The Myth of the 'Female' Foreign Policy, Cont'd

Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom (Claudio Bresciani / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Atlantic recently did a special project on women in leadership, for which I contributed a modest reflection on women in foreign policy. There aren’t a lot of female leaders on the global stage, but they’re increasing in number, and I wanted to know how, or whether, they do things differently than the men we’re used to having run things. In researching this question, I was struck especially by the approach of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who on taking office two years ago articulated a “feminist foreign policy.” (Note that this is not exactly the same as a “woman’s foreign policy”—a man could very well have a feminist foreign policy, and a woman could very well not.) I wrote that beyond promoting gender equality, the implications of such an approach are “not entirely clear.” But the Swedish Foreign Ministry disagrees; here’s a response from Wallstrom:

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has gained significant international attention, most recently in the renowned publication The Atlantic. For us this proves that Sweden contributes to shaping world politics with smart power and diplomacy. Sadly, it also proves that the simple statement that women’s rights are human rights remains controversial.

Kathy Gilsinan writes that a feminist foreign policy raises questions about female leadership and whether female leaders behave differently. Gilsinan’s framing is problematic, since it suggests leaders should be chosen based on suitability by gendered characteristics assumed to be held by all members of the same sex, not on voter preferences. Men have been in charge of politics for hundreds of years. There have been good leaders and bad leaders. Yet, when women are demanding power, their instrumental value as agents of peace or prosperity, rather than their rights to representation, is put in focus. At a time in history when women are gaining political power, such a discourse is troubling. Political representation is about rights. Not about gendered characteristics or suitability, but about exercising your democratic right to participate in decision-making that affects you and your society. Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the population remains underrepresented in the political arena and society denies the full enjoyment of their human rights.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is about systematically and holistically implementing policies that increase gender equality and the full enjoyment of human rights of all women and girls. It is based on knowledge and reality. And overwhelming evidence tells us that a feminist foreign policy is the only way forward. A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that $12 trillion could be added to global growth by advancing women’s equality. Increasing gender equality has positive effects on food security, extremism, health, education and numerous other key global concerns that are of national and global interest. Existing facts show this and we are working closely with Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security in order to further develop world gains from applying a feminist perspective to national as well as international affairs.  

Gilsinan writes that two years after the [Swedish Foreign Ministry] launched it, it is still not clear what Sweden’s feminist foreign policy means. But the fact is that we have not only produced tangible results but also started a process of changing the way the whole Foreign Service operates. Our feminist foreign policy is not a thematic issue, it’s an integrated part of daily operations guiding the work of more than one hundred embassies, delegations, representations and departments. As part of this broad effort a Swedish and a Nordic mediators’ network of women have been founded, several initiatives have been taken to support women’s participation in peace processes (e.g., in Syria and Colombia), and the Swedish government has successfully lobbied for the installment of a gender advisor in the EEAS, EU’s diplomatic service.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is modern, pragmatic, and clear. In practice, it means Sweden is assuming a leading role internationally in allocating development funds to projects contributing to gender equality, and in advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women. It also means promoting a gender perspective in all negotiations, including the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and various trade agreements negotiated by the EU.  Yet another priority is to fight sexual and gender-based violence in conflicts and other emergencies. Efforts in this vein should be a key concern when addressing collective security issues and peace building. Sweden works hard to end impunity, help survivors and address the root causes of these sickening acts of violence that tear societies apart.

Sweden is not alone in the efforts to put gender equality on the global agenda. On countless occasions in her role as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton asserted that promoting the rights of women and girls is integral to the achievement of every U.S. foreign policy goal. In 2015, John Kerry stated that fighting gender-based and sexual violence is not just a moral issue, but a question of collective security. Feminism is a component of a modern view on global politics, not an idealistic departure from it. It is about smart politics which includes whole populations, uses all potential and leaves no one behind.

And a hearty amen to that. I think there’s actually very little Wallstrom and I disagree on here. Almost as soon as I started looking into the question of whether women lead countries differently than men do within the global arena, I was confronted with two problems. First, not enough women have done it for us to be able to draw firm conclusions one way or the other. Second, it’s not at all clear how stereotypically “feminine” traits (empathy, for example, or disinclination toward violence) might be translated from an individual woman to the behavior of an entire foreign-policy bureaucracy she might run. What if she herself doesn’t exhibit those traits? What if she does, but the bureaucracy in charge of implementing the policy remains overwhelmingly male-dominated? Or what if organizational behavior is pretty much insensitive to gender stereotypes one way or the other? (To the extent men are stereotypically aggressive and dominant, there are plenty of foreign policies run by men that are perfectly empathetic and pacifist. The pope is a man, for God’s sake!)

Indeed, that’s why I called the piece “The Myth of the ‘Female’ Foreign Policy.” I wouldn’t ask what a “male” foreign policy would look like. As Wallstrom points out, “men have been in charge of politics for hundreds of years,” and it’s clear that there are all kinds of “male” foreign policies—some of them great, some of them terrible. There’s no reason to expect that a “female” foreign policy wouldn’t exhibit to the same variety, given the chance to be better tested in the world. What’s likeliest, I concluded, is that women conduct foreign policy like human beings.

But there’s a deeper issue here that Wallstrom is right to point out. Even if we could answer these questions, so what? As she writes: “Political representation is about rights … [n]ot about gendered characteristics ... but about exercising your democratic right to participate in decision-making that affects you and your society.” A hearty amen to that, too.