Canada hosted a historic convening last month of female foreign ministers who came together to discuss feminist foreign policy. All told, 30 women gathered to discuss women’s issues—including eight from Europe, 10 from Latin America and five from Africa.
The meeting was organized in an effort to cultivate feminist foreign policy that actually sustains lasting change—as opposed to policies that do not spur meaningful action. Women, peace and security advocates Lyric Thompson and Christina Asquith plan to hold them to their word.
In a piece for Foreign Policy, the two experts aired their own misgivings around the gathering—opening up about their fears that it wouldn’t result in the kind of substantive action needed at this critical moment.
The concept of a feminist foreign policy was first popularized in 2014 by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who [was] in attendance. Wallstrom has described a feminist foreign policy as “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women” and a “precondition” for achieving Sweden’s wider foreign development and security policy objectives. Gender equality is a right on its own, she argues, and is also the most effective means for achieving other goals, such as the eradication of terrorism, economic growth, and improvement in health.
Reactions to Wallstrom’s ideas have ranged from giggling to outright hostility. Numerous Canadian officials—including outspoken, self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—have spoken about the backlash they have encountered in launching policies with the word “feminist” attached to them. Nonetheless, pieces of this idea have been adopted over the years by countries around the world, including in the United States. Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie Bishop, spoke openly about making gender equality central to global peace and security. And the United Kingdom’s former foreign secretary, William Hague, made ending rape in war a priority of his policy platform during the country’s G-7 presidency.
In the United States, the Obama administration never pursued a feminist foreign policy under a single institutional umbrella. But the State Department, under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, did craft a collection of issue-specific foreign policies on various gender issues, including a U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally; a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (which dozens of other countries had also adopted well in advance of the United States); and a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.
These were groundbreaking for the United States at the time but still fell short of Sweden’s full embrace of the concept. That’s consistent with the pattern elsewhere. Most countries that talk about a feminist foreign policy aren’t really implementing it; they’re simply adding aid programs for women. A truly feminist foreign policy would have to be more ambitious; either it must enshrine women’s rights across the government or it’s not deserving of the name.