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Is the US Ready for a Feminist Foreign Policy? Absolutely, Advocates Say

The Women’s March, 2017, above. A new campaign led by women in the United States with global experience are advocating that a feminist foreign policy be instituted in all branches of the federal government, regardless of national politics. JOHN JACK/CREATIVE COMMONS

The world of diplomacy has toyed with the concept of feminist foreign policies for years, raising some support and not a few snickers from dissenters. A new campaign led by women with strong professional qualifications and global experience in more than 50 organizations plans to change that mind-set in the United States.

On May 21, after several years of discussion backed by polling, the coalition of expert advocates launched their policy proposals and prepared to take their case for concrete action to all three branches of the US government as well as to military and economic assistance programs.

The women are advocating for a pervasive rethinking of how government agencies work and how their age-old cultures may have to change and their officials be subjected to greater accountability to assure the inclusion of women.

The advocates’ report, “Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States,” appears during an American presidential election year. Although its authors and contributors say that their intent is not primarily political, there are strong critics of current administration policies and actions among them.

Of particular shared concern is the Trump administration’s global assault on women’s reproductive health and rights. But all the collaborators seem to agree that this policy paper is a long-term plan for change regardless of which political party is dominating in Washington.

Still, the importance of the moment in American politics, where elected women in power are subject to crude and vituperative verbal attacks from the White House, could help back the cause.

For example, Donald Trump has consistently railed against Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer; the state attorney general, Dana Nessler; and the secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, who have defied his demands to reopen the state, against scientific and medical advice. They also back voting by mail to avoid crowds, where Covid-19 is known to spread quickly.

“Seems like you have a problem with all [three] women who run [Michigan],” Nessel replied.

A major focus for the new policy study was the 25th anniversary of  the Beijing international conference on women, which had promoted the advancement of women’s personal rights. The new report aims to expand the role and influence of women across government, diplomacy and US international engagement.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Coincidentally and separately on the same day as the publication of the feminist policy report, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN under secretary-general who leads the Department of Peace Operations, joined Jamille Bigio, a senior fellow in the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, to talk about the role of women in peacekeeping. Bigio is also involved in the feminist foreign policy coalition and spoke with others in the group at the May 21 launch.

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Lacroix discussed challenges in recruiting women for peacekeeping, especially in assigning uniformed military and police contingents to missions in the field, where the needs and demands of millions of displaced people, refugees and victims of conflict are often articulated by women. The UN, he added, tried to incentivize women by “creating the right environment” for them. More women, he said, mean better peacekeeping.

The publication of the advocates’ report outlining a feminist foreign policy and the comments by Lacroix on women in peacekeeping took place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both were virtual events dealing with broad subjects that asssessed the past and looked ahead and were not limited to the current health crisis.

In their recommendations on defense issues, the framers of the new feminist foreign policy call for “preventing and responding to gender-based violence in conflict” and paying attention to those “who face discrimination in security forces, peace negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding.” The advocates’ paper notes that the US already has mandates from 2011, 2016, 2017 and 2019 to implement Resolution 1325.

“Taken together, these laws and policies give the defense community the doctrinal mandate to implement UNSCR 1325 as a core part of their work,” the paper said.

Susan Markham was the senior coordinator for gender equality and  women’s empowerment at the United States Agency for International Development before co-founding the Washington-based policy advisory group SMASH Strategies in 2017.

A leading initiator of the new coalition, Markham insisted in an interview with PassBlue, “Most of the people involved in the feminist foreign policy movement are representing organizations that are not political at all.” Or, for that matter, are they considered traditionally feminist. Men are welcome partners in the movement.

“It’s really bigger than feminism,” she said, “but we couldn’t think of another word that really covered our ambition — addressing the power imbalances that exist, not just between men and women but between countries like the United States and other countries, utilizing a gender analysis. We’ve been doing that for years in the development sector. Why can’t we use that gender analysis for looking at bigger issues like foreign policy — not just defense and diplomacy, but also trade and global health? We’ve been thinking, What do we want this world to be like?”

In mid-April this year, Our Secure Future, a project of the One Earth Future Foundation in Broomfield, Colo., published results of a poll among 1,500 registered American voters, men and women, on their views of decision-makers in US foreign policy. It also asked respondents if they considered themselves feminists.

The poll, which has played into the thinking of the feminist foreign policy movement, presented several key results.

Among them was that while 59 percent of respondents did not think of themselves as a feminist, 48 percent did not think that women are “sufficiently represented in the US government among foreign policy and national security decision makers.” There would seem to be an audience for the feminist foreign policy movement, Markham and others say.

“The rest of the world is moving forward on feminist foreign policy — not just Sweden but France and Mexico and Canada,” Markham said in the interview, naming a few governments.

Other nations are moving in the same direction, according to Margot Wallstrom, the former Swedish foreign minister who in 2014 was the first to place the crucial role of women at the center of a national foreign policy.

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Her pronouncement left some of her fellow Swedish diplomats “gasping for air,” she said in an interview with PassBlue in November 2019. But she institutionalized changes of approach from the bottom up in the Swedish foreign ministry.

“At its center,” she said, “it was a policy built on solid research and observation, and always with one question in mind, Where are the women?”

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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