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Blog Post | Feminist Foreign Policy: A new and necessary approach to foreign policy and diplomacy

When former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström announced in 2014 that Sweden would become the first state to implement a feminist approach to its foreign policy, her idea was met with giggles. [1] But the concept quickly spread around the world. In May 2022, the Netherlands became the 10th state in the world that announced they were introducing a Feminist Foreign Policy, following Sweden, Canada, France, Luxembourg, Mexico, Spain, Libya, Germany, and Chile.

However, governments, diplomats, and experts have no common understanding of what exactly makes a foreign policy 'feminist.' In fact, every state that introduced a Feminist Foreign Policy did so differently. For example, Mexico implemented changes in all aspects of foreign policy, from diplomacy to trade and defense. In contrast, Canada only applied a feminist approach to its international development policy. So what, then, are the commonalities behind this new form of foreign policy?  In this blog, I provide an overview of three ideas behind Feminist Foreign Policy which are essential to understand for governments and individuals currently working with this policy, as well as those who are curious to implement it in the future.

The label 'feminist'

The first idea behind a Feminist Foreign Policy is its feminist characteristic. Feminist Foreign Policy distinguishes itself from traditional approaches to foreign policy by its attempt to be more inclusive and change existing inequalities. Vital in this regard is the bottom-up approach to foreign policy-making. This means that foreign policy is created in collaboration and consultation with actors outside the government, including civil society and those affected by such policies. When countries choose to adopt the label feminist to their foreign policy, they indicate that they want to increase their efforts to be more inclusive and contribute to resolving existing inequalities. The extent to which they do so, however, differs - people’s understanding of the word ‘feminist’ has changed over time, and secondly, there is no ‘one’ feminism.

While the first waves of feminism were centered around advancing women’s rights, today’s feminism has a broader scope and focuses on equality for everyone regardless of gender. Next to the changing nature of feminism, there is no ‘one’ feminism as people have different understandings of what this word means. In the context of foreign policy, some states refer to feminism as the pursuit of gender equality between men and women [2]. Accordingly, Feminist Foreign Policy is understood as adopting a gender lens in all aspects of foreign policy, ranging from diplomacy and trade to security and multilateralism. Other states go beyond the binary definition of gender, consisting of women and men [3], and instead adopt Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality. An Intersectional Feminist Foreign Policy recognizes that gender relates to many other identity markers related to inequality, including race, origin, and sexuality. Hence, it considers the perspectives of those whose voices are typically marginalized and incorporates anti-racism and decolonization.

A new ambition for foreign policy

The second idea is that a Feminist Foreign Policy is an ambition that can only be achieved step-by-step. None of the ten countries that announced a Feminist Foreign Policy already have a 100% feminist approach in their foreign policy. And that is okay. Most governments worldwide have existed for decades, if not centuries, and are enshrined in patriarchal structures and masculinity. Adding the label feminist to a foreign policy does not change a government and its practices overnight. So a step-by-step approach is vital. In fact, it aligns with important characteristics of feminism; self-reflection, being open to change, and constantly evolving and moving forward in the right direction.

Towards accountability

The third idea is that a Feminist Foreign Policy contributes to states' accountability. After all, once states announce a feminist approach to their foreign policy, they become accountable for their actions under this new approach. Not only does it carry obligations towards other states, but also towards civil society. While states’ actions on the global stage are always more important than words, incorporating the label 'feminist' can help generate such actions. 

What also helps regarding states' accountability is to publish a policy paper outlining what they mean by implementing a Feminist Foreign Policy and how they will live up to their words. Examples of countries that understand this principle are Sweden and Spain, which published extensive policy papers including accountability frameworks. Other countries, such as France, Luxembourg, and Libya, did not follow up their announcement with any significant changes or a clear policy paper. This makes it hard - maybe even impossible - for people outside the government to hold them accountable.  

Feminist Foreign Policy and hope for the future

Understanding the underlying ideas behind Feminist Foreign Policy, regarding the essence of feminism, the connected ambition, and accountability, helps in understanding why this new form of foreign policy quickly spreads around the world. One could wonder, however, whether there should be an agreed definition of Feminist Foreign Policy. But throughout my research I found that it is precisely in the nature of feminism to refrain from imposing ideas and values onto other countries. Instead, the absence of a clear definition allows states to find their own approach to Feminist Foreign Policy, aligning it with their history, norms, and values. 

With so many issues in the world today, it is easy to get pessimistic about the future. Especially as a young person. But this new approach to foreign policy – Feminist Foreign Policy - reveals that a better future is possible. Ultimately, foreign policy is about the relationship between states. But a state is something abstract; in the end, it is all about the people. Feminist Foreign Policy acknowledges this human aspect of foreign policy and diplomacy. It is not just a new fancy label that constitutes pink-washing. If we want to tackle the many challenges we face today, from climate change to a global pandemic, conflict, and poverty, we must choose a new and inclusive approach to foreign policy - A Feminist Foreign Policy. 

Rosa Stienstra is a policy officer at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article is based on her thesis research for the MSc International Relations at the University of Leiden in collaboration with the Clingendael Institute. The views in this article do in no way reflect the views of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Dutch government. 

[1] https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/FFP-2021Update_v4.pdf

[2] https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/FFP-2021Update_v4.pdf

[3] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gender-binary

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