The Gender Security Project
A Non-Ideal Framework for Feminist Foreign Policy
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Edith, Duchess of Holdernesse, played by Susie Wokoma, from the Netflix Series "Enola Holmes" tells it like it is. Image: Netflix (Twitter)
International relations, like most other things in the world, rests on power. From trade to armed conflict, to shaping global policies and conventions, power determines everything. Following colonialism, the post-modern world order imported the Westphalian template, which has situated power in the hands of a privileged few, producing structural and systemic violence. Today, this power remains deeply entrenched in a skewed world order that continues to keep structural violence alive in several forms : racism, casteism, patriarchy, and capitalism, to name a few. Our approach to doing policy and embracing international relations starts and pushes forward structural violence. A brief profile of the average pen-pusher in international political circles is firmly entrenched in our minds: the privileged, wealthy, white man.
Feminist foreign policy speaks truth to power: and redefines it. It offers a way to redistribute power by making it a formidable instrument of empowerment, by shifting its purpose to being a binding force to catalyze solidarity. However, for feminist foreign policy to work, it cannot be force fit into white privilege, structural violence, and oppressive systems that continue to prop up arms trade, enabling armed conflict, and violating indigenous rights. For feminist foreign policy to work, it must first be non-ideal theory.
Rawls (1971) defined the idea of ideal theory by speaking about ideal justice, which he suggested effectively manifests as an entirely just society in which all people are presumed to act justly and to do their part in upholding just institutions. This ideal justice offers framework to identify unjust societies and how far they deviate from the ideal, in what terms. The flaw in this argument is that an ideal justice framework will not work as a basis to judge or hold a non-ideal social order to account because of its inherent inadequacy. The heavily idealistic threshold of an ideal society simply does not speak to the unique challenges of a non-ideal society. The distance between an ideal and a non-ideal society (or justice, for that matter) is firmly held in place by systemic injustice and structural violence (Tessman 2014). The flawed view that Rawls presented is what we’re seeing manifest in what has been labelled as “Feminist Foreign Policy” – because none of the policies in place have transcended being women-friendly, women-centric, and women-specific, in order to address systemic injustice and structural violence.
While adopting Sweden's Feminist Foreign Policy in December 2014, Margot Wallström explained that a feminist foreign policy “comprised a course of action committed to gender equality, an idea based on Joseph Nye’s idea of ‘Smart Power’,” and “The half of the population that so far has been almost systematically excluded and forgotten — namely, women — will now be included” (Rothschild 2014). But Sweden hasn’t checked its export to arms to conflict areas such as Saudi Arabia – where women are denied basic human rights – and countries that have been involved in the armed conflict in Yemen, which has become the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with devastating consequences on women and girls (Irsten 2019).
In the Canadian Feminist Foreign Policy, one sees an evident case of style and form finding more value than actual content: structural change and transformation are missing (Smith and Ajadi 2020). As Cadesky (2020: abstract) noted, Canada’s policy may be refreshing for its use of the words “feminist” and “feminism,” but the central weaknesses its policy is easily symptomatic of major “endemic challenges that persist in the current policies and practices that seek to promote gender equality in the developing world and beyond.” In 2020, Canada doubled its arms sales to Saudi Arabia (The Guardian 2020), and continues to mete out injustices to its indigenous people, especially indigenous women (Palmater 2021).
France insists that it pursues feminist diplomacy, but the scope and purport of the term in practice continues to remain uncertain (Moscovenko 2020). Mexico’s feminist diplomacy and foreign policy stands in stark contrast to the reality on ground: femicide, gender discrimination, and gender-based violence seem like the norm more than an exception (Deslandes 2020).
A Feminist Foreign Policy is truly “an ethical framework that… embraces the stories and lived experiences of women and other marginalised groups at the receiving end of foreign policy conduct” (Aggestam, Rosamond, and Kronsell 2019: abstract). It is a powerful opportunity to resituate that power in the hands of those that have historically been deprived of it, whose right over it has been long overdue. Feminist Foreign Policy, when seen as an ideal theory, will manifest as the flawed, force-fit, buzzword-led policies that we see with Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico.
The pursuit of an ideal-theory form of Feminist Foreign Policy will produce a half-baked outcome: one that serves a hypothetical, and does nothing to address the systemic injustice that “thrives” (for want of a better term). Resituating Feminist Foreign Policy as a true solution to structural violence is vital: and the only way to do that is to step away from seeing power as a means to affirm structural oppression to sharing it as a means of empowerment and movement-building.
Ann Deslandes (2020) "Checking In on Mexico’s Feminist Foreign Policy." https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/30/mexico-feminist-foreign-policy-one-year-in/
Gabriella Irsten, “How Feminist is the Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy?” https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/journal/2019/11/11/how-feminist-is-the-swedish-feminist-foreign-policy
Heather Smith and Tari Ajadi. "Canada’s feminist foreign policy and human security compared." International Journal 75, no. 3 (2020): 367-382.
John Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice
Karin Aggestam, Annika Bergman Rosamond, and Annica Kronsell. "Theorising feminist foreign policy." International Relations 33, no. 1 (2019): 23-39.
Lisa Tessman (2014) Feminist Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy: Theorizing the Non-Ideal
Louise Rozes Moscovenko (2020) "France’s ‘feminist diplomacy’: lots of talk, little action." https://www.euractiv.com/section/non-discrimination/news/frances-feminist-diplomacy-lots-of-talk-little-action/
Nathalie Rothschild, December 5, 2014. “Swedish Women vs. Vladimir Putin: Sweden says it will pursue a feminist foreign policy to counter Russian aggression…even if no one really knows what that means.” Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/12/05/canvladimir-putin-be-intimidated-by-feminism-sweden/
Pam Palmater (2021) "At every turn, Canada chooses the path of injustice toward Indigenous peoples" https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/at-every-turn-canada-chooses-the-path-of-injustice-toward-indigenous-peoples/
The Guardian (2020) "Canada doubles weapons sales to Saudi Arabia despite moratorium" https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/09/canada-doubles-weapons-sales-to-saudi-arabia-despite-moratorium