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The rise of Feminist Foreign Policy has opened a door to rethinking approaches to foreign policy. However, the authors of our editorial state, there is still much work to be done to ensure that FFP’s truly challenge existing power structures and promote substantive gender equality, peace and security.
With more and more countries adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), there is potential to significantly advance progress towards sustainable and inclusive peace and security. Truly feminist foreign policies reconceptualize the domain and challenge its focus on competition, force and domination. They also re-think concepts of as priorities and approaches to war, peace and security. Yet, most FFPs developed to date can be described as gender mainstreaming policies at best.
Traditionally, foreign policies have prioritized advancing national security and interests. They have relied heavily on dominance – through military might, geopolitics, trade and power of other sorts. This thinking is still very present in today’s foreign policy circles and practices. To illustrate: If you search online for “The Netherlands” + “Foreign Policy” you will still - despite the recent commitment to an FFP - get directed to a webpage owned by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that states: “The Netherlands cannot bend the world to its will. By adopting an international focus, we can, however, exploit the opportunities this changing world offers for advancing our prosperity and wellbeing (..)”.
While there are different strands of feminism, it is generally agreed by activists working on FFP development and implementation that for such policies to be considered truly feminist they need to go beyond an “add women and stir” approach. For example, the Berlin-based Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy notes that “FFP takes a step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable. It is a multidimensional policy framework that aims to elevate women’s and marginalised groups’ experiences and agency to scrutinise the destructive forces of patriarchy, colonisation, heteronormativity, capitalism, racism, imperialism, and militarism”.
Also, feminist scholars and practitioners have taught us to rethink how we approach and respond to escalations of violent conflict, and as part of this ways to advancing peace and security. Asking questions like “where are the women?” and “what are women’s experience of conflict” leads one to conclude for example that wars do not begin with the first shot fired, nor does violence end when a peace agreement is reached. Looking through a feminist lens, one will also challenge the assumption that state security equals security of all and that all humans have the same security needs. Further one will conclude that true peace requires the presence of justice, not just the absence of armed conflict. It further leads one to rethink who needs to be involved in policy making and implementation.
Sweden was the first to adopt an FFP in 2014 – and, in 2022, also the first to retract such a policy. It has been critiqued for its heavy and near exclusive focus on gender mainstreaming, negating more fundamental power structures and internal reflection on Sweden’s position in the world. Critics would for example point to Sweden’s continued arms trade. The Swedish approach has been very influential in shaping subsequent FFPs. FFPs adopted more recently have their own strengths and weaknesses - as can for example be concluded from the recently launched Feminist Foreign Policy Index - but they too cannot be described as truly new foreign policies. In this light, it is interesting to hear that Colombia’s FFP intends to take pacifism as a guiding principle – though it remains to be seen how this will translate into practice.
In sum, the rise of FFPs has opened a door to rethinking approaches to foreign policy. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure that FFP’s truly challenge existing power structures and promote substantive gender equality, peace and security.