Doing Feminist Foreign Policy: Going Bottom Up
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Scenes from a rehearsal session with Colombia’s Cantadora Network, a network of singers using traditional Afro-Colombian music to preserve their culture and promote peace. According to the Global Network of Women Peacebuilder, funds are being diverted from women-led peacebuilding organisations, and from peacebuilding processes more broadly. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Between the WPS Agenda and the gradual adoption of Feminist Foreign Policies world over, implementation has sidelined the feminist agenda of dismantling structural violence and systems created for and by cis-het men in positions of power. The two-decade old WPS Agenda is undoubtedly transformative for several reasons. The idea of a Feminist Foreign Policy is empowering, invaluable, and promising. And yet, the full potential of both remain to be tapped.
The WPS Agenda calls for the inclusion of more women in peace processes. Through National Action Plans and other means such as law and policy, states have tended to “implement” this through the inclusion of more women at the peace table, in the armed forces, and in peacekeeping forces. The operation of a “gender quota” has been treated as a sufficient mode of translating the WPS agenda into practice. Precious little has been done to engage with systemic and structural violence that enables and keeps gender inequality alive. Outward-facing national action plans and homonationalist approaches have gone so far as to pinkwash inter-state engagements and justify military intervention.
On the other hand, the few countries that have implemented Feminist Foreign Policies continue to support military intervention and arms trade, and have done precious little to condone rampant sexism. These policies are couched within the ambit of the Westphalian model, which is far from being a feminist institution on any account. States deploying feminist foreign policies have also tended to reduce the idea to addressing women – instead of calling in question the systems and structures of oppression that enable war, violence, and gender inequality, among several other things.
The failings of the Westphalian order
The crux of the Westphalian model and contemporary inter-state engagements is the idea of power distribution. The Eurocentric model emerged in a world order where imperialism was the norm. The post-colonial world order continues to carry the structures established by imperialism and colonialism in addition to the trauma of colonialism – with neither reparations nor apologies from any of the former colonial powers. Decolonization distributed power. Those in positions of privilege by virtue of class, caste, race, ethnicity, and class grabbed power after the colonial rulers left, continuing with systems that were at best prototypes of their former colonial rulers.
Within these structures, the adoption of a feminist foreign policy or discharging a commitment in endorsement of the WPS Agenda will only go so far. A force-fit at best, deploying a policy to check a box is simply forcing a square peg into a round hole and causing much to slip through the gaps. In effect, this only translates to tokenism. Negotiating tables cannot be made to look inclusive on paper and in photographs: peace advocacy should start by revamping the systems and structures that brought us to the state of violence that we’ve been normalizing for years now. In the words of Sharon-Bhagwan Rolls, “Gender-mainstreaming is a luxury. Redesign the table.”
Take the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. States committed to implementing the WPS Agenda should have long since treated services for, say, people facing gender-based violence or in need of medical and other health-related support for sexual and reproductive health rights, as essential. States that adopted feminist foreign policies should introspect and work to dismantle systems that brought the world to a grinding halt in the face of a pandemic: the ruthless ways of structural violence that normalized inequalities, the combined forces of patriarchy and capitalism, and the gaping chasm between the privileged and the oppressed.
Reimagining the future
The Westphalian model’s inherent pursuit of keeping, if not increasing, power is wedded to the idea of negative peace. It demands that all those it others must strive to fit in. Its idea of the “norm” is tied to privilege and wealth, and the idea of power sharing or redistribution is non-existent in its vocabulary.
Within such a limiting framework, the adoption of a feminist foreign policy or pursuing the WPS agenda would only look to increase the number of women in office or to expand the scope of aid to include more women, for example, not necessarily dismantling systemic oppression. The frame of leadership that women are then forced to perform remain those that men have normalized as the acceptable form of leadership. The mere occupation of a position of power by a woman does not guarantee feminist impact or that feminist agendas will be pursued. Instead, by gamifying an already limited frame of engagement and forcing women to compete with one another, it plays the oldest trope in the patriarchy handbook – that of pitting women against women and reducing those that emerge to tokens checking a box. The other end of the spectrum calls for the switching of power from the hands of men to the hands of women, a good number from feminists themselves. This isn’t typically going to culminate in a changed outcome, for the battle for power over will keep a spiral of insecurity and power struggle in place.
Whether it is in implementing the WPS Agenda or adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy, introspection is fundamental. Who holds power currently? How can we reframe this in ways that do not imply power over, but power with? In what ways does the system oppress and what keeps structural violence in place? The answers to these questions shouldn’t come from those in privilege, but those they oppress, those that they force to fit into a limiting frame of engagement. The goal should not be to keep the extant systems of power and force conformity, but to dismantle that very system of power and enable cohesive and inclusive growth.
As Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote in “Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race:”
“I don't want to be included. Instead, I want to question who created the standard in the first place. After a lifetime of embodying difference, I have no desire to be equal. I want to deconstruct the structural power of a system that marked me out as different. I don't wish to be assimilated into the status quo. I want to be liberated from all the negative assumptions that my characteristics bring. The same onus is not on me to change. Instead it's the world around me…”