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Feminist foreign policy and international security

Image Credit: New Zealand Governor General (Creative Commons)

A number of countries have pioneered progressive strategies toward foreign policy. By adopting a feminist ideological approach to international security and development states such as Sweden, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have challenged global hierarchical and patriarchal systems of power. The change in international regard toward feminist ideology has been substantial, despite the fact that many of these policies are still in their political infancy.

While Australia has been less vocal regarding these policies, it too has adopted comparatively progressive strategies. In 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) adopted an internal ‘women in leadership strategy’ under then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s guidance, to target inequalities within senior leadership of the department.

Feminist foreign policy in action

In 2016, Australia undertook a ‘whole of foreign policy gender strategy,’ which formalised gender issues in the mainstream of Australian foreign policy. Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström recently released a handbook outlining the goals and experiences of their feminist foreign policy over the last four years. Similarly, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland recently released a comprehensive Feminist International Assistance Policy, which outlines plans to improve gender equality, empowerment of women and girls, and human dignity as a means to achieve international peace and security.

The policy paper also highlights some critical, and alarming, facts about the current state of women’s representation in international security. For example, in 2015 only 17 per cent of government ministers worldwide were women, and from 1992-2011 only 9 per cent of peace negotiators were women and 3 per cent of UN military peace-keepers were women.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinta Ardern has made gender equality a primary objective by promoting increased parliamentary representation, as well as treating women’s over-representation in violence and gender pay gap statistics.

Each respective strategy prioritises egalitarian functionality of their departments and equally importantly, using gender equality as a means of achieving peace, security and sustainable development. However, a number of systemic and social hindrances impede the success of these programs, including counter-intuitive defence industry policies, and a fundamental lack of understanding in regard to feminist objectives.

More than gender balance where it matters

A feminist foreign policy is a more nuanced concept that simply creating equal representation. Many bodies also argue that this approach highlights the needs of vulnerable groups. The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy asserts that a feminist foreign policy should prioritise the everyday experiences of marginalised communities and individuals. By pushing these matters to the forefront of foreign policy agendas, a more profound and introspective understanding of global issues is available.

This contrasts with many classical foreign policy focuses, which prioritise military activity, violence, and resolution by domination. This alternative provides an intersectional restructuring of security, afforded from the standpoint of the most marginalised and vulnerable.

While Western strategies have focused on ‘hard’ elements of conflict resolution – militarisation, policing, surveillance, drones etc., feminist perspectives argue that the priority should be on protecting and developing aggrieved communities.

Jacqui True, the Director for of the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security at Monash University, is leading research into ways that feminist approaches can provide substantive results. She writes “feminist research is always looking at what is silent, what is hidden, what no one is talking about.”

A female-centric focus in regard to development has been acknowledged as a driving force in raising international living standards. Directly marking aid and development programs agendas as feminist projects shows bold intent.

This is evidently too bold for some conservative governments.


The Saudi government recently attempted to block Canada’s feminist foreign policy in relation to tweets made by Global Affairs Canada responding to the detention of two Saudi women’s rights activists. A brief Twitter feud ensued between the Saudi Foreign Ministry and Global Affairs Canada, resulting in the Saudi ambassador to Ottawa being recalled and flights to Toronto by Saudi airlines being grounded. The arrest of the two Saudi female-rights activists has sparked an uncomfortable dispute based on ideological views on the role of women in the world.

While ideological dissimilarities between liberal and conservative states are profound, there are also inconsistencies within those states that have pushed for a feminist foreign policy. Sweden, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand continue to pursue sizable arms export industries, which include questionable exports to states such as Saudi Arabia. Australia is looking to expand their industry with a goal to break into the world’s top 10 arms exporters. Canada and Sweden have responded to criticism in the past by signalling that there is increased adherence to ‘responsible’ export regimes, which are based upon the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. Other analysts see this as an oxymoron.

Can a feminist foreign policy include arms exports?

Well, as Srdjan Vucetic of the University of Ottawa contends, there is an ‘uneasy co-existence’ between arms exports and feminist foreign policy. Both Canada and Sweden have completed arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and whilst there have been measures to ensure these deals exclude supporting countries that will target civilians, there are also indirect implications that inhibit feminist goals.

At present, 29 per cent of all weapons manufactured worldwide go to the Middle East. In many cases, such as with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these weapons sales are linked to human rights abuses or are distributed to conflicting parties complicit in human rights abuses against non-combatants. Yemen and Syria are perhaps the most prominent examples of arms distributed from Arab-states which have been used to target civilians.

Proponents of the Arms Trade Treaty argue that regulated arms trade that excludes ‘at risk’ states will prevent the continuation of human rights abuses. Along with this notion is the idea that by moving away from overtly aggressive small arms trade and focusing on acquisitions such as transport, surveillance and telecommunications technologies that can also be used for humanitarian responses will help in peace-building.

But recent research has criticised this argument. The Australia Research Council Linkage Project ‘Toward Inclusive Peace: Analysing Gender-Sensitive Peace Agreements 2000-2016’ found that a 1 per cent increase in military expenditure relative to GDP makes it less likely that peace arrangements will include gender equality and women’s rights provisions after conflict. Committing to the proliferation of arms industries means the possibility of detracting funding and resources from other areas of development and peace-building. This inhibits the efficacy of education, health services, industry investment and community development projects.

With that in mind, if Australia and like-minded states are committed to achieving industrial arms exportation goals, they should consider producing domestic laws. Taking Sweden’s example, these provisions prohibit the export of arms to states where they could be used to harm civilians, and would also ensure Australia’s commitments to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Without these provisions in place, the efficacy of feminist foreign policy may be compromised, and Australia’s already-damaged record for respecting international human rights may be impaired.

Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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