A Feminist Foreign Policy Under President Joe Biden? – Promises and Challenges
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image: AFP / Economic Times
President-elect Joe Biden will officially be sworn in as the President of the United States in late January. While Democrats and liberals will breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of Donald Trump exiting the white house, for feminist foreign policy advocates across the country the work will only just begin. As Biden firms up his picks for his government and lays out the agenda for the next four years, feminist advocates are analysing whether or not to
expect the adoption of a feminist foreign policy.
An American Feminist Foreign Policy
In May 2020, The Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States, a group of 50+ organizations in the development, policy and gender spaces launched a publication that presented a blueprint vision for an American feminist foreign policy. From recommending that 20% of international development assistance go towards supporting programs that promote gender equality to mainstreaming gender analyses in every governmental agency, the Coalition called for a feminist approach towards all forms of statecraft. The document highlighted the importance of the need to consult those who will be impacted by the policies to ensure it is guided by a bottom-up approach. This sets apart the US’ vision for a feminist foreign policy from the others’, in that it seeks the collaboration of feminists on-ground, particularly in the Global South in formulation and implementation. Nevertheless, in order to be truly ground-breaking, the implementation of such a feminist policy must move away from the typical hierarchical North-South dynamic in which foreign policy from the Northern world is conducted on the Southern world, instead of with them. It should not reinforce the idea that the target of these polices are mere beneficiaries instead of active participants.
While the proposal is ambitious and more progressive than anything the US has ever implemented so far, there are several roadblocks that already exist and need immediate addressal. For starters, the country has not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – a crucial yet basic instrument used as a foundation for feminist policy. In the last couple of years, President Trump has withdrawn from crucial international agreements and organisations such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the World Health Organisation, two platforms which are important for the US to conduct intersectional, feminist and human-security oriented diplomacy. In terms of foreign aid, in January 2017, President Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag rule, the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” Policy. This policy ensures that any US government global family planning/health funding does not go to organisations that “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning”.
As plans for Biden’s transition team went underway, the Coalition released a memo to the new administration, outlining a timeline for the design, adoption and implementation of their feminist vision of foreign policy. On the first day of Biden’s presidency, among other steps, the Coalition strongly recommends the reinstatement of USA to the Paris Agreement, which Biden has already vowed to do. However, the real source of hope is the introduction of a House Resolution calling for feminist foreign policy by the co-chairs of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. This is the first time that a call for such an anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, peaceful and holistic policy has reached the Congress and with the Democrats currently holding majority in the House, there is a real sense of anticipation that the Resolution will be accepted.
As Biden continues to announce his picks for his top aides and cabinet members, many feminists have been commending him for attempting to achieve gender parity. According to CNN, 46% of the transition staff are people of colour and in his advisory team, 43% are people of colour and 52% are women. Aside from Kamala Harris’ historical appointment as the Vice President, another noteworthy cabinet pick is Deb Haaland as she is set to become the first Native American cabinet secretary as the head of the Department of the Interior.
However, as Medea Benjamin, the founder of Codepink, aptly explained, having more women in office does not necessarily mean that the administration will pursue a feminist policy. In her own words about some of the appointees, “one of them, Susan Rice, another one, Michele Flournoy. They are not feminists.” Moreover, even as Biden appointed many nominees from historically oppressed backgrounds to senior positions, he continues to balm any real systemic changes with tokenistic identity politics. For example, the Biden team touted that Alejandro Mayorkas would be in the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and remarked that it was historical for the position to be taken up by a Latin American and immigrant. A feminist policy approach to Homeland Security would seek to enact real immigration reform that supports migrants and asylum-seekers instead of rebranding crucial positions in terms of cultural posturing. Flaunting diversity and representation instead of radical policy change is just a way of forcing us to view large scale problems with rose-tinted glasses, giving us some semblance of progress while the status quo remains.
President Trump’s tenure at the White House resulted in significant steps backward in terms of women’s rights both at home and abroad with cuts in funding and withdrawal from several international agreements regarding security for women. Biden, on the other hand, has had a strong track record in this area and has promised to dole out a promising women’s agenda. While Biden has already promised to rescind the Global Gag Rule, re-enter the World Health Organisation and re-fund the UN Population fund, rolling back Trump’s policies is just the bare minimum for supporting women’s rights around the world. The Global Gag Rule has already had devastating consequences in countries that depend on US aid in order to support women’s public health. This was the case in Senegal when an advocacy group campaigning for a national abortion law had to halt its operations in order to continue receiving funding.
As a country that prides itself as the global leader and defender of universal human rights, the US must to do more than just committing to a feminist foreign policy agenda led by marginalised stakeholders, revising patriarchal Trump-era policies that stripped women and non-binary people of existing protections and ratifying international frameworks for protecting women’s rights. Biden must commit to making lasting and permanent changes that do not change according to the party affiliations of the next President. Furthermore, domestically, Biden should unequivocally further the momentum of the promises being made without making “progress only in areas palatable to Republicans”.
Arguably the key underlying driver of US foreign policy is a militaristic logic, manifesting in the form of massive defense budgets, deployment of troops and endless wars in the name of protecting democracy and freedom. As with any new US administration, there is little doubt that, in the words of Medea Benjamin, the “Biden administration will continue the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, although he, just like Trump, said they were going to end the endless wars”. Biden himself has a pro-war track record and although many headlines highlighted the “progressiveness” of picking Michèle Flournoy to be Defense Secretary and Susan Rice as Secretary of State, anti-war feminists have sounded alarms about these women’s pro-war stances. Since the end of Cold War, American foreign policy has been formulated by gendered notions of security and justified harm to communities (prominently of colour) with zero accountability. Ultimately, the of misogynistic US militarism is bore by women and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) – whether it is the Navajo women who have high levels of uranium in their blood because of nuclear weapon testing, Iraqi women who are giving birth to babies with congenital disabilities, Japanese women who face sexual violence from troops and immigrants and asylum-seekers who are forcefully being sterilised in detention centres.
A feminist foreign policy approach to national security requires a complete overhaul of structures that foment violence and war in destabilised regions such as the Middle East, and puts an end to meddling and interventions abroad alongside police brutality and military-industrial complex at home. As Cornelius Adebahr and Barbara Mittelhammer summed up, “feminist foreign policy begins with critical self-reflection and has nothing to do with going ‘soft’ on the other (a term that is in itself gendered, as ‘hard’ is often considered to have masculine qualities) but allows for a more complete picture of the challenges ahead.” The Biden-Harris administration should listen to calls from the Black Lives Matter movement and ratchet up efforts to defund and divest out of the police, military and the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. This also means redirecting resources and funding away from defence-related spending and towards health care, sustainable development, combatting climate change, protecting the environment, education and alleviating poverty.
With COVID-19 demonstrating just how fragile and unfeasible the current socio-political and economic systems of the world order are, this is the opportune time for the US to revamp its foreign policy and invest in a safer, more robust, resilient and equitable future. By taking this leap of faith away from the status quo, the US can truly cement itself and re-build its role as a global leader that looks out for the best of everyone, as it has always claimed.