of the ambassadorships in the EU and G20.

There are a number of studies that suggest that more gender diverse teams perform better, and the data seems to show that boosting women helps everyone: societies where women are more equal are more secure. And yet, more representation, resources, and rights does not need to be advocated on the basis that it leads to a better performance or even better impact. It is enough to argue that in a democratic pluralist system, half of the population should be included in decision-making positions as well as resource allocation.

This first layer of the concept, gender equality in policy making and resource allocation, is one that can be implemented in policy relatively easily by mechanisms such as gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting.

Feminist Plus

Yet the strictly feminist view is too narrow. Today’s feminists, who are concerned about rights and representation, understand that a foreign policy approach invested in equality cannot only be about women and girls, but must take a broader, intersectional, lens. The SHEcurity index, for example, argues in its 2021 index report that representation must move “beyond ‘women.’” Juliane Schmidt, advisor for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, calls for a Green feminist foreign policy “rooted in intersectionality.” Also, the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy in Germany, which has done much to draw attention to feminist foreign policy, campaigns for an intersectional feminist foreign policy. Intersectional, in this sense, means advocating greater representation and resources for not only women and girls, but also other marginalized and vulnerable groups, especially LGBTQI+ and ethnic minorities.

This feminist+ approach is a valuable, and at least conceptionally, obvious extension to a “feminist” foreign policy. In fact, it is unavoidable as soon as one starts to take equity seriously—both as a matter of ethics, but also better policy. After all, if 50 percent of Germany’s foreign-policy decision makers are women, but the table is still dominated by the children of lawyers and doctors without a migration background—is that the right kind of representation? Will that table have the rich and broad view that it should?

A policy toward Myanmar made with women and girls in mind but ignoring the vulnerabilities of the Rohingya minority is clearly not representative enough. Even issues that seem clearly and simply gendered, are often more complicated. Consider the women in Egypt jailed for posting “provocative” TikTok videos. A slew of these arrests happened in 2021. Yes, this is an issue of inequal rights for women and girls (similar videos of men dancing or singing would raise no eyebrows). But the fact is that it is also a class issue. The women who were arrested were middle class; daughters of rich and prominent families can and do go unpunished for the same behavior. And of course, LGBTQI+ individuals in Egypt, female, male, or other, are also arrested using the same “immorality” charge.

This is why a feminist approach that does not keep an eye on the rights (and representation and resources) of all marginalized groups falls short—also in terms of correctly evaluating the realities in a partner country.

As clear as this broader approach is, it is worth noting that it is much more difficult to measure and quantify—especially on the representation side. A scan of a ministry website will tell me how many men and women are in what positions, but whether they are gay, or members of minorities, or come from a working-class background, is more difficult to identify.

Feminist, Anti-racist, and Postcolonial Foreign Policy

The Greens, in their 2021 party platform clearly adopted the intersectional feminist approach. The platform  included “respect for the rights of marginalized groups” and explicitly stated that they will orient their policies to be “post-colonial and anti-racist.”  In the coalition agreement between the Greens, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) the wording is similarly inclusive but, with a stronger emphasis on women and the 1325 resolution, it promises to: “Strengthen the rights, resources, and representation of women and girls worldwide and promote social diversity in the spirit of a feminist foreign policy."

This is thus, already the first (German Green) evolution to the FFP concept, in clearly designing it as feminist plus. One may wonder, why should an anti-racist and post-colonial foreign policy be called feminist? Why should Germany, given its history, not instead pursue an “anti-racist” or even “decolonized” foreign policy that, of course, would also include gender equality? Perhaps the reason is that feminism as an idea and a term has become a bit more mainstream in the past decade, whereas anti-racist and post-colonial approaches are more marginal and seem more radical. The EU, after all, has asked its members to adopt FFP. One example of the way feminism has become mainstream is the recent campaign ad by Friedrich Merz, the new leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), in which he updated his old 1994 video so that it ended with him surrounded by a group of female hunters instead of male ones. So even Merz can get behind the feminist cause, if only in the most superficial and disingenuous way.

The post-colonial aspect should be taken seriously and should not treated be as a side note. Yet more work needs to be done to put the concept into operation. As Teresa Koloma Beck, professor of sociology at the University of Hamburg, recently wrote, this will involve examining aid and intervention with a view to how “colonial asymmetries become the object of experience, how a global constellation of domination is articulated in interactions and organizational arrangements,” and will involve making more progress on returning stolen artifacts and soliciting non-Eurocentric views of the past and present.

Either way, if a feminist foreign policy must also be post-colonial (and it should be) and consider all marginalized and vulnerable groups, why not just call it inclusive, rather than feminist? Inclusive might be a more neutral and accessible term. And it encompasses both subjects and tools. In fact, inclusive is also a term used in the coalition agreement. In the paragraph directly above the mention of feminist foreign policy, when the coalition partners present a 3-percent model for integrated foreign policy resources, they speak of “a networked and inclusive approach.”

Simplified Feminism

One reason that inclusive may be a better term is that there are different versions of FFP circulating, some of which are unequal to Germany’s role in the world. This more radical interpretation of feminist foreign policy draws not from the basic definition of feminism that advocates women’s rights on the basis of believing in the equality of the sexes, but from feminist theory and the history of women’s peace movements. Moving beyond the equality and representation of women and girls (and potentially other marginalized groups) in policy, it instead attempts to fundamentally re-envision foreign policy structures and concepts using the lens of interpretations of (radical) feminist theory and gender analysis. The authors of a recent article in Internationale Politik, make this kind of interpretation: “Feminist foreign policy is not about 'gender issues'—but about changing foreign policy away from patriarchal violence and militarism and toward crisis prevention.”

Feminist theory is a rich academic field with much important scholarship, also in the field of international relations. And like all critical theories (Marxism, post-colonialism) its critical reading of “traditional” international relations offers critical insights. But in its most simplistic version, this approach presumes a dichotomy between the patriarchy/military on the one side and the feminine/peace on the other. This kind of dichotomy is visible in the same article: “An evidence-based feminist foreign and security policy rejects the realpolitik narrative of security through weapons, [and] focuses on demilitarization ...”

Yes, in its most simplified version, realpolitik, or rather, an interpretation of international relations according to realist theory, is based on the idea that global politics is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing wealth and power. A state’s security, as a result, is based on its ability to defend itself against an aggressor (which one could grossly simplify as security through weapons) but also its economic stability and prosperity. But this dichotomy of crude realism or “weapons” vs feminist demilitarization ignores the much richer reality of modern international relations (particularly since World War II).

We can agree that a foreign policy that looks for all answers in weapons is absolutely wrong-headed. But Germany’s, or France’s, and even China’s foreign policy is quite a bit more nuanced than that. And mainstream IR theory is too, in that the liberalist school believes in cooperative ideals, making possible organizations such as the UN. There is a wide array of tools and traditions in modern foreign policy that have moved far from the kind of simplified realism that this version of FFP wants to counter, including the UN system, the external cultural policy, green diplomacy efforts, etc., all currently insufficiently feminist or inclusive, no doubt.

Realpolitik, inspired by a realist view, is a system of politics that prioritizes the practical and pragmatic over the ideological. Realpolitik does not have to be weapons-centric. In Germany it rarely is. Turning a blind eye to Chinese human rights abuses in order to protect export markets is realpolitik demilitarized. Likewise, exporting weapons to autocracies while avoiding the entanglements of humanitarian intervention is also realpolitik. Though it seems more pacifist, it is also realpolitik to rule out military involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Western governments have made a pragmatic decision about how much we will risk to defend Ukraine.

A Difficult Continuum

Crisis-prevention is essential and should be core to foreign and security policy and see adequate investment. But can we be sure that crises in Europe and beyond will be avoided if Germany has a weaker military? Yes, defense capability is in part about weapons (including the right weapons to deter or defend against an attack) but also capabilities. Capabilities to, for example, secure an airport and extricate citizens and allies in the midst of a conflict. Germany lacked these capabilities in Afghanistan.

In fact, an FFP or human-security concept that is focused on protecting citizens and human rights (and not just state sovereignty and power) aligns with the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) UN commitment—a commitment that can lead to more humanitarian interventions.  In Samantha Power’s 2002 book “A Problem from Hell,” the former US ambassador to the UN reflects on the failures of the geopolitical powers to take action in the face of atrocities. She portrays countless situations where the “feminist” approach (one not driven by territorial ambitions or dominance, but by concern for the safety of vulnerable populations) should include the readiness to undertake military intervention. (It should be noted that she does not use the word feminist in these cases, this is our interpretation.) Concluding her analysis of US foreign policy reactions to the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, the Pol Pot regime atrocities in Cambodia, Iraq massacring its Kurdish minority, the Bosnian Serbs’ slaughter of Muslims, and the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi, Power sees intervention as a continuum:

“Instead of undertaking steps along a continuum of intervention—from condemning the perpetrators or cutting off US aid to bombing or rallying a multinational invasion force—US officials tended to trust in negotiation, cling to niceties and ‘neutrality,’ and ship humanitarian aid.”

A feminist foreign policy needs to address the full continuum in a world where aggressors exist. This is a reality that Germany increasingly needs to face. It should face this responsibility in an inclusive feminist way, that balances idealism and realism. The authors of this text might even disagree on how this balance between idealism vs. realism would look like, but we agree that the full continuum is important.

Military capacity is not always about aggressive dominance. Especially in the post-1945 world where European powers are no longer the central global aggressors. Sometimes one needs weapons and military capabilities in order to protect the weak and vulnerable. Take for example the Êzîdxan Women's Units, the Yazidi all-women militia fighting in Syria against the criminal Al-Assad regime. Feminist theory, as a critique of “traditional” IR scholarship, offers important enrichment by focusing on human-security topics often ignored. It is crucial to consider not only troop deployments and technical capabilities, but the experiences of local communities, especially women, around international military bases, for example, or sexual violence in conflict. Feminist foreign policy in practice must do it all.

To properly understand the security situation of the Ukrainian people at this moment one cannot ignore the armed conflict in Donbas or Russia’s threatening military buildup at Ukraine’s borders. One should not, equally, rely only on military answers—but no one is suggesting that. As we write, diplomats are working to prevent further escalation. We cannot know if the people of Ukraine would be better protected in this moment if NATO were to threaten a military response to a Russian invasion or at least more robust military aid—but the Ukrainian government and parliament seem to believe they would be safer with the military protection of NATO. Taiwan is a somewhat similar case. It is hard to imagine that the freedoms of the Taiwanese would be better protected by a Washington that would soften its militarily defensive posture. Is it better for the Uighur population or human rights advocates in China when German foreign policy takes a conciliatory tone?

These are the tough choices ahead in shaping a German FFP that evolves the Swedish model. First, this entails an inclusive, or feminist+, approach. Gender diversity is important, but it is only half of the picture. Instituting full diversity in representation and allocation of resources is more difficult to devise and measure—but it is a necessary expansion.

Second, Germany has a different role to play in the world than Sweden. Berlin must show that foreign policy can be inclusive and idealistic, but also robust. Here, the 3 percent figure in the coalition agreement offers a path. Germany can and should fulfill its spending and capability responsibilities in NATO but also invest significantly in all other aspects of foreign policy, from development aid to cultural policy and beyond.

A smart German FFP understands the tremendous value and potential of diverse foreign policy efforts that center on diplomacy between peoples and societies, and cultural and artistic dialogue– while also ensuring that Germany can defend itself, its allies, and vulnerable populations today and tomorrow.

Caroline Assad is the research coordinator at the Deutsches Zentrum für Integrations- und Migrationsforschung.

Rachel Tausendfreund is co-chair of WIIS.de and editorial director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.