Feminist Foreign Policy and Beyond

Sep 29, 2022

Time for a Fair Foreign Policy

The concept of feminist foreign policy is flawed and needs to be broadened. Fair foreign policy is an alternative approach that could be less polarizing and achieve better outcomes.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, European Parliament member Tanja Fajon, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Iceland's Foreign Minister Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova and Belgium's Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder, pose as they attend a roundtable discussion of Women Foreign and Defence Ministers.
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Climate change, the war in Ukraine, and refugee crises all underscore the need to reevaluate the concept of “feminist foreign policy” (FFP), which was intended to examine gendered problems and responses, and improve foreign policy decisions by centering women’s and girls’ perspectives, realities, and challenges. This promising approach could hold answers to current crises but is undermined by four central tensions.

FFP, a Contested Concept

The meaning of “feminist foreign policy” is uncertain even though eight countries have adopted it in some form: Sweden (2014), Canada (2017), Luxembourg and France (2019), Mexico (2020), and Spain, Libya, and Germany (2021). Sweden pioneered this concept and is regarded as a standard, but disagreements remain. There have been various attempts to define FFP and a few studies on the efficacy of FFP, but there is no single definition, and no cross-country comparison of its impact. These uncertainties are problematic. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) was launched without defining feminism or clarifying how the new policy differed from previous approaches. More broadly, differing understandings of FFP have created frictions between governments and civil society organizations.

Ongoing tensions in the articulation and implementation of FFP are significant for Germany. In late 2021, the new government’s coalition agreement embraced FFP to strengthen the rights, resources, and representation of women and girls and to promote diversity. The diversity commitment extends the 3Rs as first articulated by Sweden. More recently,  Tobias Lindner, minister of state at the German Foreign Office, characterized the policy as “3Rs and 1 D.” Germany’s “D,” while unspecified, allows an interpretation of gender diversity since the coalition agreement mentions “an integrated and inclusive approach.” However, this advancement alone is inadequate for reasons we examine below.

FFP, a Flawed Concept

Beyond conceptual uncertainty, FFP has four deep flaws that greatly limit the realization of its potential. First, the term “feminism” is sometimes polarizing and can detract from the objective of advancing more equitable outcomes. A 2020 survey about Canada’s FIAP in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda found that more than 50 percent of respondents believed feminist development, gender equality, and/or women’s empowerment programming did not benefit women but rather undermined men and boys. This perception runs counter to feminism’s goals and is a serious obstacle for effective foreign policy.

Second, FFP does not explicitly account for intersectionality, making it ineffective for issues with multiple dimensions or power differentials. If FFP overtly focuses on women and girls, as in Sweden, it may fail to capture complexities of race, ethnicity, religion, or age, and does not account for other vulnerable or marginalized groups. In Sweden’s model, it is unclear whether intersectionality is actually implemented. For instance, it is insufficient in Europe to focus on women and girls without examining how Roma people may be excluded. Thus far, only Mexico and Spain have explicitly focused on intersectionality.

Third, FFP is specifically concerned with an outward-looking mandate and does not address domestic policies, leaving implementing governments open to accusations of hypocrisy and policy incoherence. One of only two southern adopters of FFP, Mexico, has been criticized by activists for failing to apply feminist principles to domestic issues, including femicide. If a feminist approach centers the needs of women and girls (and the marginalized in some interpretations), policy coherence would imply the need to align domestic policies in the same way, but this is not part of FFP.  

Fourth, FFP debates sometimes oversimplify militaristic versus feminist, or weapons versus peace into false binaries. Military capacity building, weapons stockpiling, other acts of deterrence, or even self-defense in the face of attack have been conflated with aggressive dominance. In Germany, feminist Alice Schwarzer’s open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that responsibility for nuclear conflict lay not only with the aggressor but also with those who resisted the aggressor’s demands. Thus, some advocates for FFP would not allow a country to respond militarily, even if attacked. The confusion about military power under FFP has been further compounded by the West’s tendency to link military intervention with the promotion of white feminism. Women’s interests became a pretext for foreign policy when political exigencies arose, as when then-First Lady of the United States Laura Bush declared that invading Afghanistan would liberate its women or when the Trump administration cited women’s rights to justify pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran. These unfortunate conflations have allowed insurgent groups from ISIS to the Taliban to mount a defense in reverse, rallying against “anti-imperialism” with cries against feminism.

FFP 2.0

Although equity is central to feminism, we advance “fair foreign policy” or FFP 2.0 as a broader and more inclusive concept with many advantages beyond a feminist foreign Policy. FFP 2.0 can resolve the four weaknesses we identify above. Where feminist foreign policy is centered on gendered problems, fairness is inclusive of all groups and does not carry the implication of favor or disfavor to any. This principle helps avoid the perception that advancing some groups is actually undermining others. There is also considerable scope to shape this concept. A recent search for the term “fair foreign policy” on Google Scholar returned only 44 publications in the last 30 years, plus one article from 1965, demonstrating that fairness has been used very rarely vis-à-vis foreign policies, even though it would be intuitive and reasonable to do so.

We employ the term “fair” broadly, meaning “treating an individual or a group of people in a right or reasonable manner, equally, not colored by personal opinions or judgement.” Fairness could inform foreign policy to challenge the gendered binaries inherent in post-Westphalian diplomacy—the masculine state as the benchmark—and the patriarchal association of masculinity with universality and objectivity, while alternatives are silenced or dismissed. Applying a political economy lens, fairness may be analyzed in terms of rights, entitlements, and responsibilities.

FFP 2.0, explicitly goes beyond narrow versions of feminism that are not intersectional, and can even exclude some voices. “Fair” makes space for gender diversity. Incorporating the principle of intersectionality, first articulated by law professor and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, in FFP 2.0 permits the disruption and transformation of harmful historic norms such as relate to colonialism, racism, patriarchy, ableism, and sexism, and recognizes the rights of LGBTQI+, rural, and indigenous people. FFP 2.0 advances accountability and centers inclusiveness and equity within foreign policy.

A fair foreign policy is also untainted by the colonial and imperial links of the term “feminist” and is therefore more appropriate globally. An FFP 2.0 would stand for policy coherence between foreign and domestic policies. It would improve transparency within nation states as it would be more straightforward to monitor the implementation of domestic policies, compared to foreign policy, while improving accountability of the government to its citizens in both spheres.

A fair foreign policy permits self-defense, acknowledging hard power without compromising the principle of “fairness.” This supports recent decisions by Finland and Sweden to join NATO, for instance. The concept of fairness and the right to self-defense extends to communities attacked with sexual violence, as exemplified by the Êzîdxan Women's Units in Iraq, an all-women militia formed to protect Yazidi women and girls from ISIS. Gender-based violence during war is often ignored within foreign policy. Fair foreign policy addresses this directly.

Germany: A Foreign Policy Zeitenwende

The invasion of Ukraine has injected clarity and urgency into German foreign policy debates. This has been described as a Zeitenwende (a historical turning point) with Germany jettisoning its long-held foreign policy norms of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), which was often regarded as giving supremacy to commercial gains over security, and a reluctance to invest in the military for either self-defense or to support NATO. The government’s energy transformation priorities, which set a 2045 carbon neutrality target, have now taken on an added national security dimension. With these moves, the coalition government has refocused on transatlantic relations as a pillar of German foreign policy. They also position Berlin as a stronger leader in the European Union.

Germany’s foreign policy approach would be further enhanced by a deeper understanding of whether and how feminist foreign policy is working. As we argue, a fair foreign policy addresses the limitations of feminist foreign policy and supports Germany’s non-binary approach toward gender. Articulating a definition of FFP 2.0 would guide implementation, including creating more room for the German Foreign Office to maneuver where it is needed most, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

An articulation of FFP 2.0 will clarify the core principles of this new foreign policy approach. These principles will guide bilateral relations, based on the careful evaluation of context and the needs of each partner country. FFP 2.0 thus should include broad consultations with German citizens, beneficiaries of the German government’s programs, and partner organizations abroad. It should be applied across all elements of foreign policy such as development aid, technical assistance, trade, defense, culture, as well as diplomacy itself. It is vital to examine all forms of collaboration, whether North-North, South-South, North-South, or South-North. The German Foreign Office should examine perceptions toward FFP 2.0 to anticipate and mitigate against actors who may try to hinder this process, and to ultimately develop the right sequencing strategy.

Four Recommendations

To move German foreign policy toward implementing a fair foreign policy, we have four recommendations:

First, a political economy analysis (PEA) should shape the German government’s definition of FFP 2.0. PEA can illuminate ways to manage difficult challenges, such as the distribution of power and wealth between different groups and individuals. It also helps to reveal power structures as embedded in governance, accountability and participation. The goals are twofold: to identify opportunities and broaden the scope for dialogue between key stakeholders including partner countries, and to inform better policy and programming. PEA will contribute to a shared understanding of FFP 2.0 within the German government.

Second, implementation coherence needs to be promoted across the German government. Under the auspices of the German Foreign Office, the chancellery should call for the involvement of all stakeholders including the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the German development agency GIZ, the Economy and Climate Ministry, the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry, and the state-owned investment and development bank KfW.

Third, there is the need to formulate accountability mechanisms. To strengthen accountability and ensure policy coherence, the German government should develop four mechanisms: transparent resourcing and budgetary processes as part of priority setting such as employing the OECD’s “gender marker” to track spending on gender equality; accountability audits in the form of consultative processes with stakeholders domestically and abroad (the reports should be made public); key indicators for the human resources departments in implementing ministries (job descriptions should include performance-based assessments vis-à-vis FFP 2.0); establish an ombudsperson to provide recourse for German citizens and other stakeholders.

Fourth and last, the government will need to build a communications strategy to inform perceptions of German citizens and recipients and organizations in partner countries. This aligns with the coalition government’s commitment to engage citizens on the challenges of international relations. The German government could emphasize that FFP 2.0 continues its human rights-centered approach vis-à-vis foreign policy, while allowing for greater inclusivity.

A version of this article also appeared in The World Today (October & November 2022), published by Chatham House.

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a founding member of Global Diplomacy Lab and a doctoral student, Harvard University.

Jesse B. Bump is Executive Director of the Takemi Program and Lecturer on Global Health Policy, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.