Feminist Foreign Policy – An Unhappy Marriage?

Author: Elizabeth James, 2019.


“Using Sweden and Canada as case studies, this article will explore the character of feminist foreign policy to date, the broader implications of shaping a transformative approach to policymaking, and the inherent contradictions of heteronormative masculine states enacting gender radical governance.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 


It has been twenty-four years since the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, during which Hillary Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Five years later in 2000, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 changed the landscape of state intervention in conflict and launched the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. Over the next decade, several other resolutions would follow and further deepen gender analysis in peacebuilding processes, including UNSCR  1820 in 2008, which first recognized sexual violence as a tactic of warfare. Strengthened alignment and accountability to human rights based approaches in international development has been crucial for advancing efforts to address deeply rooted systemic injustices in a post-colonial world.

Despite the many strides that have been achieved, challenges persist in recognizing the full humanity and lived experiences of oppressed peoples including women, girls, refugees, and LGBTQ communities, among others. Alarmingly, not only do gaps remain, but a growing global “backlash” of right-wing and populist movements is resurging. This trend has been highlighted in Western states by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as well as in formerly theocratic and socialist states in developing countries, such as the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in the Philippines (Goets; Watson). Across these contexts, rhetoric and policies have increasingly focused on anti-immigration and weakening women’s autonomy, alongside expanding regressive heteronormative values (Achilleos-Saril; Goetz). It is within this tug of war between rights and repression that feminist foreign policy has emerged as a new path forward. Using Sweden and Canada as case studies, this article will explore the character of feminist foreign policy to date, the broader implications of shaping a transformative approach to policymaking, and the inherent contradictions of heteronormative masculine states enacting gender radical governance. This discussion circles back to a key discourse on feminist theory raised by Audre Lorde – can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house (Lorde)?


Feminism & Foreign Policy

What is feminist foreign policy? The term was first coined by Sweden in 2014 under the leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom. It reflects a strategic policymaking that acknowledges the historic oppression of women and girls and seeks to promote their rights, while also transforming normative frameworks in foreign policy and international development. As such, in theory, a feminist lens should infuse the full landscape of foreign policies, such as related to trade, security, immigration and migration, aid, cultural exchange, and diplomacy (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond; Gilsinan).

Early adopters are still actively defining the parameters of a feminist approach; however, its origins can be found on a smaller scale in the work of earlier politicians. Since 2013, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has advocated on behalf of the WPS agenda and in favor of gender mainstreaming (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond).William Hague, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, fought to end conflict-related sexual violence during his tenure.Years after her 1995 speech in Beijing, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton elevated women’s empowerment as a central tenet of US international development policy (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond; Hudson; McPhedran; Tru). Contradictions in these gender-forward approaches draw a line that stops short of embracing a feminist ideology. For instance, Bishop has claimed that “feminism” is not a term she finds “particularly useful” (Badham).  Hague has been criticized for sexist behavior in parliament after being caught calling a female Labour MP a “stupid woman” (Siddique). In her career as a public servant, Clinton’s reputation as a feminist figure has been contentious, especially for younger intersectional feminists due to her mixed track record on issues like same-sex marriage (Filipovic).

Tracing how feminist ideals have shaped international policies, both implicitly and explicitly, underscores the particular significance of Sweden and Canada’s distinct embrace of the term ‘feminism.’ In their analysis of the linkages between ethics, politics, and gender in Sweden’s policies, Karin Aggestam and Annika Bergman-Rosamond suggest that use of the “f-word” represents a significant pivot away from the widely accepted framing of gender mainstreaming and towards a “controversial politics” (323). In so doing, feminist foreign policy, at least in theory, is intentionally designed to disrupt and renegotiate the systemic power structures from which foreign policies and international institutions have been formed (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond 323). In Sweden, Wallstrom recognizes the power of her choice, stating that “it’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy. I think feminism is a good term” (Nordberg). Feminism has always been political, and feminists have long been leaders in calling out the patriarchal and masculine nature of state building. In Towards a Feminist Theory of State,Catherine MacKinnon discusses the omission of women’s human rights within states and how patriarchal states marginalize women as a form of self-protection (MacKinnon; McPhedran).

In addition to feminist analysis, the emergence of feminist foreign policy resonates with a growing body of research in the fields of development and security, highlighting the gendered dimensions of conflict and governance issues. A prominent example includes findings by Hudson, Caprioli, Ballif-Spanvill, McDermott, and Emmett on the correlation between the security of states and the security of women in (Hudson, et al). They found that states with higher female empowerment rates, including in relation to social, economic, and political rights, had higher rates of peacefulness compared to states where women had lower rights, recognition and equality (Hudson, et al). Closely related, Joanna Nagel analyzed the relationship between manhood and statehood and the existence of gendered spaces in national politics (Nagel). There is also strong evidence demonstrating the importance of investing in feminist activism and women’s civil society as a critical strategy for preventing and reducing gender based violence (McPhedran; Weldon and Htun). Feminist foreign policy today would perhaps not exist without these aforementioned contributions and many others, which collectively provide a foundation of evidence to support the value of a gender-based approach.


The Trailblazer – Feminist Foreign Policy in Sweden

Sweden is the first country to adopt an explicitly feminist approach to foreign policy, centered on tackling the “systematic and global subordination of women” (Nordberg). Discussing this decision, Wallstrom expressed that,

“The realization is growing that gender equality is not a women’s issue, but rather a make-or-break issue. It is a make or break issue in itself, and it is an issue for peace, security, and sustainable development as a whole” (Wallstrom, 2015; McPhedran, 2016).

Working from this perspective, Sweden has characterized its feminist foreign policy in “3 R’s”: rights, representation, and resources, with “reality check” often shared as a fourth (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond). In short, this translates to promoting women’s participation in politics and peacebuilding; women’s human rights, rights to freedom from gender-based violence; economic equity; and empirical research for shaping gender based foreign policy (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond; “Examples of what Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has contributed to,”).

This framework guides Sweden’s engagement of gender-based policymaking across a range of issue areas including the women, peace, and security agenda, sexual and reproductive health, conflict intervention, trade, and anti-violence work (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond; Government Offices of Sweden).  By adopting the identity of a “feminist government,” Sweden has said its strategy applies to both national and international policy, recognizing the interconnectivity of these domains. Gender-responsive budgeting has been cited as a key tool for achieving these goals.

In the first three years of its feminist foreign policy, Sweden has made the greatest strides in the domains of development cooperation and humanitarian aid, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and peace and security. The nation has strengthened its support of women’s economic empowerment, including allocating more funding to social security systems (CONCORD). Sweden continues to be active in SRHR advocacy, as demonstrated in its  “headwind” agenda in this area in select African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries, as well as leading the ‘SheDecides’ initiative as pushback against the United States’ Global Gag Rule. Gaining a seat on the 2017-2018 Security Council was an opportune moment for Sweden, having complemented the country’s leadership in the WPS agenda. Sweden’s presidency of the Council in 2018 saw passage of Resolution 2428, recognizing sexual and gender-based violence as a cause for triggering sanctions for the first time (United Nations). They also supported testimony from Somalian and Nigerian women’s rights defenders, who briefed the Council on the human rights crises they faced (CONCORD). Increasing women’s access to peace processes has also been a central priority of the administration, which established a women’s peace mediator network. Work in relation to WPS is guided by the country’s National Action Plan for implementation of Resolution 1325 (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond; CONCORD; Sweden’s National Action Plan 2016-2020).


“Because It’s 2015” – Canada’s Feminist Agenda

Closely following Sweden, Canada’s feminist foreign policy agenda launched in 2015 with the election of the self-proclaimed feminist Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. Trudeau established the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet, drawing international attention and prompting the PM’s famous retort that he hired for parity “because it’s 2015!” (Chartrand). Since then, Canada’s vision has been primarily articulated through its 2017 Feminist International Assistance Policy. The multidimensional strategy “seeks to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful, more inclusive, and more prosperous world…gender equality and empowering women and girls is the most effective approach to achieving this goal” (“Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy”). Adopting a comprehensive approach, the policy’s action areas align with multiple drivers of equality including social and economic empowerment, human dignity, legal rights, health, climate action, anti-violence and safety, inclusive governance, and peace and security (“Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy).

Alongside the Feminist International Assistance Policy, which rounds out Canada’s portfolio of feminist policymaking, are the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security 2017-2022 (C-NAP), the Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations, and a defense policy focused on diversity in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). C-NAP emphasizes the importance of working with men and boys to build peace and gender equality, as well as the leadership of civil society in advancing women’s rights (“Backgrounder: well-supported, diverse, resilient people and families,”). The Elsie Initiative supports the 2011 UNSCR 2022, which recognizes how women’s participation in peacebuilding contributes to a more sustainable peace and sets targets for increasing women’s recruitment to military and police peacekeeper positions (“The Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations”). Through the initiative, Canada has committed to help develop a systematic approach for strengthening women’s deployment, providing technical assistance to other countries deploying women, and leading monitoring and evaluation of the resolution. Furthermore, Canada has pledged $6 million dollars to support these goals, alongside launching a $15 million-dollar global fund to support deployment of women peacekeepers. The 2017 defense policy is innovative in striving to create gender balance in the military, including targeted recruitment of women and minorities, integrating Gender Based Analysis in all defense activities, and improving responses and prevention from gender based violence in the military (“Backgrounder: well-supported, diverse, resilient people and families,”; “National Action Plan: Canada;” Tuckey).

While many of the development goals and areas for deepened investment overlap across countries, in comparison with Sweden, Canada’s Assistance Policy stands out for having established benchmarks for implementation over the next decade. As part of the Feminist International Assistance Policy, the country has stated that it will commit 15% of bilateral international development assistance budget to gender equality initiatives; double its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the next three years; provide $2.65 billion dollars to support climate adaptation in vulnerable communities; and allocate $150 million dollars between 2017-2022 to support grassroots women’s rights organizations. The new defense policy intends to increase women’s representation in the military by one percentage point per year for the next decade, and to achieve total representation of 25% (“Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy). While such allocations do not necessarily represent new or increased funding, they reflect a commitment to gender equality and perhaps more importantly, a mechanism for accountability regarding progress made in the years to come.

In addition to the aforementioned strategies and initiatives, Canada has begun to advance a feminist approach in other areas, such as in its trade, refugee, and economic policies. For instance, when revisiting a trade deal with Chile, a gender chapter was added that discussed each country’s gender equality commitments, established a trade and gender committee, and included an anti-discrimination proposal on the basis of gender to the WTO Working Party (Kenny). The administration asserted that similar gender chapters will be included in all trade agreements going forward. Canada has also been credited for offering asylum to Yazidi refugees, the majority of whom are women and girls, escaping violence and genocide by ISIL in Iraq (Kenny). As president of the G7, Canada has included “advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment” as one of the five themes for this year’s summit (Ho).


Transformational or Contradictory Policymaking?

Reactions to feminist foreign policy have been mixed and frequently critical. When Sweden first introduced the concept, it was criticized by some traditionalists who believed that a feminist perspective was neither relevant nor useful for addressing global problems or transnational relationships (Nordberg). Others are put off by the term feminism specifically, which at times is culturally associated with an anti-male connotation. Even for its supporters, the broader challenge seems to be whether feminist foreign policy will develop any teeth, or if it will instead remain more of a symbolic or rhetorical statement. This concern is shaped in part by the early achievements that Sweden and Canada have already experienced. As certain gains are won, they are accompanied by recognition of the gaps and contradictions that feminist foreign policy has yet to address, both within individual policies and as a broader framework or ideology for transformative change.

Reviewing implementation of both countries’ strategies reveals a few early trends in the practice of feminist foreign policy. First, the greatest areas of investment and progress achieved by Canada and Sweden have been in relation to the women, peace, and security agenda and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Second, several contradictions exist between these governments’ global advancement of gender equality and other seemingly anti-feminist activities. The central example of this is found in tensions between the states’ efforts in WPS and national arms exports. Contradictions are also rife between Canada and Sweden’s international promotion of women’s rights versus the current status of gender inequity at home, particularly related to economic and safety outcomes. The following section explores some of the contradictions that pose challenges to the efficacy and authenticity of the feminist foreign policy agendas within each country.


Security Policy & Arms Trade

A central question in feminist foreign policy is whether engagement of conflict, war, and militarization are inherently anti-feminist. Interestingly, both Canada and Sweden have encountered controversy due to their arms trade and specifically because of their relationships with Saudi Arabia (Nordberg; Rothschild; Vucetic). Partnership with the Arab state has been viewed as hypocritical to feminist values due to Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory laws against women, as well as the heavy exportation of arms that Sweden and Canada support there. This issue came to a head early on in Sweden’s practice of feminist foreign policy, after a controversial parliamentary speech in which Wallstrom asserted that Saudi Arabia was a “dictatorship” and oppressor of women (Nordberg). Her speech coincided with a decision by the Swedish government to not extend a weapons deal with the sheikdom. Diplomatic relations were damaged, and the Saudi government suggested that foreign policy did not have a role to play in dictating domestic policy. Moreover, Swedish companies also criticized Wallstrom,since the fallout led to damaged business relations in the private sector (Nordberg). Wallstrom and her administration stood by their statement, and six months later,the two countries made a new deal that emphasized civilian cooperation. Yet, a discussion of human rights was not on the agenda of the meeting, suggesting the limitations of feminist foreign policy in the face of opposition (CONCORD; Rothschild; Vucetic).

An early scandal in Trudeau’s administration was also linked to a Saudi arms deal. Omitted from the Liberal government’s plans was stopping a $15 billion-dollar Ottawa sale of tanks to the Arab state (Vucetic). While the administration indicated that the agreement originally had been signed by their Conservative predecessors, a leaked memo revealed that this was untrue. A sandstorm of hypocrisy claims emerged when it became public that Trudeau’s own foreign affairs minister, Stephane Dion, was behind the deal (Vucetic).

Overall, sale of arms to non-democratic countries by Canada and Sweden has been highly opposed by civil society groups, who assert that this practice is incompatible with feminist ideals (CONCORD). How can a self-proclaimed feminist state directly fund violent conflicts, which not only frequently result in human rights abuses, but are known to disproportionately hurt women and girls and to fuel sexual violence? In Sweden, the coalition group CONCORD has condemned exports to Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, both of which are behind airstrikes in Yemen that have been declared war crimes by the international community. A military agreement with Colombia in the midst of the nation’s peace process has been viewed as similarly problematic. Likewise, Canada has been called hypocritical for its exports of arms to Duterte’s corrupt government in the Philippines, which contradicts Trudeau’s criticisms of the dictator’s human rights violations (Ho; Vucetic). Lastly, C-NAP has received flak for its omission of disarmament strategies. Advocates have rightfully pointed out that reduction of conflict-related sexual violence is essential, but in the absence of other demilitarization and conflict prevention approaches, the long-term sustainability of peace will always be tenuous (“National Action Plan: Canada”).


Inequity at Home

A second key question in feminist foreign policy is to what extent a nation can claim to be advancing a feminist agenda abroad while inequity persists across gender lines at home. Canada and Sweden have both faced this contradiction. As one would hope to see in a feminist government, Sweden has achieved greater gender parity than many other developed countries across several indicators, including women representing 54% of government ministers. However, imbalances still exist, such as a 13.2% pay gap, or women shouldering the burden of a majority of parenting responsibilities, including representing 75% of paid parental leave recipients (BBC). Nine out of ten part-time workers due to caregiving are women. Both Sweden and Canada have struggled to achieve greater gender parity in the private sector. In Sweden, men hold more than 80% of management positions and 94% of senior leadership positions (BBC). Similarly, Canadian women account for less than 9% of the five highest-paid jobs in each of the country’s 100 largest companies (Kenny). Beyond economic factors, Canada’s most glaring hypocrisy may be its historic neglect of indigenous women and girls. Aboriginal women experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault and violent victimization (Ho). Their abuse is bound to the state’s colonial and racist legacy, which has contributed to large numbers of unsolved murder and disappearance cases for indigenous women, as well as LGBTQI individuals (Ho).


Other Contradictions

Several other contradictions abound across a range of foreign policy domains in both countries. Sweden’s migration and refugee policies, including recent legislation guiding asylum rules, now prevents family reunification (CONCORD). Civil society advocates have highlighted that this is particularly damaging for women and children’s security as they are often left behind in conflict areas or refugee camps, where they face grave safety and health challenges, such as increased vulnerability to sexual violence (CONCORD). Unlike Canada, Sweden has been slower to address climate action in its feminist foreign policy, despite women being the ones who bear the brunt of climate change burdens and consequently, the burden of adaptation (CONCORD). Other contradictions have related to cultural inconsistencies in Sweden, such as female officials following Iran’s headscarf laws on a 2017 state visit (BBC).

Additionally, Canada has faced controversy in relation to its trade and aid policies. Despite improved allocations towards women and girls, the country’s overall aid decreased by 4.4% in 2016 (Kenny). While gender-based budgeting is important and reflects a better aid approach to foreign policy, it can only do so much. Combining aid reform with increased aid is equally important. Finally, in comparison with Sweden, Canada has made greater strides in advancing feminism within its trade policy. Yet, the gender elements and gender chapters that have been included in trade agreements are supplementary and not binding in the treaties (Kenny).


Master’s Tools or a New Toolbox?

Exploring the range of strategies and policy domains in which Sweden and Canada have advanced a feminist agenda reveals a number of gaps and contradictions that are not easily reconciled. The question remains as to whether a proclaimed feminist approach can be enough, not only to reform but to transform the inherently patriarchal states that wield it. More pressingly, even if states can achieve such an aim domestically, is this possible on a broader scale, despite the constraints posed by the established organization of the global community and current system of international coordination?

The track record of feminist foreign policy in Sweden and Canada indicates that a more feminist and gender-focused agenda can be effective and advanced, particularly through specific policy initiatives grounded in feminist ideals. However, the capacity to do the same in broader international and diplomatic relations, including through the means of soft power, has yielded mixed results. A truly feminist foreign policy must be able to use both of these levers for change. Deeper analysis is necessary to understand and further evaluate how efforts in either area have served to compromise success in the other, as well as the potential to better align efforts across both levers to achieve mutually reinforcing outcomes.

Certainly, the explicit and formal embrace of “feminism” in both countries is unprecedented, and thus significant. Time will tell whether the same foreign policy tools that have been used to repress women can also support their liberation. Or, alternatively, whether a new and more radical vision, yet conceived, will need to be carved.


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