Feminist Foreign Policy and Beyond

Oct 11, 2022

No Pain, No Gain: How Germany Can Build a Viable Feminist Foreign Policy

A credible, effective feminist foreign policy must go beyond symbolic signals and small efforts. It must focus on actions that can achieve real progress.

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German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attends a conference on the global food crisis in Berlin, Germany June 24, 2022.
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What would a feminist foreign policy for Germany look like? There is no single clear definition of a feminist foreign policy that all experts can agree on; both feminism itself and foreign policy approaches in general are too diverse and contentious for that (and rightly so). It is both good and necessary for there to be great diversity of opinion and analysis among experts on feminism who engage with the foreign policy establishment. Everyone making foreign policy, or commenting on it, should be working together to fill the gap between theoretical debates on feminism and a foreign policy practice that has so far been mostly “gender blind.” Gender blindness means ignoring real differences in access to power, money, security, etc., which are based on gender or some other element of identity. At first glance, gender blindness might seem like a good thing, but in reality it amplifies the advantages of the strong and the disadvantages of the weak. For this reason, gender blindness is the first obstacle that must be overcome.

However, feminism is not just a new label for gender equality or the advancement of women. Modern feminism is based on the observation, proven thousands of times over, that the unfair disadvantages suffered by women mainly stem from patriarchal structures of power and violence. These also affect other groups: generations of immigrants of all genders, queer people, poor people, and so on. Hurdles are made even higher for people who belong to more than one disadvantaged group. Support for these people will only be effective if it is specifically geared to the interaction of various forms of discrimination. This is what “intersectionality” means. Intersectional feminism—which is what the German government has committed itself to with its formula of “rights, resources, representation, and diversity (3R+D)”—is seeking to overcome these unfair relations of power and violence.

This cannot be achieved by simply doubling the usual “women's projects” in every embassy, least of all if the effort remains limited to cultural affairs, convenient as that would be. A country with the wealth and the political weight of Germany can announce its commitment to a feminist foreign policy, but what counts is putting it into practice, facing up to the real extent of existing injustices and their huge negative consequences for peace, freedom, and prosperity. It is not enough to create a platform for art projects by a few upper class women from the host country or to create regional networks with laptop activists who are already mobile and well-educated. These can be quick ways to meet the “3Rs”, but they neither promote the “D” (diversity) nor do they make much of a contribution to shifting structures of power and violence in host countries.

Trust, Respect, and its Traps

There is a revolutionary aspect to feminism that spells trouble with a core tenet of diplomatic culture. Of course, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states has never been followed by the powerful and, in its absolute form, has long been superseded in international law. However, relationships between governments remain at the heart of foreign policy, and these relationships cannot work without a basic level of trust and respect. Most countries are all too familiar with outsiders giving lectures and interfering in their society’s internal power structures. These governments and civil societies have smooth defensive reflexes they put up against this kind of paternalism and imperialism.

A feminist foreign policy must not be a preachy foreign policy, self-righteously judging the lives of people elsewhere from the standpoint of wealthy, white Germany. However, a diplomatic culture of respect and restraint can result in working exclusively with elites in a partner country, which can contribute to legitimizing and perpetuating the violence, repression, and marginalization carried out by these elites. When that happens, then Germany is part of the problem, and far from being the human rights champion it likes to think itself.

This is the dilemma that any viable feminist foreign policy must overcome. Some humility on Germany’s part has to be part of the solution. As long as only 35 percent of seats in Germany’s federal parliament are occupied by women, and our gender pay gap stands at 18 percent (the fourth worst in the European Union), not to mention growing rates of domestic violence and femicide, there is no basis for arrogant lecturing. While those examples are all about women, we can also point to inaction on right-wing murders, racism, hostility to lesbian and gay people, and the almost non-existent examination of our colonial history and the looted art in our museums. Germany’s coalition government, comprising the center-left Social Democrats, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the Greens, has committed to a feminist foreign policy while not having a feminist domestic policy. This is a contradiction that German diplomats have to deal with.

At the same time, humility cannot become an alibi. The German government pursues human rights abroad despite ongoing police violence in Germany. It promotes ambitious climate goals although many German autobahns still have no speed limit. It promotes culture while Germans still put pineapple on pizza. Progress must cope with contradictions.

Context Counts

Aspiring to a feminist foreign policy is a necessary and revolutionary step, but its extent and priorities remain unclear, and would benefit from far more vigorous debate. We—politicians, diplomats, feminists, independent experts in these fields—urgently need to clarify whether feminism necessarily involves pacifism. If Germany’s alliances are more important than the radical disarmament agenda of feminist theory, or the equally feminist principle of protecting victims of violence, which may require arms. Whether Germany can still fund peace negotiations if they do not include ambitious women’s quotas—a highly charged subject during the development of the National Action Plan on “Women, Peace, and Security.” Finally, we need to talk about the role of understanding local contexts. Is it enough to apply a feminist “perspective” and your transformative policy priorities will automatically pop up? (And if so, how do you enforce taking such a perspective?) Or is it necessary and, indeed, possible, to formulate the first practical steps of a feminist foreign policy that works across all countries and situations?

“If things aren’t hurting, we’re not making progress,” might be a useful guideline—and if we provoke defensiveness in the host country, if our words and actions boost the anti-feminist counterrevolution more than they promote feminist change, then the pain signal was too strong. A feminist foreign policy must target power structures. It is bound to contradict the core traditions of diplomacy. This kind of change must spark pain to be effective, both within the German foreign policy apparatus and in relation to other governments. Pain, but not too much pain: effective feminist foreign policy needs ambitious pragmatism, one built on a different kind of balancing and adjustment than effective civil society activism. Here too, contentious debate is a necessary driver of further development.

Three suggestions for finding the correct pain point:

First, leading by example means toughness within the organization. The German Foreign Office must not take the easy way out: assigning the hard slog of feminist foreign policy to one of the youngest people in an embassy, usually a woman. Department heads and ambassadors should take the time to develop a feminist strategy for their country and their areas of responsibility. The same applies to human resources. Government institutions need gender quotas for management positions, since this is the only way to ensure structural change against the entrenched interests of formerly dominant groups. Feminist foreign policy, like any political agenda, will take work. This will only get done if additional staff are assigned to do it, or if other priorities are put aside.

Second, the people most affected by issues know best what they need. Non-negotiable quotas for women are not a solution if they are condescendingly imposed from above by Germans who cannot even put their own house in order. The knowledge that, in general, more women in peace negotiations leads to more lasting peace deals does not mean we can impose the same quota for every set of talks. Even if Germany acts as a feminist promoter of peace, as a future feminist foreign policy suggests it should be, it must determine where best to apply external incentives for inclusivity and sustainability in any given peace process. This analysis should begin by embracing as wide a variety of local perspectives as possible. Again, this takes time and effort and can only be accomplished if internal decisions are made to free up the necessary resources.

Third, there are many “locals.” To understand political dynamics, we must give a higher priority to listening more, listening better, and listening more broadly. It is not remotely enough to trot out catchphrases about “local ownership.” The hard part begins when we ask which “local owners” should be listened to or involved, and how much diversity is enough. No government speaks for everyone in a country. We must also remember that the rich, the educated, and those living in the capital city do not represent marginalized groups, which a feminist foreign policy seeks to help. Here, feminist foreign policy shares a long-standing problem with effective statecraft more broadly: a shortage of in-depth analysis on countries outside of the OECD. This ultimately stems from Germany’s catastrophically poor staffing of its representations in those countries, so if Germany wants a feminist foreign policy, one of the requirements is to address that staffing shortage and analytical gap.

Unlike past policies on women, gender, and to a large degree human rights, a credible, effective feminist foreign policy must go beyond symbolic signals and small, homeopathic efforts. It must focus on the actions most likely to prompt significant changes in power relations within the host society. What material support and what political signals can a German government use to achieve the greatest achievable progress toward an inclusive society?

In one country, a quintessential women’s rights issue, such as the freedom to practice a profession, the right to drive a car, or the prevention of domestic and sexual violence may be the best cause to promote. In another country, the answer to that question may highlight a need to help oppressed indigenous peoples, or call attention to huge differences in income and wealth. More broadly, the lesson may be that Germany needs to start by redirecting its own political work, including project funding, in such a way as to stop shoring up the very power relations that feminism seeks to overcome. These decisions must be made individually for each country and each region. It will take courage: the courage to experiment, try things out, and sometimes get our fingers burnt.

Philipp Rotmann is a director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).

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