Gendering Foreign Policy: Where are the Women?

By Khadija Sufi

The area of ‘foreign policy’ is significantly shaped by ‘masculine’ interests, and so it is no surprise that ‘gender’ is not centralized in foreign policy theorizing and decision-making. In both discourse and practice, there exists a hierarchy of foreign policy issues in which ‘masculine’ areas including war, security, defense, economics and trade are valorized, and ‘feminine’ areas including gender-based violence, women’s rights, health and education are marginalized.

Notice that many of the leading stories on established foreign policy websites or general news outlets, or even think tanks are all skewered towards ‘masculine’ topics such as: the militaristic aspects of the Syrian war, Trump’s policies and implications, the US- South Korea alliance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Sino-Indian nuclear rivalry and North Korea economic sanctions.

The prioritizing of foreign policy concerns by mainstream media and think tanks is also replicated in political practice. For instance, since the beginning of the Syria crisis, policy- makers have focused on the militaristic violence perpetuated by the extremist group, Islamic State (IS) and have substantially ignored the systematic sexual violence that is also rife in the region. It is not discussed in “intelligence assessments” or used as “justification for counterterrorism against the group”, as former CIA analysts, Peritz and Maller say. The Syria crisis, as is the case with many conflicts, has consistently and dominantly been framed as a (military) security and defense issue.

Gender issues are essentially rendered invisible and considered non-issues within the realm of foreign policy. Despite the rape campaign in Syria, the discriminative effects of the TPP agreements on women, the abuses of Burmese government forces against Rohingya women, the preponderance of child marriages in Africa, gender issues are trivialized and not regarded as foreign policy priorities. The mainstream media, think tanks, and practical decision-makers all play a role in entrenching ‘masculine’ topics as the primary areas of foreign policy.

To some extent, the dominance of such a ‘male’ agenda in foreign policy discussions and practices can be attributed to the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. Women are seldom seen as the core theorizers or implementers of foreign policy because they do not occupy the top jobs. Figures calculated in 2015 show that women comprise 24 percent of people working in policy-related positions and 33 percent of total leadership staff in the top U.S. foreign policy think tanks. Moreover, in U.S. diplomacy and development, women form only 30 percent of State Department senior officials and only 35 percent of USAID mission directors. Thus, the argument that foreign policy concerns (at least, in the U.S.) reflect a male agenda due to the lack of women in leadership is credible.

However, it would be more plausible to argue that it is a combination of female underrepresentation, ingrained gender stereotypes, and the difficulty to reconcile a feminist foreign policy with ‘national interest’ which uphold certain ‘masculine’ foreign policy concerns. We can see this when individual women who wield significant power have internalized embedded masculine norms, (that is, they have continued to view ‘masculine’ foreign policy issues as ‘normal’) and have also divorced gender issues from foreign policy decision-making (involving war and security). One such woman is Hillary Clinton.

Although Hillary Clinton can be seen as a champion of female empowerment, she was also a key supporter of various military interventions in the Middle East that had disastrous humanitarian effects, particularly on women. Clinton’s foreign policy direction can thus be seen as inconsistent with ‘feminism’. Clinton voted for the use of military force in Iraq in 2002 which gave rise to sectarianism; she supported the Honduras coup in 2009 which put in power a regime that had been killing women; she was a proponent of violent intervention in Libya which caused a number of setbacks for Libyan women in the aftermath and there is much more.

Clinton complied with the ‘masculine’ traits supposedly required to conduct foreign policy (in accordance with ingrained gender stereotypes) and in doing so, she effectively reproduced the ‘male’ agenda by prioritizing a foreign policy focused on war, defense and security, which was divorced from gender issues and implications.

Clinton’s policies also reflect how it was difficult to reconcile her separate women’s empowerment programs, most of which targeted Africa with mainstream foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa which were motivated by national interests.

All hope, however, is not lost. Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallstrom introduced a “feminist foreign policy ” in 2014 and it indicates one way in which ingrained stereotypes can be fractured, and also how a state might marry a ‘feminist foreign policy’ with national interests. Wallstrom implied that her ‘feminist’ policy would be holistic and would systematically penetrate deeper into foreign policy areas, rather than constitute a disparate, “single-issue focus”. States like the U.S. should adopt a similar approach.

To aid the incorporation of gender issues into foreign policy, it is not only the representation of women in foreign policy that needs to be considered, but also the ways in which ‘masculinist’ agendas can be diminished and, the roles the mainstream media, think tanks and dominant policymakers must pursue to realize this goal.