Feminist foreign policy?


Feminist foreign policy
Feminist foreign policy

By Gabriele Koehler

“Feminism needs tectonic plates to shift, not a trendy make-over” (Bernardine Evaristo)

In recent years, a number of countries have re-labelled their foreign policy as ‘feminist’. Sweden introduced the concept 8 years ago.  Spain, Canada, France, Luxemburg, Mexico, Chile, and Libya, and others have issued feminist foreign policy statements. Germany has a commitment to feminist foreign policy in its governmental coalition agreement and is extending the term to development cooperation also; there is also an institute for feminist foreign policy in Berlin.

Yes, it would be lovely to imbue foreign policy with feminist visions. But what does ‘feminist’ actually mean? Women in all their diversity at policy tables? Development projects that are gender-sensitive and compile gender-disaggregated statistics? Gender budgeting? Attention to the gendered impact of policies– that policies affect women, men, children differently? Support to human rights, civil society and free media? Speaking up for defenders of human rights, women’s rights, climate rights?

Such sensitivities are necessary and very welcome, no doubt, but such commitments have been around in multi- and bi-lateral discourses at least since the MDGs of the 2000s. This is gender awareness, not feminism.

Feminism - I would argue - is transformative. The decisive criterion for a feminist foreign policy would then be that entrenched asymmetrical political, economic and societal power hierarchies are addressed, transformed - and in due course toppled. This would need to be the objective of each country’s “foreign” policy – the impact beyond the individual nation-state’s borders. In fact, if meant in earnest, all of a government’s policies would need to be “feminist”, instead of limited to an (important but not sufficient) gender-aware foreign policy.

What would need to happen?

  • Start with the (relatively) easiest: Many countries follow a model of development cooperation – standalone or incorporated into their foreign policy – whereby their business and security interests drive expenditure priorities and the selection of “development partners”. So, a complete revamp of this approach would be prerequisite. As Masaya Llavaneras Blanco puts it: “Stop colonial practices in international aid, in which development is framed as a business opportunity for the private sector of the country providing aid”. If decolonialisation is taken seriously, this could – among many other things - mean equal salary scales for international and national staff (adjusted for purchasing power parity, I suppose) in bi- and multi-lateral agencies.
  • Complicated, but doable: In the multilateral space , the UN needs to be re-empowered. It needs to shed its debilitating dependence on authoritarian member states, and the ever-deepening corporate capture. As a first small step in that direction, governments’ assessed contributions (membership dues to the UN) need to be adjusted such that the UN has a proper predictable budget that it controls, guided normatively by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, rather than by political and financial power brokers.
  • A question of political will and mobilising the financial resources: In light of the historical responsibility for the climate catastrophe and species extinction, at the different Conferences of the Parties (COPs), feminist foreign policy would need to agree to adequate funding for loss and damage for those low-income, systemically excluded communities existentially hit by historical and current climate and environmental impacts – in the global South, and also in the global North.
  • More difficult, but a logical consequence: The high-income coutries need to re-examine the politics they aid and abet in the international financial institutions  and the World Trade Organisation, which need a fundamental restructuring. Since voting rights are weighted or negotiating practices skewed, the interests of smaller and economically weaker countries are generally bulldozered. One recent example is the outcome of the Ministerial Conference 12 of the WTO (June 2022) where the proposals of countries of the global South to overcome vaccine apartheid by freeing the patents for diagnostics, prevention and therapy were overridden by exclusionary negotiating tactics of powerful countries and companies.
  • But: to be really feminist, foreign policy would need to re-evaluate the entire economic rationale of hyper-capitalism. International trade and investment are based on the rationale of profit making. They build on exploitative forms of work at home, in export processing zones, in global value chains, and they rely on unfettered resource extraction and constant unhindered land grabbing of commons and indigenous lands. They function as a carbon-based system that destroys the ecosphere, our health, and that of the planet. In tandem, macroeconomic policy “wisdom” remains geared to “prudent” fiscal budgets which only rarely ringfence social expenditures; as one devastating consequence, social protection remains out of reach for the world’s 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy, and social services to support women’s exhausting work and care are dismal.
  • In most of the powerful countries, military production and military expenditures are growing exponentially – in the EU’s new 5-year budget, for example. This is presented as necessary to ensure national and regional security, but flies in the face of the – feminist - demand for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Feminist foreign policy would therefore would need to re-fetter hyper-capitalism. It would want to re-introduce global and national level regulation to ensure human rights, labour standards, gender justice and climate and environmental standards, and - peace. It would re-order international trade and investment rules and procedures. This includes, i.a., serious support of a UN-anchored binding treaty on business and human rights. It would oppose fiscal austerity, and support cancellation of the suffocating debt servicing burden of so many low- and middle-income countries. It would promote a global UN tax convention which could monitor and align taxation and prevent capital flight and tax evasion. It would mainstream gender equality into climate and biodiversity negotiations. It would forbid arms exports. In short, genuine feminist (foreign) policy would need to advocate for a well-being economy, where care is valorised, decent work the norm, planetary boundaries honoured, and peace assured, and apply to all policies a government pursues.

That then would be truly feminist.


Gabriele Köhler is a development economist, board member of Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), senior research associate at UNRISD and member of Global Policy Forum Europe e.V.