• The Gender Security Project

Building a Feminist Foreign Policy as a Westphalian State

By Kirthi Jayakumar



Source: Torontoist (Link)


At first glance, the term Feminist Foreign Policy – especially to an evolving feminist – might seem like a paradox. The average woman’s experience has shown us why. In Mona Eltahawy’s words, the lives of women and non-binary people are dictated, controlled, and governed by the patriarchal trifecta of the family, society, and state. For a state asking to bring feminist values into its foreign policy can be a powerful step toward systems change and the creation of a future of sustainable peace that several feminists have long envisioned: But it really calls for the wholesome dismantling of the prison-military-violence-industry complex from root up.


Theory and practice alike have shown us that there is no single, over-arching definition of Feminist Foreign Policy. There cannot be, either, for there are multiple feminisms as there are foreign policies. What, then, can we claim as the core goal we are aspiring to when we call on states to adopt, implement, and action feminist foreign policies? At its heart, it is much more than bringing women into positions of power. We are not calling for “add-women-and-stir” as much as we are calling for systems change. The world cannot continue to function in the ways that we have known it to: Our systems are not working and it’s time to take steps toward shifting them. If the prevalence of war, extractivism, violence against women and non-binary people, the nuclear arms race, and colonization didn’t already open our eyes to it, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly did, as it laid bare the many fractures in the normalized systems and structures we operate with.


In most global engagements that have claimed the adoption and operation of a feminist foreign policy, we have witnessed the adoption of gender mainstreaming, inclusion of women in positions of power and decision-making, and expanding the provision of aid for programming centred on women’s rights and gender-related engagements. Such forms of programming have existed since before the title of Feminist Foreign Policy was adopted, and it is time to go above and beyond the mere inclusion of women. Whatever form of feminism one may engage with, there are four basic, inviolable principles to adopting a feminist approach: intersectionality, dismantling patriarchal systems and structures, redistribution of power, and accountability.


For the longest time, the Majority World, has been a passive recipient of foreign policy. Whether it was co-opting the colonized to fight wars on behalf of the colonizers, or to receive top-down aid without having a say on how that money can be used, or even in the way the adverse impacts of climate change are being unfairly felt in the global south and the island nations of the world: The agency of the Global South has not been given full or free play. Even as that is changing, we see that it is changing only at the top level. In my view, a feminist foreign policy would prioritize the last mile first. Is your aid programming intended for women reaching women of privilege or women who have faced historical oppression in the country to which aid is made? Are the people deciding on what and who aid will be provided for, truly representing those that need that aid? Foreign policy is made by the state, whose representatives in the international arena do not represent the last mile in the grass-roots. And yet, this foreign policy is felt at the grass-roots. This in itself means that the grass-roots must find a spot at the table – and not a tokenistic one, but a really substantive engagement that prioritizes the continuum between people and policy.


The rudiments of a foreign policy system invariably entrench patriarchal systems of power. In state-level engagement, diplomacy is a man’s world, and militarism is often an item of early, if not first, resort. Instruments of peace have been co-opted to serve the military-industrial complex – be that the Uniting for Peace Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly or the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda adopted by the UN Security Council. We have seen how military interests have been subtly endorsed in the name of humanitarian intervention, how the refugee crisis continues to burgeon with states refusing to put down weapons and shift to the negotiation table on the one hand, and rigid border policies ranking higher than seeing the human in the eyes of the refugee seeking asylum. Patriarchal systems and structures have been deeply entrenched in our engagements, starting from the private to the public. If a foreign policy were to be truly feminist, it would discard militarism as a solution to any challenge in the world. It would prioritize and scale disarmament, and divert large sums of money that are otherwise wasted on military expenditure to cultivate cultures of peace. Conflict is inevitable, and peace is not the absence of it. It is a careful, ongoing engagement driven by a commitment to ensure that active efforts are taken to handle conflict without resorting to violence.


We often hear about how women are naturally predisposed to being good leaders because of their capacity to multitask, to nurture, and inherent tendency to be peaceful. However, no gender has a monopoly over the human condition. To be human is to be capable of using and abusing power: But the culture of division of humanity on the basis of gender has enabled one to use and abuse power, while targeting all the other. The feminist call for the redistribution of power is not about making more women leaders, or checking boxes by adding more women and non-binary people in key positions. It is about the redistribution of power in the hands of those who have been side-lined for generations, whose lived experiences can inform decision-, law-, and policymaking at all levels. Women who have built peace in conflict-zones have not done so because they are women, but rather because they have witnessed the futility of war in their everyday lives and have identified ways to mobilize toward peace when those in power were busy strategizing militarily. To enable a robust, impactful feminist foreign policy, invite the last mile in your country – those that are not represented by your current pool of leaders – to engage with the last mile in the countries you engage with through an intersectional feminist foreign policy. In doing so, you normalize a redistribution of power and foreign policy capital that will go a long way in questioning and responding to historical oppressions and marginalization.


The final piece in the picture is accountability. Adopting a feminist foreign policy in name on the one hand, while also increasing military expenditure, enabling or supporting a war miles away, or even normalizing the systemic targeting of indigenous communities, is to throw the baby with the bathwater. For a feminist foreign policy to truly be feminist, it is essential that it remains coherent and contiguous. It is important to espouse feminist values across the board: in your trade policies, financial and economic policies, in your environmental policies, in your multilateral and bilateral processes, and in your engagements with civil society within and beyond your borders. Accountability is vital in actioning a feminist foreign policy – and this also means being open about failing, being challenged, or not having all the answers.

Accountability also means that a value system cannot be a casualty in the hands of politics: Just as a nation’s constitution is inviolable no matter who sits in power, it is our hope that the adoption of a coherent feminist foreign policy cuts across party lines and remains in place.


As we live and operate in the age of the Anthropocene, this is the era where our species has had the greatest impact on the planet, its climate, and its ecosystem. While it is tempting for me to ask for a feminist foreign policy that would end wars, respond to climate change, prioritize disarmament, and create cultures of peace and equality, it isn’t down to one government or one foreign policy to address these issues. These are not changes that can be achieved in a matter of a day, either – which means that a feminist foreign policy is a journey than a destination. What we can do in collaboration is to make a start.

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