We Need to Talk: Communicating Feminist Foreign Policy
Six out of 10 Germans have never heard of the term “feminist foreign policy” or don't know what it means. Therefore, the concept must be communicated in a way that is understandable to a broader public.
As early as 2014, German decisionmakers at the Munich Security Conference argued that Germany needed to assume more responsibility internationally. However, the necessary public debate on German foreign policy, called for by, among others, Germany’s president at the time, Joachim Gauck, was not subsequently held. Even in the 2021 Bundestag election campaign, foreign policy issues were a sideshow, rarely worth more than a question from journalists and nothing that candidates thought would win them votes.
February 24, 2022, the day that marked the beginning of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, represented a watershed in this respect. Public understanding grew in regard to Germany’s need to make an active contribution to maintaining or rebuilding the European security order. Even if Germans do not want to assume a military leadership role in Europe, as the latest edition of The Berlin Pulse and polling commissioned by the Körber-Stiftung shows, 60 percent are in favor of permanently investing more money in defense. At the same time, there is a growing understanding that also in times of conventional security threats, a comprehensive approach to security, with a focus on human security, is needed.
The creation of a National Security Strategy, to be published early next year, will cement this change. And the inclusion of a feminist foreign policy (FFP) objective in the coalition agreement also testifies to the political will to initiate change. Both projects were intended to provide Germany’s decisionmakers with foreign and security policy guidelines on the one hand and on the other, above all, to offer the German population a framework for identification. For this project to succeed, attention must be paid to proper and comprehensive communication, especially with the population.
FFP: a Timely Antidote
The timing could not be better. Due to increasing interconnectedness, conflicts today can no longer be thought of in regional terms. Rather, even crises that seem geographically distant have an impact on the local population. This is currently visible, for example, in Russia's war in Ukraine, which is leading to price increases on the German gas market due to decades of dependence on Russian energy. The German population has become more aware of difficult political decisions and hard compromises. With regards to China, almost seven out of 10 Germans want to reduce economic dependencies, even if this leads to economic losses.
This momentum should be seized. The creation of the FFP guidelines offers the opportunity to show that a feminist foreign policy, as a continuation of a values-driven foreign policy, can assist in this change of mindset in response to the Russian war in Ukraine. However, in order for this to succeed and to not lead to social division, public communication of this foreign policy approach, which is new for Germany, is of utmost importance. Fears, for example, that FFP is only related to the concerns of women, and reservations that feminism and foreign policy are merely the debate of a supposedly aloof elite, must be reduced.
The term alone often acts as an irritant and could cause the concept to break down before the contents are known. In this regard, FFP appears more avant-garde than it is. Many of the approaches underlying FFP are not new: The concept of human security, for example, gained relevance after the Cold War. And the aspiration to strengthen women's participation and representation is at the center of the already-established Women, Peace, Security agenda. At the same time, FFP is further developing existing concepts by taking an intersectional approach.
This broadens the focus to marginalized groups and their corresponding perspectives, which had previously been neglected by classical security and foreign policy. In this way, FFP ensures that foreign policy becomes more comprehensive and increasingly oriented toward the needs of the population and can thus strengthen its credibility and proximity. It is now essential to ensure the concept's connectivity and to prevent FFP from degenerating into a temporary buzzword. This risk is real as 46 percent of Germans have not even heard of the term and an additional 16 percent have heard of it but do not even roughly know what it means. This number gets even higher the lower the respondent’s formal educational background is and the older they are.
Drawing on Experience
Here, lessons should be learned from the experiences of past legislative periods. A look at the concept of multilateralism, which has been so prevalent in German foreign policy in recent years, and the associated “Alliance for Multilateralism” initiated by Germany and France can offer lessons. For, although it is of utmost topicality due to the Russian war of aggression and the approaching presidential elections in the United States in 2024, it has not succeeded in adding a new dimension to German foreign policy’s already multilateral framework of action.
Particularly with regard to communication with the public, this has remained a vaguely formulated concept in the coalition agreement that was not easy to connect to the reality of the German population’s life. As a survey conducted by the Körber-Stiftung in April 2019 showed, when it came to the topic of “multilateralism,” two-thirds of Germans either did not know or did not understand the term. As an equally complex term, feminist foreign policy runs the risk of shaping another fundamental foreign policy debate to which an overwhelming part of the population has no access—as the recent results of the survey show—or rejects from the outset.
To rename the concept is not recommended at this point, as it this is the name it has been known by for many years—at least since its introduction by Sweden in 2014. Rather, in parallel to the development of the content of the FFP guidelines, a communication concept specifically targeted at those it is addressing should be considered and developed from the outset, in order to convey the content of the FFP and its ability to meet current challenges.
Connectivity of FFP
Again, according to the Körber-Stiftung’s opinion survey The Berlin Pulse, since 2017 most Germans have named three issues in particular as the greatest current challenge: the environment and climate (2022: 18 percent), crises and conflicts (2022: 56 percent) and migration, which was always among the three most mentioned challenges, except for 2022.
These challenges are mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing. It therefore makes little sense to consider them independently of each other. This can be seen, for example, in the war in Ukraine, which is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing effects of the climate crisis. As a result, the food insecurity triggered by the war is also being exacerbated in other parts of the world, increasing the risk of widespread famine, destabilizing states, and forcing people to flee their home countries.
The civilian population is particularly affected by these crises—primarily women and marginalized groups. This greater vulnerability in conflicts and crises was established as early as 2000 in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. And despite being disproportionately affected, women and marginalized groups continue to be massively underrepresented. Yet the more perspectives a process brings together, the more sustainable it becomes—especially in crises where human security is at stake. For example, peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last longer than 15 years if women were involved in the process.
Because of the threat they pose to human life, these crises require rapid responses that must, however, go beyond the short-term combating of the symptoms because most of these conflicts arose from decades of global injustice. Therefore, the root cause must now be addressed by recognizing the interconnection between different challenges and giving them equal relevance.
FFP can help in this regard because of its core elements—a focus on human security, greater participation of women and marginalized groups in decision-making processes, and the inclusion of the perspectives of those affected. In addition to FFP’s ability to provide short-term relief, this enables it to not lose sight of longer-term contexts. It can thus simultaneously cover root-cause response, crisis response, and long-term prevention, while not losing sight of issues that do not correspond to traditional security threats.
On the one hand, FFP thus represents a timely antidote to the current geopolitical situation. On the other, it offers a toolbox for the challenges that the population consider to be most pressing. German foreign policy can use it to address the (security) needs of its own population and, thus, it can be successful with both a broader public and political decisionmakers if it succeeds in communicating in a comprehensible way. Successful communication should take the following aspects into account:
Three Recommendations for Action
First, in communication, a distinction should be made between substantive and conceptual debates. A “Swedish-Finnish model” can provide orientation here. FFP must be presented and communicated as a comprehensive foreign policy concept that goes beyond the concerns of women and girls. Symbolic associations that refer exclusively to a limited concept of FFP should be avoided (e.g., releasing the guidelines on March 8, which marks International Women’s Day).
Due to the loaded term, the actual content of FFP is often lost in the discussions. In order to enable debates that go beyond terminology, a Finnish-Swedish communication model would be conceivable—one that distinguishes between the communication of content and debating the concept of feminism. While Sweden’s past governments placed its foreign policy under the title of feminist foreign policy, Finland does not use this kind of branding but does shape its foreign policy and decision-making according to FFP principles.
For the public communication of foreign policy decisions, the Finnish model should be applied as a matter of priority. This includes regular thematization of core elements of feminist foreign policy, but does not necessarily position them under the concept of FFP (see the speech by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 10th Review Conference). This strengthens the approach of using FFP as a working method that cuts across all issues. At the same time, this approach reduces the risk of FFP degenerating into a buzzword.
At the same time, in the manner of at least the past Swedish governments —where the term FFP was used proactively to describe foreign policy decisions—the concept should be further developed in a targeted manner with decisionmakers, ministries, and an expert public. Particular attention should be paid to shortcomings and successes in implementation. This dialogue is necessary to establish accountability and to continuously develop the discourse. The term should also be used in communication with international partners in order to create alliances (see Alliance for Multilateralism).
Second, mediation, in various forms, must take place, with each aimed at different target groups. Members of the Bundestag are driving forces in the formation of public opinion. FFP, and the corresponding guidelines, must be discussed at an early stage in the Bundestag and with members of parliament. Here, the focus should be on a factual, substantive debate and the question of how, and in which areas, FFP can be applied.
In cooperation with experts, this exchange of ideas should be organized and moderated independently and across party lines in the form of confidential background discussions or in the context of public consultations. Experts can provide practice-related and solution-oriented input. Confidential discussions will promote the establishment of FFP as a cross-cutting issue in debates in the Bundestag and specifically within the committees. This can be supported by the appointment of a member of parliament as coordinator or representative for FFP. This would ensure a close link between the Bundestag and the German Foreign Office.
And then there is the public space. By means of discussion with the public, the core principles of FFP should be discussed as mentioned above in the Finnish model. This can take place in civic discussions that focus on the content and possible applications of FFP. In this way, FFP will reach the general public without the implementation being hampered by questions of identification with the concept of feminism.
At the same time, a fundamental debate among the population on the concept of feminism(s) is still necessary. This can be initiated, for example, by ministries other than the German Foreign Office (Education Ministry, Family Ministry) with the aim of promoting a broader understanding of intersectional feminism, addressing reservations, and allaying fears. In this way, social structures will be further developed, but the FFP will not be overloaded with expectations.
Third, regular monitoring of public opinion and evaluation of the communication strategy is of utmost relevance in the aftermath of dissemination. Attention should be paid to the evaluation of political communication. For example, annual surveys can show to what extent the public perception of feminist foreign policy has changed and why. With the help of these results, the communication strategy can be adapted and improved to suit the target group and the importance of public opinion can be taken into account.
Building Alliances, Strengthening Multilateralism
The above recommendations are intended to help fully realize the potential of FFP as a contemporary response to current problems. This can only be achieved if the population and political decisionmakers are involved in this process.
But beyond that, FFP offers the opportunity to build alliances and strengthen multilateralism. To this end, the debate on FFP should also extend beyond Germany's borders. To ensure this, the guidelines must also be made available and communicated to international partners. This includes publishing them in English from the outset—an opportunity that was only seized with some delay in the case of the German government’s White Paper on Multilateralism, which was published last year.
This is because, in addition to the internal German perspective, Germany's international role in the development of the guidelines should also be taken into account. Numerous countries, such as India, Chile, and Australia, are already looking at the German process—all the more so now that Sweden has scrapped its feminist foreign policy. Will Germany manage to develop an ambitious FFP that is, at the same time, implementable? The geopolitical context is undergoing a major transformation, and with it the proclamation of a promised Zeitenwende or watershed moment in German security and foreign policy. In formulating the guidelines on a feminist foreign policy, Germany should live up to these international expectations.
Julia Ganter is editor of the foreign policy annual publication and survey The Berlin Pulse at the Körber-Stiftung.
Leonie Stamm is a Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and works, among other things, on the topic of feminist foreign policy.