It’s Time for a U.S. Feminist Foreign Policy
Women leaders around the world are being disproportionately recognized for their skilled responses to the coronavirus crisis. These women have led compassionately and collaboratively, and put individuals—other women, in particular—at the center of their policymaking and response efforts, to incredible impact. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, for example, has grabbed global headlines for her compassionate and decisive leadership during the crisis, positioning her country to achieve what, in the U.S., currently seems impossible: ridding itself of COVID-19 altogether. The U.S. could learn a lesson from these women. With the 2020 U.S. presidential election on the horizon and the COVID crisis spotlighting the need for a reboot of U.S. foreign policy, the time is ripe for the U.S. to adopt a feminist foreign policy.
Feminist foreign policy is globally on the rise. In 2014, former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom made history by announcing Sweden’s official feminist foreign policy, the world’s first. Since then, Canada, France and Mexico have enacted their own feminist foreign policies, with others, like Luxembourg, announcing official intentions to follow suit. Despite this, many in the U.S. are still questioning what a feminist foreign policy is, and whether it would truly benefit Americans.
Feminist foreign policy explicitly asks how a given policy will impact marginalized groups across gender, race, and class, and presents a framework to elevate the lived experiences of individuals, particularly women and marginalized communities, to the forefront of policymaking.  In asking this, the framework pushes policymakers away from the militarization of foreign policy, uplifts the voices of women and minority groups most affected by global security threats, and holds a magnifying glass to global systems of power that leave entire populations vulnerable to threat.
Americans may view feminist foreign policy as a sharp or unnecessary departure from their professed values. But in fact, feminist foreign policy would bring the U.S. closer to these values by embodying equality and peace, and emphasizing a democratic policymaking process that considers a diversity of perspectives. Furthermore, as Swedish Foreign Minister Wallstrom famously asserted, feminist foreign policy is “smart policy.” A U.S. feminist foreign policy would make Americans safer in two key ways: by prioritizing gender equality and by eliciting a shift away from militarization and towards international cooperation.
Feminist foreign policy explicitly promotes gender equality and demands greater inclusion of women in crafting the policy itself and a country’s level of gender equality is the single strongest indicator of its level of peacefulness and stability. One reason for this is that all-male negotiation groups make “riskier, more aggressive, and less empathetic decisions,” than mixed-gender groups.  In the U.S., a primarily male national security establishment is likely to lead to riskier security outcomes for Americans. Another reason gender equality indicates national stability, is that by emphasizing and improving outcomes for women, who are often the most severely impacted by national security threats like COVID-19, countries can simultaneously enhance the security of all citizens – a rising tide in the U.S. would lift all boats. The best way to ensure that U.S. foreign policy is reflective of women’s needs is to ensure they have an equal seat at the decision-making tables. And promoting gender equality in the workforce can unlock tangible economic growth and security, and is of particular importance as the U.S. stares down its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
A second pillar of feminist foreign policy is a shift away from a traditionally masculine focus on military action towards actions that emphasize diplomacy, collaboration, and coalition-building. This shift away from military action, with the goal of decreasing military or violent conflict, could in itself put fewer American troops and civilians at risk. But it would also position the U.S. more strongly to protect Americans from global threats of the future. These threats, which will not be fixed, tangible issues, but rather cross-cutting and world-wide like new pandemics or climate change, will not be subdued by military force, but by international collaboration. A renewed focus on multilateralism would therefore have the potential to make not just the U.S., but the world, safer.
The adoption of feminist foreign policy in the U.S. could be initially challenging. It would require a reexamination of the U.S.’s historic reliance on military might as its primary means of security and a reconsideration of the utility of long-upheld military alliances like NATO. More specifically, this could mean a re-allocation of funding to more heavily emphasize diplomacy and a re-imagining of security alliances to focus on non-military means of defense. It would also require a meaningful, ongoing effort to interrogate the impact of policy on women and marginalized communities, a cultural change that begs time and commitment from the highest levels of government. The U.S. has seemed particularly far from ready for feminist foreign policy under Trump, whose foreign policy team is dominated by white men who are happy—or at least willing—to enable the President’s trigger-happy penchant for military dominance.
Even under Trump, however, there have been signs that feminist foreign policy would not be impossible. The June 2019 U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace and Security, which seeks to internationally advance women’s human rights and inclusion in peace processes, indicated that feminist foreign policy was beginning to gain traction. And in October 2019, influenced by the rise of feminist foreign policies around the world, a group of experts convened by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), produced a draft strategy document on feminist U.S. foreign policy. The strategy outlines key principles that U.S. feminist foreign policy should follow, gives recommendations for incorporating these principles across U.S. foreign assistance, trade, defense, and diplomacy, and provides initial, concrete implementation steps.
A new administration should act and build on these steps. It should first, issue a mandate for high-level leadership to promote feminist foreign policy and follow this with a commitment to gender parity, diversity, and inclusion (including within the foreign policy establishment’s leadership) and to data-driven understandings of how policies impact women and minorities. In the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen the positive impact of strong, female leaders who have embraced feminist foreign policy ideals. By centering women in their policy responses, embracing compassion and prioritizing international collaboration over competition, these trailblazing women are protecting their citizens against the worst of COVID-19. Behind a feminist foreign policy, and with more women in leadership, the U.S., too, can better protect Americans—all Americans—against the next global pandemic.
 “Feminist Foreign Policy.” Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, January 2020. https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/feminist-foreign-policy.
 “Feminist Foreign Policy – Imperative for a more security and just world.” Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, February 2019. https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/journal/2019/2/16/feminist-foreign-policy-imperative-for-a-more-secure-and-just-world
 Hudson, Valerie M. “What Sex Means for World Peace.” Foreign Policy, April 24, 2012. https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/04/24/what-sex-means-for-world-peace/
 “Feminist Foreign Policy – Imperative for a more security and just world.” February 2019.
 “Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States.” International Center for Research on Women. October 2019. https://n2r4h9b5.stackpathcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Toward-a-Feminist-Foreign-Policy-in-the-US-v5.pdf
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