During September’s United Nations General Assembly High-Level Week, a remarkable event unfolded. At a UNGA side event, 19 UN member states gathered to reaffirm their commitment to either implement or develop a feminist foreign policy. Civil society speakers seized the opportunity to ground these states’ feminist foreign policies in radical visions of societal transformation towards a healthier, safer and more prosperous world.
A Counterbalance To Other Ominous Global Trends
Five years ago, when my co-founder Nina and I established the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, only two states had embraced feminist foreign policies. Today, that number has tripled (FFP Collaborative). This shift marks a significant and essential trend, serving as a counterbalance to other ominous global trends. Among these, global militarisation stands out, with annual global military spending reaching an unprecedented US$2.2 trillion – the highest ever recorded. Shockingly, this marks the eighth consecutive year of increase (SIPR). Equally alarming are the devastating global issues such as the climate emergency and the escalating criminalisation of and violence towards climate activists worldwide. This includes the widespread killing of land and environmental defenders – nearly 2,000 between 2012 and 2022 (Global Witness). However, the most concerning trend – the trend which links all others – is the proliferation of authoritarian regimes worldwide. For the first time in two decades, closed autocracies have outnumbered liberal democracies globally – the world has not been more anti-democratic in 35 years. The world’s democracy level has regressed to 1986 levels, with 72 per cent of the global population – 5.7 billion people – living under authoritarian rule, as stated by Staffan I. Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute, in this year’s democracy report from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg.
Feminist foreign policy emerges as the most promising tool to combat these distressing trends. States adopting feminist foreign policies prioritise women’s, LGBTQI, and human rights, as well as human security, including the protection of our planet. These policies allocate resources accordingly, recognising that peace cannot exist without feminism.
The Personal is Political: The Link Between Domestic and Interstate Violence
The patriarchal social order determines war or peace. Working with other scholars, US political scientist Valerie Hudson, a member of CFFP’s advisory council, used data records from 176 countries to investigate the effect of gender hierarchies on governance and security. In their 2020 book The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, Hudson and her colleagues show that control over women and their bodies creates hierarchies and normalises violence all over the world. The empirical analyses carried out by the researchers vividly demonstrate that the oppression of women is directly connected to the wellbeing of nations. The more a society disregards and oppresses women, the greater the negative consequences: poorer governance, worse conflicts, less stability, lower economic output, less food security, poorer health, worse demographic problems, less environmental protection and social progress.
The oppression of women is maintained through violence and the threat of violence; disarmament and an end to the arms trade are therefore fundamental feminist concerns. In every country of the world, female perpetrators of violent crime are outnumbered roughly ten to one by male offenders. The US psychologist David P. Barash puts it very clearly: “The overwhelming maleness of violence is so pervasive in every human society that it is typically not even recognised as such; it is the ocean in which we swim.’
Violent, patriarchal social orders create insecurity not only within states but internationally. The way women are treated is directly linked to war and conflicts worldwide. The empirical findings of Hudson and her team make it clear that the patriarchy must be disrupted and dismantled in order to create and maintain peace, stability, security and resilience. Yes, states do go to war because of oil and scarce resources. But they are more likely to do so if norms of violence based on gender inequality have become established in their societies. Societies that accept domestic violence and sexual assaults (as supposedly ‘personal’ or ‘private’ matters) are more likely to go to war; so are societies where ‘rape culture’ – the widespread acceptance of gender-based violence – is part of the national DNA. Without feminism, there can be no lasting peace.
Short-Term Feminist Interventions and Long-Term Transformation
“Feminist foreign policy, feminist development policy, yes, you can do all that, but not with this budget for the Bundeswehr!” These were the thunderous words of Friedrich Merz, leader of the main opposition party, the conservative CDU, in a general debate in the German Bundestag in March 2022. He was referring to the special fund of €100 billion for the armed forces announced a month earlier by Chancellor Scholz (leader of the centre-left SPD), and the targets of his wrath were the feminist policies of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, and the Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Svenja Schulze.
Baerbock responded with a passionate and convincing rebuttal: “Bringing up the Bundeswehr, and then saying in the same sentence ‘Yes to the Bundeswehr – and no more of that feminist foreign policy.’ It breaks my heart.” She continued: “And do you know why? Do you know why? Because I’ve been to see the mothers of Srebrenica. A week ago. And they told me how the traces of that war are inside them, and those mothers said: Ms Baerbock, back then, no action was taken! In the early nineties, when their daughters, their friends were raped. When rape wasn’t recognised as a weapon of war. Wasn’t prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. And this is why a twenty-first-century security policy has to include a feminist perspective. This isn’t just a lot of fuss over nothing, it’s absolutely timely.”
Baerbock’s words were followed by loud applause from members of parliament. Merz wanted to deny the importance of feminist foreign policy in times of war and conflict. As if feminist analyses and demands were something you could dabble in now and then if there was nothing else to worry about. A fair-weather project. When my book, The Future of Foreign Policy is Feminist was first published, on 24 February 2022, the day Putin began his war of aggression against Ukraine, I was asked in interview after interview: ‘What’s the point of feminist foreign policy in times of war?’ The underlying message was that we had to solve the ‘real’ problems first; that this was a time for ‘hard security’, not for soft topics such as feminist foreign policy. Of course, this is utter nonsense. Feminists have always tackled the toughest issues, most notably violence – or, to be more precise, male violence.
Feminism has always sought to dismantle patriarchal structures and foster non-violent structures. So it’s always been about ‘hard security.’ Anyone who denigrates feminist foreign policy and denies its significance in times of war and conflict is quite simply wrong. Feminist foreign policy was actually forged in a time of war, when in 1915 over 1,000 feminists gathered in The Hague for the International Congress of Women to demand an end to World War I and reimagine a new global order.
Feminist foreign policy aims to make an impact, to radically transform foreign and security policy. So it’s particularly convincing when it comes to long-term processes, such as the renunciation of toxic geopolitical power games, underpinned by economic interests and detrimental to human rights. Feminist foreign policy is good at long-term thinking – an ability that isn’t especially well developed in society as a whole, where short-term thinking predominates. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have a climate crisis – this has come about because short-term economic gains have been privileged over the long-term preservation of our planet. But feminist foreign policy must do both if it is to be truly effective: short-term feminist interventions, coupled with long-term transformative strategies. In wars and conflicts, we must act fast to prevent suffering, protect women and all vulnerable groups, and stop or alleviate human rights violations. But we also must take a long-term approach and try to prevent future violent crises. In feminist foreign policy, short-term feminist interventions go hand in hand with long-term feminist transformations.
Rethinking ‘Solutions’ for Tomorrow
We must not forget that humankind was facing a multitude of simultaneous crises even before the Russian war of aggression: the long-standing climate catastrophe, the pandemic, and the steady rise in armed conflicts involving states. In the last ten years, the number of such conflicts has nearly doubled, from 30 in 2010 to 56 in 2020. In the same period, the number of people killed in conflicts and wars has doubled, as has the number of refugees. In 2010, there were 41 million displaced persons worldwide; in 2020 this figure had risen to 82.4 million (Environment of Peace) – in 2023 it’s almost 120 million. Russia’s war is exacerbating all these trends. When, if not now, will society finally realise that ‘business as usual’ is not an option and that traditional political approaches do not lead to a fair, peaceful or sustainable world? We have to finally stop applying ‘solutions’ that will become tomorrow’s problems.