How Feminist Foreign Policy Can Help Overcome Outdated Dichotomies
Germany has a long—and flawed—history of debating whether values or interests should take precedence in foreign policy decision-making. Feminist foreign policy could provide an impetus to leave this behind.
Germany’s commitment to a feminist foreign policy (FFP) has reinforced the impression that values and interests are diametrically opposed categories; indeed, it is seen as polarizing the debate further. This is based on outdated assumptions, however. Rather, FFP could give a new impetus to talk about whose concerns are currently defined as values and whose as interests. Two years into Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ government, it is time for it to set its compass straight.
In recent months, Berlin’s diplomacy has resembled a tug-of-war. On the one side, there is German foreign policy as it has always been conducted: somewhat heavy-handed, but tried and tested; reactive, but careful. Then there is the countermovement from within—light-footed, sometimes plain-speaking, and not terribly diplomatic, at least not in the traditional sense. Some consider it inappropriate, others progressive. And in theory at least, the combination could serve as a recipe to bring out the best of both worlds in a supposedly progressive coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
But to achieve a fusion requires coherent leadership—to reassure voters that now is the time to let go of old certainties (at a time when the far-right AfD is surging in the polls), and to restore Germany’s credibility among its partners that has been damaged in recent months. Instead of finding a way to counter those developments, intra-government clashes have tended to come to light in individual tussles, for instance with regard to Germany’s stance vis-à-vis China. Material needs is contrasted with goals of putting human rights at the core of decision-making, with each of the three governing parties trying to juggle values and interests.
Baerbock versus Scholz: Values versus Interests?
The dichotomy is supposed to start at the top: Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) is seen as standing for national interests, while Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) is seen as advocating for a values-driven policy, not least because she promotes a feminist foreign policy. At a time of growing international conflict, the Scholzian approach is enjoying a head start. It offers a sense of familiarity and seriousness. Others, however, see in it more of the cynical pursuit of material concerns that got Germany into its current mess in the first place.
Scholz and Baerbock have slugged it out in a slew of strategy documents and guidelines. The guidelines on a feminist foreign policy were the first ones to be published. On March 1, 2023, the German Foreign Office released its document specifying how Germany will make its values credible in today’s world, both in terms of its own structures—strengthening representation, resources, rights of women and other marginalized groups in the German Foreign Office—and in concrete foreign policy fields of work—such as security, climate, and trade. The chancellery did not comment on how the change put forward by FFP would affect its orientation.
The same pattern played out in the drafting of the National Security Strategy. After months of delays, it was published on June 14, 2023. It was meant to be written by Baerbock’s team, but the SPD-led defense and interior ministries pushed back, and Scholz took over. This process further strengthened the impression of a divorce between values and interests, and between two styles of foreign policy. The text of the National Security Strategy that states that “German foreign and security policy is … values-based and interest-driven,” aimed at putting a temporary end to the dissenting voices by speaking of both ends—but has once again increased the image of two separate categories.
Feminist Foreign Policy as a Compass
In this situation, FFP can make a constructive difference. Feminist foreign policy changes the object of interest from the security of the state to the security of humans. It focuses on strengthening human rights and reducing vulnerabilities—caused by centuries-old power structures—rather than solely caring about material concerns. After the German Foreign Office published its guidelines on feminist foreign policy, people had been expecting—or were afraid of—a massive change: a Zeitenwende in the form of a feminist, values-driven revolution. This also was unlikely.
However, the German commitment to an FFP—despite or because of the geopolitical circumstances—could trigger a positive rethink of some of the long-term interests that German foreign policy has been built on. With these core elements of FFP—strengthening the rights, resources, and representation of women and marginalized groups, including more perspectives in decision-making, and placing intersectional human security at its core—the understanding of matters of concern is being questioned.
How results can change when putting these elements at the center, giving more access to the voices of the affected, and an active civil society, is shown by the example of climate foreign policy. With climate change’s undeniable global effects as well as the unequally distributed impacts and origins, different perspectives come together. At COP27 a milestone was reached with its agreement to address the loss and damage associated with climate change and agreed to establish a respective “Loss and Damage Fund”—which aims to prioritize the most affected—despite a big fossil fuels lobby. This was an achievement also by civil society pushing for the case.
Redefining Interests with New Demands
It is often said that civil society participation is part of a value-driven rather than interest-driven politics. But after Ukraine’s resistance or the recent election results in Poland, people see it differently: It serves a vital interest, namely democratic resilience. The same goes for equal representation: Frequently quoted studies show that the more perspectives are included in (peace) processes, the more sustainable the results. Such examples have forced us to rethink the relationship between interests and values.
In a multipolar world, increasingly driven by competition between systems and characterized by transactional cooperation, “realists” say that values-based approaches may put Germany at a disadvantage when trying to hold its ground in the international arena. But it is a good time to ask how German interests are defined.
Baerbock recently stated that “adherence to our values is our greatest interest.” And yet, in foreign policy, when push comes to shove, interests trump values. This is the result of a false hierarchization between them.
Interests have so far been characterized mainly as economic and state interests. These interests lead to cooperation and form alliances. Values, on the other hand, usually refer to the principles on which our society is based: human rights, international norms, equality, rule of law, democracy; things that aim to ensure a secure life for all people. The people who are most affected when these principles are not safeguarded are the most vulnerable, with the least representation of interests. This is where we come full circle. What is called values are in fact marginalized interests, while the proclaimed interests reflect the concerns of only a few.
Talking of Means and Ends
Feminist approaches to foreign policy aim to change that. By giving access to the concerns of more than those of a few, seeing not only state actors as relevant interlocutors, and by putting the wellbeing of humans first, the definition of interests is being questioned. And it could change the way cooperation and alliances are being built. Governments with FFP will still pursue state interests. But in the sense of a feminist foreign policy, those state interests must serve as means, with human interests being the ends.
Germany should master this in its own actions and relations. This might not always work out in the short term; FFP still must operate in a world that it didn’t create. But it should not be put on the backburner, either. Not all dilemmas are really dilemmas if you have a clear compass.
To achieve this, the following three insights are key:
First, in the early stages of the National Security Strategy, Baerbock travelled across Germany to talk to citizens. The objective was twofold: to record their concerns and worries about Germany’s security, and to raise awareness of foreign and security policy in society—a society in which foreign policy issues have always been treated paternalistically. The goal was to understand and shape public discussion so that Germany can make credible commitments to the outside world.
But finding the balance between explaining and changing is tough. Scholz was criticized for his minimalist communication style, which leads to him not being understood by the majority. By contrast, a handful of ministers, especially Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens), were praised for levelling with the public and explaining just how tricky things have become when thinking through values in terms of both ends and means. But often they were explaining the limitations of change. Meanwhile Germany’s foreign policy partners were left out in the cold as the country talked to itself. This needs to change.
It also led to a second realization. German diplomacy does not reflect Germany’s multi-layered society. The job of diplomacy is to collaborate and find new coalitions, and many experiences, demands, and ideas do not find their way into the decision-making processes of international (and national) action. Foreign policy in Germany is still an elitist field: mostly white, mostly male, mostly from economically privileged backgrounds.
This all bends Germany toward the representation of established interests and away from new approaches to global transformation—to migration, digitalization, climate change. While the business community has always had a powerful lobby in the political arena, the concerns of less organized groups have usually been addressed only selectively. Yet civil society organizations can support foreign policy processes through their multi-layered expertise. Feminist foreign policy aims to pull marginalized perspectives, not just women, off the side-lines.
Third, alliance-building is key. Sweden was the first country to introduce an FFP in 2014—and the first one to abolish it in 2021. Until 2020, four other countries had officially committed to a feminist foreign policy. Since 2021, however, the number of states with an official FFP has doubled, to a total of at least 14. This is in addition to those countries that are committed to FFP but do not officially label their foreign policy with the F-word. But it is not just a matter of numbers—the FFP club has become much more geographically diverse than it was two years ago, with countries such as Mongolia and Colombia joining.
This provides opportunities to build cooperation along normative lines and to form new alliances among like-minded partners. A critical mass could make it easier to follow a human-centered approach without risking one’s own position in the international community. On the one hand, this can benefit geopolitical reasoning by providing marginalized countries with more access to the international community as well as the opportunity to diversify partnerships between North and South. On the other hand, those alliances can provide a counter-narrative to transactional diplomacy as well as anti-democratic and anti-feminist movements that are on the rise.
Instead of indulging in disputes over an outdated dichotomy, whether values or interests should take precedence in its foreign policy, the German government should use FFP to find a way forward. It could provide an impetus for bridging the gap: by daring to ask whose demands foreign policy should ultimately serve. This would help to ensure that FFP does not remain an internal reform project, but becomes one of the instruments for calibrating Germany’s foreign policy compass.
Leonie Stamm is a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe, working on topics related to feminist foreign policy.