The Precarious Force of Feminist Foreign Policy

When Margot Wallstrom, then Sweden’s foreign minister, announced back in 2014 that her country would pursue a feminist foreign policy, the idea was greeted with skepticism. Ms. Wallstrom was criticized by the foreign policy establishment globally for both her openly activist approach and the perception that she was naïve to the realities of realpolitik. As a 2015 New Yorker article put it, “Within the diplomatic community, where words are carefully chosen so as not to offend, ‘feminism’ is usually avoided.”

Ms. Wallstrom’s vision turned out to beat the forefront of something bigger than Sweden. Less than a decade later, 16 governments have formally adopted feminist foreign policies. The idea started as a niche, Nordic approach to put women’s rights and representation on the world stage, and it has become an increasingly global tool for governments to articulate their commitment to prioritizing people and the planet over battles for economic and military dominance, to focus on collaboration over competition and on power together rather than power over.

It took five years for the first four governments — Sweden, Luxembourg, France and Canada — to adopt feminist foreign policies. Since 2020, as progressive governments have come into power,a dozen have followed, across a more diverse geographic area, including in Latin America, Africa and Asia. As the movement has grown, its focus has expanded from challenging entrenched gender dynamics to disrupting the colonial dynamics that continue to define international relations.

What feminist foreign policy looks like in practice varies from country to country. Germany, the largest country in the group in terms of foreign aid, has pledged to almost double its donations geared toward gender equality. Canada and Slovenia have met or exceeded gender parity in their diplomatic or ambassador corps, while France, Spain and Colombia have set up boards of feminist activists to advise their governments. Argentina has put trans feminism at the center of both its foreign and its domestic policies, creating the position of special representative for sexual orientation and gender identity. And the Netherlands, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, has commissioned a review on racism in the foreign ministry.

This isn’t just talk. Prioritizing women has a measurable impact to help nations to achieve their foreign policy goals. A global study of United Nations Security Council resolutions found that women’s participation in the peace-building process increased the likelihood that a peace agreement would last at least two years by 20 percent, and increased the probability it would last 15 years by 35 percent. Gender equality is also correlated with broader peace and stability: Countries with higher gender equality are more likely to comply with international laws and treaties and less likely to use violence as a first response in a conflict setting. Economically speaking, a 2015 report from McKinsey found that true gender equality everywhere would raise global gross domestic product by up to $28 trillion.

To be sure, there are headwinds, from the so-called pro-family forces in Russia, Poland and Hungary that are working to roll back women’s rights, to the crackdowns on women’s liberty in Iran and Afghanistan and reproductive and trans rights in the United States. While feminist foreign policy has seen exponential growth in the last few years, further progress is not assured. If a series of progressive election victories is what brought us this movement, a wave of conservative victories can take it away just as quickly.

Take Sweden, where it all began. In 2022, after a change of government, Sweden announced that while it remained committed to gender equality, it was no longer pursuing an explicitly feminist foreign policy and would decrease its peace-building budget and tighten immigration restrictions.

Over the next 12 months, at least three more feminist foreign policy nations face critical elections: Argentina in October, the Netherlands in November and Mexico in June. In these and other countries, right-wing forces are threatening the feminist agenda, with Donald Trump-styled candidates and increasingly racist, misogynist and populist rhetoric promising to rescind women’s rights, opportunities for asylum seekers or commitments to climate justice.

On Wednesday, during U.N. General Assembly week, the foreign ministers of a dozen nations representing the United Nations’ Feminist Foreign Policy Plus group met and announced the first global declaration on feminist foreign policy. They committed to work together to defend “women and girls in all their diversity,” to “shape feminist foreign policies” and to “exchange best practices and lessons learned regarding the different feminist approaches.”

It will take more than 16 governments to change the world. And my own country — the United States — is conspicuously absent from a club that some might suggest it started, when it appointed the world’s first ambassador at large for global women’s issues more than a decade ago.

From Washington to Buenos Aires, the risk looms large that these hard-fought, forward-looking policies can easily be abandoned — and with them, hopes for better protection of people, peace and planet. But this week at least, a new coalition has emerged that is doing what it can, where it can, while it can. And that’s good news indeed.

Lyric Thompsonis the founder and chief executive of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and an appointee of the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board.

Source photographs by Bettmann, Johannes Simon, Smith Collection/Gado, and Space Frontiers, via Getty Images.

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