The Three Biggest Misconceptions About Feminist Foreign Policy
It should come as no surprise that I talk about feminist foreign policy (FFP) a lot. I mean, a lot.
And I’ve been nothing short of ecstatic as more and more governments express interest in adopting explicitly feminist foreign policies. But as the conversation is rapidly expanding, it’s simultaneously revealing a concerning gap in consensus regarding what FFP means within activist and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) spaces and what it means to governments - which more often than not promote patriarchal, imperialist, and racist agendas via foreign policy. So it’s very understandable that the most common question I receive when talking about my work is the classic: So… what is feminist foreign policy anyway?
I want to take a slightly different approach this time and rather than ramble on about on what FFP is (which I can do for days, I assure you), I’d like to clarify what it isn’t. Normally I like to keep things light and breezy, because feminism does have a tendency to be a rather critical project. But just as FFP offers a critical lens on foreign policy, so too I’d like to offer a critical lens of feminist foreign policy. So grab a cup of tea (or, you know, a glass of wine) and let’s dive in.
It’s not about women.
I’ve heard every iteration of “feminist foreign policy = women". And too often, FFP is used as a synonym for both gender equality and the Women, Peace and Security agenda. But the reality is that FFP is not just about women’s rights. It’s more than adding women into political leadership roles. It’s more than providing money to educational initiatives for women and girls. It’s more than mainstreaming gender initiatives into organizational budgets. Because the truth is that these actions are not the sum total - they are each individual pieces of the larger FFP puzzle.
In sticking with this puzzle metaphor - the completed picture looks like something we haven’t quite seen yet. It includes processes of foreign policy where power is balanced, community concerns are at the root of policy decisions, and economics isn’t used as a tool to punish in a game of deterrence, to start. Dollar-driven decisions are abandoned and quality of life become the primary indicator of success. And of course, this isn’t limited to women. Using feminism to re-envision foreign policy - but only for women - would still leave us with unbalanced, unequal societal hierarchies.
It’s not a tool to promote a Western gaze.
Governments which have either adopted or expressed interest in adopting feminist foreign policy (Sweden, Canada, the UK, and France) are Western, mostly white, and predominately male-led, while the receiving end of FFP programmatic initiatives include the Global South, people of colour, and women. Of course, FFP is all about elevating the voices of those in the latter list, but what strikes me as concerning is that yet again, we find ourselves developing these supposedly revolutionary, out-of-the-box foreign policy mechanisms via FFP, however Western governments are still setting the international agenda for “othered” nations and people. So much for out-of-the-box.
It’s not convenient.
Feminist foreign policy is by no means a convenient policy framework. Feminism is becoming more politically palatable, and I find it truly exciting to see it being destigmatised more and more every day. However, when the final two conservative Prime Minister candidates confirm they consider themselves to be feminist (and their behavior would indicate otherwise) it begs the question: is the political use of ‘feminist’ simply a PR move to appeal to voters?
Claiming alliance with feminist values requires purposefully challenging and often uncomfortable work, internally and externally. It requires confronting the ways in which each of us contribute to systemic injustice as well as holding those in power accountable to make institutional change. Almost always, this sits at odds with the status quo of political agendas which operate to maintain power, not redistribute it. Adopting FFP, then, is a promise to upend the political machine as we know it. And none of this work is easy, nor convenient for those in power.