The NATO Summit: Hard Security Meets Feminist Foreign Policy

Marissa Conway Photography Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy Branding NATO Summit Engages

Easily the highlight of my career so far, I recently was invited to attend the NATO Summit in Brussels and participate in their #NATOEngages two day event.

It was, according to the NATO website, "an assembly of experts and leaders from the media, government, NGOs, politics, think tanks and business to discuss international security in the 21st Century. The event’s themes included defense and security, deterrence and dialogue, as well as how NATO can project stability in today’s world."

Due to the brilliance of Women in International Security Brussels, the split of some 200 attendees was about 40% women to 60% men. But as I walked into a sea of blue and grey suits specked with sharp looking women (some in suits too, but obviously wearing them better), I had what was surely the opposite reaction to many others: there are so many men! You see, when you have the word “feminist” in your organization’s title, the assumption often goes as follows: “You must be doing great work for women.” Well, yes! We are. But we’re also doing so much more than that. We’re doing work for everyone.

This was first time I’ve been properly thrown into the world of policy wonks (and realized - oh my, I’m one of them too!). I’ve been to events at think tanks and Parliament and universities, but most have had if not an explicit, at least an implicit angle of feminism. This was the first mainstream policy and defense moment in my career, and made me realize what a feminist bubble I live in. After a day of hearing from heads of states and foreign ministers, I realized precisely where we are: a bit stuck in tired (and realist) ways.

The thread that pulled the entire event together was simple: We need NATO. It was a thinly veiled campaign from NATO itself to convince us of its mission, with panels like: “A Necessity, not a Choice: The Future of the NATO-EU Relationship”, and “The US Role in NATO and the Future of the Transatlantic Bond.” Many sessions ended with the moderators explicitly stating the need for NATO, and the need for continued dialogue despite disagreements. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that NATO is not made up of member-states, but of the citizens of those states; NATO is for all of us. The President of Ukraine, Pretri Poroshenko, was angling for NATO membership in his talk. I myself came into the Summit of the opinion that NATO, along with its member-states, often causes it’s own problems. And while I think there are some situations where a military might be needed to quell violence, on the whole, I’m fairly certain that prevention is much more effective than any NATO mission would ever be.

But overall, I must admit: NATO is far more radical than I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I was in military waters and many speakers spewed almost stereotypical opinions of how to do international security. (You can always rely on the Americans to champion particularly nearsighted ways of thinking about other countries.) But I believe we’ve struck gold with Clare Hutchinson. She is the Special Representative for Women, Peace, and Security for NATO’s Secretary General and OH my is she shaking things up. Her and a collective of other peace-minded colleagues are working on NATO’s inclusive security program, which, very similar to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy’s mission, is striving to maintain a people-centered focus. As NATO describes it: “The Inclusive Security collective includes Children and Armed Conflict, Cultural Property and Protection, Protection of Civilians, and Women, Peace and Security including Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Each component has a bearing on the others.” Now, this won’t be a perfect fix, but this will help to shift NATO’s attention away from the idea of a militarized security to one which focuses on people. And all too often we fall into the trap of talking about security with states as actors, which completely loses the subjectivity of human nature in the process of policy making. It also means we lose understanding of the human consequences of military operations.

How I’ve managed to make it a whole seven paragraphs without mentioning our glorious leader is perhaps a miracle: Trump was burning on everyone’s lips. There is no question of the US’s superpower status, but I can say with absolutely certainty that we are coasting on our reputation, and Trump’s actions and tweets are degrading our place in the global hierarchy. Of course, US leadership has more often than not reinforced rather than dismantled the very violent structures we often believe we are changing. But there is no denying how reliant many countries are of our support, both financial and political. It seemed, in fact, that many heads of state and foreign ministers were in a bizarre courtship with Trump, wooing him to champion their agenda before we seemingly lose him forever to Putin. 

But really, there was no “seemingly” about it. “Russia” was talked about openly and with concern. Their brazen and influence on Trump are of sharp attention. In fact, one of the polls asked the room: If you were Putin, would NATO deter you? About 60% said yes, the other 40% no. At first this outspokenness caught me off guard - perhaps it is the youth of our organization showing, but we have not yet made sweeping declarations about how horrible particular countries are. But this reveals one of the shortfalls of relying so heavily on realism to discuss foreign policy: we fall into a specific vernacular that places states, not people, as subject. Putin and his administration become “Russia”, completely erasing the millions of other Russian citizens, many of whom actively push back against his regime. Even a simple switch to “the Putin regime” puts blame to a person, not an entire country. After all, people make policies - they don’t magically appear from thin air. So to declare “Russia” a threat abstracts the actual problems, paints an inaccurate picture of the people Russia is truly made up of, and allows us to sit around in a circle jerk, having have highbrow conversations about Important Things, which must make us Important People. Yet very few of us will ever need to deal with the day to day consequences of crafting foreign policy with Russia.

Lastly, and if you know me, predictably, I can’t let slide the heavy reliance on deterrence as the manner through which we hold back the “enemy." But again, this approach to security relies on an interpretation that is defensive, and not preventative. The Secretary General said himself: We aim to prevent, not to intervene. Still, the general understanding is that we would immediately fall to pieces without hard, traditional security regimes. And though my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes at the idea of deterrence, and the fear-mongering it often relies on to convince people of its pertinence, it is also clear that there are very tangible threats we face, and truly, better to be prepared than not. So how do we reconcile the realities of defense-oriented government policy, of slippery NATO alliances, of light-fingered Russian politicians, of a slimy American President, and of an ultimate goal to dismantle the patriarchy? Perhaps I’m drinking the cool-aid, but after two days at NATO, and seeing the work that Clare Hutchinson is doing, perhaps we need a NATO alliance after all - at least for now.

Because ultimatly: NATO invited the Co-Founder of an organization called The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy to their Summit. 

Let that sink in.

They invited someone with a radical feminist agenda into one of the most well established hard security institutions in the world.

For two days I walked around with my black and gold tote bag that says: “I want a feminist foreign policy.”

I handed out my business cards with our name on them in bright yellow lettering to MPs, researchers, policy wonks, military men, activists, and academics.

I talked to them about structural racism and colonial legacies and feminist security and eliminating nuclear weapons.

And Every. Single. Person. Took me seriously.

I often get asked: “Oh, do you get any pushback because you’re a feminist organization?” And the answer has always been no. I thought, for the longest time, it was because we were operating within a specific field, and the people I was interacting with were already accepting of the idea. But I walked straight into the heart of NATO, feminist flag flying, and people didn't so much as blink.

It might not feel like it sometimes. It might not feel like it most of the time. But after the past few days:

 I’m convinced the world is ready and waiting for a feminist foreign policy.

Marissa Conway.png

I’m Marissa, a feminist, entrepreneur, and creative with a head full of big dreams dedicated to helping you bring your feminist vision to life. Learn more →