Feminist Foreign Policy: A Way Forward in a Crisis- and Conflict-Ridden Environment

This article argues that the notion of gender equality is crucial to creating peace and triggering transformation in political stalemates (and violent conflict). Feminist foreign policy is often said to be unfit in providing answers to the manifold crises – bilateral or global – of today. This article strongly objects to that idea and instead makes the opposite argument: that feminist foreign policy is the only way forward exactly because it is founded in the idea of gender equality. The article discusses under what circumstances feminist foreign policy can be a practical and realistic model to provide solutions to conflict-ridden states, in a way that wishes to inspire readers to delve into more context-specific reading in the future.

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This article is part of the dossierFeminist Foreign Policy and the South Caucasus. It is based on reflections from an online workshop conducted by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in October 2022 with decision-makers, civil society representatives, and academics from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Germany.

In 2022, democracy and women’s rights continue to be threatened by elected governments and campaigns by right-wing parties and populist groups across the Northern hemisphere including, but not limited to, Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, and Sweden. The economic and financial crisis, and the globally rising cost of living, further contribute to a climate of uncertainty and (can) fuel social protest or unrest, often at the expense of marginalized groups.

Following a general trend in recent years, events of this year have been marked by a showdown of authoritarianism, chauvinism, and neoimperialism, at its extreme form in the Russian assault on Ukraine. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Azerbaijan’s attempts at forcing Armenia to agree to a peace deal on Baku’s terms also continue to trigger deadly clashes. On the transformational side, we are witnessing a powerful upsurge by (young) Iranian women and men a feminist revolution – despite the brutal state reaction.

The past decade(s) have often been described as a sequence of cascading and overlapping crises where one (global) crisis either triggers the next (a financial crisis leading to an economic crisis) or is exacerbated by new emergencies (such as the pandemic or the Russian war against Ukraine), each in their own fuelling further disasters. Often dismissed is the role of inequality that plays into the cascading crises.

In such times of insecurity, answers for conflict resolution are urgently desired – but crisis responses of recent years have shown that what is at the core of all conflicts is quickly dismissed as secondary: the issue of equality.

It has often been said – and even more so in the context of Germany’s new commitment – that a feminist foreign policy can only be a successful foreign policy model if it provides answers to the pressing issues of today’s global relations. That it can only be a legitimate form of political action if it can help us deal with “hard politics”.

The question therefore is: can a feminist foreign policy stand this test, particularly in direct contestation with authoritarian states or leaders?  

What is Feminist Foreign Policy?

To find out whether a feminist foreign policy is a realistic model for (conflict-ridden) states or societies requires an understanding of what such a policy entails, where it comes from and why “the f-word” is not something to be afraid of.  

Research has proven that peace, democracy and economic wealth are only possible in egalitarian societies. Gender equality might often be presented in political debates as secondary or an idealized luxury while in fact, studies show consistently that gender equality is the backbone of a just and sustainable society and political system.

Knowing this requires us to pay special attention to the lived realities of women and marginalized groups. It requires us to make women visible and to make visible the ways in which policies or conflicts affect different members of society because of their gender or social standing, to then adjust policies. This is particularly relevant in the context of “crises”, both in terms of traditional, rather state-centred understandings (war, economic crisis, etc.) and more novel, human-centred understandings (climate crisis, the crisis of everyday violence towards women and marginalized people, social crisis etc.).

The first country to introduce a decidedly feminist foreign policy was Sweden in 2014, as part of a government that was explicitly devoted to gender equality. Sweden has based its feminist foreign policy on a strategy of three “Rs”: Rights, Representation, and Resources. This implies promoting all women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights, enabling participation and influence in decision-making, and allocating resources to gender-sensitive programmes. The three “Rs” have later been complemented by a fourth R, “reality”, to indicate context sensitivity. However, in 2022, the newly elected right-wing government of Sweden was quick to dismiss the country’s feminist foreign policy, saying that the feminist label would “obscure the fact that the Swedish foreign policy must be based on Swedish values and Swedish interests”. At the same time, the foreign minister remains rhetorically committed to gender equality. As such, it displays a contemporary right-wing logic that re-interprets gender equality and women’s empowerment in an exclusionary and heteronormative understanding. It is yet to see how this new approach to foreign policy is to unfold in practice. Gender equality yes, but feminism no?

Feminism as a Label – But With What Use?

What makes a policy feminist? Certainly, it is not just in the strategic use of “feminist” as a label, though wording does matter in different ways. It is, however, important to remember that not everything that is called feminist can live up to (still radical) ideas of creating egalitarian societies and policies, and that the framing of feminism itself can lead to certain objections even among women’s rights advocates.

While formerly socialist societies show an impressive history of women’s rights and equality movements, the ways in which Western feminists tried to export a context-insensitive understanding of feminism to transforming states and societies have oftentimes created scepticism among local (non-Western) activists. That is not to say that feminism does not stand a chance in Central or Eastern European countries, but that feminist (foreign) policy needs to take the different legacies of societal development more seriously into account. Only a feminism that centres the lived realities of women and marginalized groups, present and past, for example, in the South Caucasus, can bring about transformative change for this region, and be more resilient towards the narrative of “Western-imported ideology”.

A single definition of feminism or feminist foreign policy does not and will likely never exist – which is good, because the aim cannot be uniformity. However, a certain common denominator is important. Such a shared understanding is easier to be found among theoretical accounts of feminist foreign policy (presented and discussed by academics or think tanks) and often relates to a more radical notion of transformative and disruptive policy with a strong bottom-up element. In practice, a gap between ambition and implementation often exists which can at least partially be explained by vague or simplistic understandings, or adaptation, of feminist foreign policy.

For example, the Swedish government consistently presented their FFP as a way of working and this connects to the idea of gender mainstreaming, that is, aiming for the inclusion of a gender equality dimension in each and every decision or action. Nonetheless, the Swedish modus operandi fell short of academic, or activist, demands for feminist policy. The German government will present its own guidelines for feminist foreign policy in March 2023. It is to be seen whether the guidelines will react to criticism that sees the German approach as being too focused on semblance rather than real transformation. While the past years have seen a positive shift in the implementation of the Agenda 1325, Germany remains among the top arms exporters in the world and has just this year, following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, decided on a 100 billion fund for military spending. Looking at the feminist literature, militarization is seen almost unanimously as contradicting the core ideas of egalitarian, feminist policy.

Feminism and Hard Politics: A Contradiction?

History has consistently shown that a strong narrative of imminent crisis leads to the erosion of policies that benefit gender equality. This happens, for example, through the shifting or mobilizing of funds towards “important areas” (as can be seen in the case of Germany’s sudden military boost). The study of gender equality in the European Union, to give another example, shows how the financial crisis of 2008/2009 marks a stark turning point to the progressive gender mainstreaming initiatives of the 1990s at the expense of equality overall, because equality and social policy was suddenly framed as secondary.

In countries or regions with ongoing violent conflicts (such as Armenia or Azerbaijan) or only relative stability with absence of peace (such as Georgia), those crises – external or internal – likely contribute to a further weakening of social or state structures, further spiralling into the endless abyss of crisis and instability.

So how to break the cycle?

Breaking the Cycle of Crisis: Feminism & Peace

In feminist approaches, representation plays an important role, but true representation goes further than simply more diverse meeting attendants. Increasing the number of women in responsible positions cannot be downplayed in their function to changing gendered dynamics in politics. However, there are enough women in high office who align with patriarchal ideas. Thus, simply adding a few women to existing patriarchal structures is unlikely to bring about true change. More comprehensive action is needed to break the cycle.

What is needed is substantive representation of women and marginalized groups along all aspects of decision-making processes. But in order to ensure their inclusion and voice have a meaningful impact, one needs to change mindsets and structures. A more radical notion of feminist foreign policy would be committed to bringing in formerly unrecognized players, by granting them not only a seat at the table but also leveraging their voice, opinions, and experience. Furthermore, a disruptive notion of FFP, that is: disrupting the current modus operandi in global affairs, would acknowledge that money needs to be shifted to have meaningful impact.

As such, feminist foreign policy can hardly be seen as a stand-alone, nice-to-have strategy in diplomatic relations or when discussing post-war reconstruction (though those are good starting points) – it should ultimately be an all-encompassing model that is committed to applying transformative change to both domestic policies, as well as foreign affairs. A strong ministry of foreign affairs can have a great effect with a decisively feminist agenda, but it will always lack credibility if defence, trade or development policy (to name but a few) do not align with essential core values of feminist practice. 

Peace particularly relies on equality and the absence of stark power asymmetries not only between states, but also within societies. While at first glance, war or violence seems to be triggered by state or group rivalry, it all too often comes down to patriarchal understandings of power, and a struggle for or against domination. To understand those dynamics, particularly from the perspective of the oppressed, feminist scholars have long drawn the connection to patriarchal social structures.

The continuum of violence that women and other marginalized groups experience in the everyday – by exposure to domestic violence, constant insecurity just by taking part in social life, denial of reproductive rights, or legal injustice as can be seen in the limited prosecution of sexual offenders – follows the same logic as war or repression. Violence towards women originates in drastic power asymmetries. Any feminist movement sees backlash from often dangerously violent anti-gender groups. Thus, working towards peace requires work towards (gender) equality.

But How to Make It Work?

Asserting that working towards peace requires working towards (gender) equality inescapably leads to the question of how to operationalize a feminist foreign policy. The concerns are even more pressing in an environment where conservative understandings of gender roles go hand in hand with non-democratic or even authoritarian styles of governance and general misogyny in politics.

Traditionally, transformative and disruptive change has been brought about by civil society pressure and activists’ advocacy. This is particularly true in struggles advancing gender equality and egalitarian, peaceful structures. Strong (transnational) alliances are important to create and share narratives that can contribute to feminist peace and stability. Governments with a declared feminist foreign policy, such as the German one, need to contribute to the creation and visibility of such (grassroots) networks in their bilateral or international affairs. The most obvious entry point for “doing things differently” is taking a fresh approach to traditional instruments of diplomacy. For example, grassroots activists, feminist or not, tend to be structurally excluded from peace negotiations facilitated by international organizations. This is particularly true for non-formal organizations or loosely structured networks.

But to act upon a credible and accountable feminist foreign policy a government also ought to reflect on the wider relations it entertains with another state. How do trade relations contribute to patriarchal or discriminatory social structures? How might those economic ties even give leverage to violent conflict? Who can decide upon the priorities of foreign affairs, and who is involved in their shaping? If money flows (grants or loans) are not shifted, a foreign policy is unlikely to be disruptively feminist.

Coming from the German perspective, a feminist contribution to peace and democracy in the South Caucasus needs to be based on active peace-commitment and an intersectional approach to enabling substantive representation and participation. That means to ensure the participation of non-state actors, e.g. civil society representatives, in bilateral relations. It is impossible to shape successful policies sustainably without the inclusion of diverse voices into their creation. The government also needs to hold its own government representatives accountable to act upon such guidelines, for example, when on official visits or when facilitating trade agreements. Feminist networks and advocates for feminist foreign policy in Germany can support feminist struggles in the South Caucasus by forming alliances with local activists to amplify their work, and making visible their demands to policy makers in Germany or the European Union.

At the end of the day, feminist foreign policy and feminist peace are long processes that depend on the existence of strong networks of transnational solidarity. It takes an effort to break cycles of crises – but it’s fundamental to understand that equality must be the disruptive element to stop cascading crises. This does not make feminist foreign policy an unrealistic utopia for crisis-ridden regions; instead, it offers a valuable alternative to long-failed traditional approaches.

The content of the publication is the responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to express the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region