Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy: Will Berlin Really Do Things Differently?
The German Foreign Office is currently drafting guidelines for its feminist foreign policy. While the outcome of this process is unclear, three scenarios are possible—but only one is likely.
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Almost a year ago, on December 7, 2021, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green Party, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) signed their coalition contract, sealing the formation of a new German government. The document enshrined their plans for the legislative term 2021-2025. The section on foreign affairs included the announcement that the coalition would act “in the sense of a feminist foreign policy.”
This came as a surprise to most, and the meaning of FFP was neither clear to the German public nor to (large parts of) the staff of the foreign office itself.
Led by Germany’s first female—and comparatively young—foreign minister, 41-year-old Annalena Baerbock from the Green Party, the German Foreign Office is currently working out its FFP guidelines, and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is drafting a feminist development cooperation approach. The outcome of these processes is still unclear.
FFP in Theory
Since the 1980s, feminist scholars have made women visible in international relations, and they have deconstructed gender norms by pointing to gender as a socially constructed category. Two core concepts of feminist theory have particularly far-reaching consequences for a state’s foreign policy, going far beyond the empowerment of women: intersectionality and human security.
Intersectionality describes how different forms of exclusion interact and reinforce each other. Most feminists emphasize that women’s struggles cannot be separated from the marginalization of other groups, based on all sorts of identity markers (gender, skin color, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, sexual identity, etc.). FFP should therefore not solely consider the needs of women but of all marginalized groups.
Feminists also challenge the focus on state and national security. They argue that the security of a state does not necessarily mean security for the individual, and hence resort to human security as their key reference. Accordingly, human needs must take precedence over the strategic interests of the state, and peace is not defined as the absence of war, but as the absence of all forms of structural violence, oppression, and discrimination. The prime aim of FFP should therefore be to dismantle repressive power structures and to safeguard the wellbeing of (vulnerable) individuals. Decisions should not be based on considerations on the macro-level, for example by using GDP growth, national poverty levels, or state security as key reference points. Instead, decisions should be based on an assessment of how they impact marginalized groups.
Taken together, FFP as defined by feminist scholars doesn’t solely demand more representation of women, but advocates for far-reaching structural changes to end any form of oppression. In that context, feminists regard external and internal dimensions to be closely related. FFP must give priority to these issues in its relations with other states, and it equally requires governments to address internal structures, for example by dismantling hurdles for marginalized groups within the decision-making process, or by consequently applying human rights in domestic issues.
Trailblazers Sweden and Canada?
Germany is not the first to try and adopt an FFP. Until today, nine countries have publicly referred to FFP: Sweden (2014), Canada (2017), Luxembourg (2018), France (2019), Mexico (2020), Spain (2021), Libya (2021), Germany (2021), and Chile (2022). The extent to which these countries have followed through on their pledges varies significantly. In most cases it is too early to evaluate their commitment. In the case of France, the concrete meaning of FFP has remained vague and practical impacts have been very limited, leading analysts to describe French FFP as “pink-washing.” The most thorough approaches have been developed by Sweden and Canada—and German officials frequently refer to these two countries as models for German FFP.
The incoming Swedish government announced the adoption of FFP in 2014 and substantiated its claim with several documents in the following years, including an action plan, a comprehensive handbook, and feminist trade policy guidelines. The three “Rs” form the basis of Sweden’s FFP: rights, representation, resources. Sweden has also pushed for implementation. Regarding the internal dimension, the foreign ministry, inter alia, appointed a coordinator for FFP, installed a focal point for FFP in every department and every embassy, and introduced training on FFP at all levels of the diplomatic corps.
Regarding the external dimension, FFP has impacted several policy fields. For example, Sweden is close to reach its self-defined target that 90 percent of official development assistance (ODA) should go to projects with gender equality as either a principal or significant objective, and legislative reforms on arms exports enshrined that a human rights assessment must be undertaken before any authorization.
While Sweden has thus gone furthest in implementing FFP, observers point to resistance to the challenging of structural hurdles to equality and double standards. For example, they highlight that Sweden still delivers weapons to authoritarian states worldwide, or that Sweden introduced strict asylum policies that do not emphasize the human security of migrants. Thus, Sweden still falls short of truly committing itself to an FFP based on intersectionality and human security, aimed at structural changes.
The Canadian government has so far only adopted an explicit feminist approach in development cooperation. Its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) places gender equality at the center of foreign aid, and respective projects are supposed to receive 95 percent of Canada’s ODA—an aim Canada has almost reached. In June 2019, Ottawa pledged an additional $300 million to the newly established Equality Fund, which was established to support feminist organizations in the Global South. Yet, despite positive steps taken, critics have concluded that FIAP does still not tackle the patriarchic structures that hinder development, but rather focuses on women’s empowerment in more traditional ways.
FFP and the Previous German Government
For centuries, men and notions of masculinity have shaped Germany’s external affairs, whereas women and feminist ideas have barely been present in foreign policy discourses. Heiko Maas, the SPD foreign minister from 2018 until 2021, highlighted this in one of his last speeches before leaving office by pointing out: “There can be few other fields where the classic role models are as deep-rooted as they are in foreign and security policy.”
During the last legislature, gender equality became more prominent, at least regarding domestic issues. Maas pressed for equal representation within the German Foreign Office, and today, some 50 percent of all ministerial employees and 50 percent of each year’s graduates of the diplomatic training are female. However, in late 2020, only 23.5 percent of leading positions within the ministry and 23 percent of ambassador posts were occupied by women. In 2021, the German Foreign Office published a diversification plan, which sets ambitious targets for the inclusion of marginalized groups, among others aiming for gender parity in leading positions by 2025.
Furthermore, the German Foreign Office installed the position of a contact person for the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda in many embassies around the world in late 2021, and it introduced trainings for staff members. Also, several (feminist) networks among diplomatic circles have developed. The charity organization frauen@diplo e.V. pushes for gender mainstreaming in the ministry; the initiative Diplomats of Color demands more representation of Germans of foreign descent; the network Rainbow provides a platform for LGBTQI members within the diplomatic service.
Same Old Priorities
By contrast, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last government took very few measures in line with FFP’s external dimension. German development cooperation has continued to focus on the reduction of poverty, measured on the macro level, instead of dismantling structural inequality, as once again enshrined in the Reform Concept 2030. Also, all key documents defining German foreign and security policy have framed security as state-centric, including the latest white paper. Thus, national security interests have remained Germany’s key objectives and have been prioritized over the human security of marginalized groups worldwide.
In 2020, the foreign ministry published a comprehensive report on Gender Equality in German Foreign Policy and in the Federal Foreign Office. Therein, the ministry explicitly refers to countries who have adopted an FFP, stating that “the momentum is newly growing. Close partners … are sharpening the focus of their foreign policy and taking gender equality into account in all sub-fields. They are setting the benchmark and inspiring us to orient our future work more keenly towards gender equity.” Yet, the report exclusively focuses on the empowerment of women, largely neglecting intersectionality and showing a narrow understanding of feminism. Moreover, it takes stock but does not lay out concrete plans and ambitions.
FFP and the New German Government
Thus, although the reference to FFP came as a surprise when the current coalition government formed, it didn’t come out of nowhere. In recent years, researchers and activists have increasingly promoted the idea—the Berlin-based Center for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), for example, was founded in 2016. Also, the Greens have been advocating for an FFP for several years, and the party was clearly the driver for including the reference in the coalition agreement, even though also their understanding of FFP has remained ambiguous.
In fact, the Greens were the only party among the three coalition partners that referred to FFP in their electoral platform. Therein, they stressed that it would be time for a feminist government, and they included a section titled “designing international politics in a feminist way” in which they emphasized their support for FFP, including in the areas of security, development cooperation, and trade.
In the electoral platforms of the SPD and the FDP, on the other hand, the word “feminist” is nowhere to be found, neither regarding foreign policy nor in any other context, illustrating that they have been much less enthusiastic about FFP.
The coalition agreement represents a compromise between the three parties’ platforms. Even the fact that the term is used in English— “feminist foreign policy” instead of “feministische Außenpolitik”—is a compromise because the FDP did not want to have the German terminology used, clearly showing its lack of commitment. Nevertheless, the agreement includes the sentence: “Together with our partners, in the sense of a feminist foreign policy, we aim to strengthen resources and representation of women and girls worldwide, and support social diversity.” It then refers to the three “Rs,” stating that politics must make sure that women have equal rights and resources, and that they must enjoy the same level of political representation and decisionmaking power.
The current government has hence pledged to act more in line with FFP than previous ones. However, the reference in the coalition contract is very brief and vague, and does not clearly announce the adoption of a fully-fledged FFP. Most of the mentioned measures focus on supporting women within existing structures, while the contract lacks an emphasis on dismantling structural relations of domination, and it does not promote a shift from state to human security. So far, FFP hardly plays any role for the work of German diplomats, and very few officials have ever referred to FFP in public.
Foreign Minister Baerbock is amongst the main supporters of FFP, as illustrated by her opening remarks at the FFP Summit in April and the conference Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy in September 2022. She declared that she was proud that her government is the first to adopt FFP in Germany, stressed that human security must be at the core of FFP, and announced that Germany follows the Swedish model of the “3 Rs” but would add another D for diversity, because FFP must not solely be concerned about women but about all marginalized groups.
Furthermore, Baerbock pledged that the government would start a “listening process” and work with experts to establish a framework for FFP. Guidelines can indeed be expected in the spring of 2023, but according to activists, civil society has barely been involved in the process so far.
It is still unclear how far the government will follow through with its announcement and what it means exactly by FFP. The whole cabinet does not seem to be truly determined, and the three coalition partners have different stances.
Thus, in the first scenario, Germany’s FFP may very well remain a label that does not lead to far-reaching changes in practice, as in the case of France. Yet, the process of substantiating the clause in the coalition agreement by drafting guidelines has started, and cabinet members have publicly declared their support and can hardly backtrack now.
The second scenario is that the German government applies a truly comprehensive and thorough version of FFP, as envisioned by feminist theory. In that case, the government will have had to re-assess its external relations in their entirety, and the very aim of foreign policy would shift from serving German national interests to safeguarding the well-being of vulnerable groups and individuals. Such an approach would go far beyond the Swedish and Canadian versions of FFP. Considering the skepticism within the cabinet and the discourse in recent months, this is, however, unlikely to happen.
The third and most probable scenario is that Germany follows Sweden and Canada, where FFP was substantiated by different documents and led to significant changes. This would entail the new government continuing to work on reducing discrimination within the foreign ministry and the diplomatic service and strengthening gender equality in some foreign policy fields, such as development cooperation or post-conflict initiatives.
Yet, just like Sweden and Canada, Germany would fall short of truly focusing on the dismantling of structures of discrimination both domestically and in other countries, and of seeing FFP as an all-encompassing alternative foreign policy framework instead of an addition to foreign policy, which focuses on a narrow aspect of external affairs.
Christian Achrainer is a post-doctoral researcher at Roskilde University, where he is involved in a Horizon Europe project (SHAPEDEM-EU) aimed at designing and pilot-testing a more inclusive and localized bottom-up framework for EU democracy support in the EU’s eastern and southern neighborhood.