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Shaping Tomorrow’s World with Feminist Foreign Policy
Riley Sullivan, Student, George Washington University



When Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United States, Birgitta Tazelaar, once addressed a room of United States security officials, she asked who identified as a feminist. She estimated that about 20% of the room raised their hands. However, when Ambassador Tazelaar then asked who in the room believed in gender equality, every hand in the room went up. Unlike the United States, the Netherlands is one of just fifteen countries that have implemented policies officially dubbed as “feminist foreign policy.” These American officials’ lack of conviction for the term “feminism,” defined as the concept of equality for men and women, was a far cry from the Dutch government’s perception of feminism.

The Ambassador shared this paradoxical anecdote on February 7, 2024, at the Women's Foreign Policy Group event Shaping Tomorrow’s World with Feminist Foreign Policy, held at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and co-organized by Meridian International Center and the Embassy of the Netherlands. Ambassador Tazelaar joined Susan Markham, Director of the Halifax International Security Forum, and Stephenie Foster, Founding Partner at Smash Strategies, in a discussion moderated by Christina Lu, Staff Writer at Foreign Policy. The panelists discussed feminist foreign policy in depth, from its foundational framework to its successes and its challenges in front of dozens of interested audience members. 

The term “feminist foreign policy” was first coined in 2014 by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom and is broadly defined as the consideration of a gendered lens in foreign policy formation. Feminism in foreign policy measures, however, often includes elevating women’s voices in peacebuilding processes, targeting issues that disproportionately impact women, and incorporating input from women’s civil society organizations. Markham and Foster, co-authors of their new book Feminist Foreign Policy in Theory and in Practice, posited that feminist foreign policy has no standardized format for all countries. In their book, they break down the core components shared by effective feminist foreign policy and the variation in feminist foreign policy efforts from state to state. They provide examples of the differences in feminist foreign policy initiatives in different nations, like the emphasis on pacifism in Colombia and the Canadian processes that integrate gender-based analyses into all policy areas. 

Markham and Foster compared countries like the Netherlands, Colombia, and Canada with the United States. While the U.S. does have specialized areas within existing foreign policy mechanisms to address gender issues, such as the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the Department of State and the White House Gender Policy Council, officials are hesitant to use the term “feminist” in their policy. Furthermore, the isolation of gender issues to specific bodies rather than the integration of gendered perspectives throughout all policy areas leaves these issues underfunded and inconsistently implemented in practice. Beyond that, what policy there is frequently implies that women are monolithic and neglects the versatile roles women play in security issues. Markham illustrated this by noting that women are often treated as victims of violent extremism in policy when, in actuality, they can also be perpetrators in some situations.

Beyond the practical inefficiencies of the U.S.’s incorporation of gender in foreign policy, Ambassador Tazelaar posited that the lack of the “feminist” label on foreign policy initiatives disadvantages the broader movement toward gender equality.  To some, the term “feminism” itself carries a negative undertone that makes anything associated with it, positive or negative, unpalatable. Without the more “radical” term attached to policy, the Ambassador believes that opportunities to push for more unprecedented progress toward gender equality are squandered. As just the second woman to ever hold her job title, the Ambassador strongly supports gender equality in leadership positions, as does the Dutch government at large. The Netherlands has set goals of having women hold at least half of all ambassadorships and consulate positions by the year 2028 and has instated a mentorship program for women diplomats. 

Despite progress, the future of feminist foreign policy is volatile. All of the panelists were skeptical of the average person, Dutch or American, knowing what feminist foreign policy is, let alone vocalizing their support for it. Moreover, in a constantly shifting political climate, feminist foreign policy is not a guarantee between elections and administrations. Even Sweden, the first state to establish a feminist foreign policy agenda, has rolled back this decision due to the “divisive” nature of feminism. To keep progressing toward feminist foreign policy goals, Ambassador Tazelaar emphasized the need for hard data to back up the benefits of utilizing feminist foreign policy in areas like national security, international development, and economic growth. Foster also stressed the importance of gendered policy analyses to avoid critical gaps in policy as a whole.

Ultimately, though, the de-stigmatization of feminism as a theory would solidify a strong future for feminist foreign policy. Only once every hand in a room of security experts and average citizens alike confidently raises in support of feminism can gender equality in foreign policy be realized.

 

Riley Sullivan is a student at George Washington University and a programs intern at WFPG.