Building 'Feminist Power Europe'? On the possibilities and missed opportunities of feminist foreign policy

Responding to calls for the EU to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), Katharine A. M. Wright, Roberta Guerrina, Toni Haastrup and Annick Masselot argue that a simple ‘add women and stir’ approach is meaningless and possibly counterproductive unless it tackles, at the same time, historical and current patterns of exclusion and oppression

Six years ago, Sweden moved to brand its foreign policy as ‘feminist’. Since then, Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) has become something of a buzzword in international politics, seized on by Feminist bureaucrats, activists and scholars.

The drive for FFP is underpinned by the prioritisation of women’s rights and the principle of gender equality. It is also given momentum by increasing women’s participation and representation in policy domains traditionally seen as gender free or gender neutral, namely security, diplomacy, defence and trade.

The drive for FFP is underpinned by the prioritisation of women’s rights and the principle of gender equality

This shift in foreign policy discourse is part of a wider move that has seen the language of feminism integrated into contemporary popular culture and public discourse.

Others have followed the Swedish example. Canada has badged its development programme as feminist, and recently Mexico, France and Luxembourg have declared feminist foreign policies. Given the growing number of states joining the FFP club, calls are increasing for the EU to adopt a feminist foreign policy, leading to the emergence of a Feminist Power Europe.

Protecting the ‘national interest’

There is clear tension between the ambition of a feminist ethic, to ‘understand, criticize, and correct’, and that of foreign policy traditionally shaped by the pursuit of the ‘national interest’.

Some states might pivot towards developing an ‘ethical’ or ‘feminist’ foreign policy, if they see this as providing a strategic advantage. When they take on pro-feminist causes, states invariably fall into roles that reinforce the ‘manly state’. They adopt the ‘feminist’ label without consideration for the power relations at the heart of the international system and especially ‘the legacies of colonialism and persistence of coloniality in the implementation of so-called feminist foreign policies and the implications these have for a feminist peace’.

So can there be a FFP without overhauling the very core of what foreign policy is for? And if FFP is a state’s instrument for the pursuit of the national interest, whose concerns and interests are included in this process? Both questions apply to the EU as a community of member states with varying gender regimes and as a foreign policy actor in its own right.

A Feminist Power Europe?

EU foreign policy has traditionally been grounded in consensus building, seeking to position itself as a foreign and security actor that can engage with a diverse set of interests and actors. The EU’s identity is thus largely rooted in its role as a normative and soft-power actor in global politics, despite an increasing emphasis on militarism.

In European policy-making circles, the idea of gender equality as a foundational norm of the integration project has gained significant political traction. Core values emerging from the neoliberal integration project are now cornerstones of the EU’s engagement with the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Women’s rights, representation and empowerment have become the pathway for integrating gender in external affairs.

For supporters of FFP, this is an obvious trajectory for an international organisation with a long history of advancing women’s (employment) rights. Yet there are considerable difficulties in adopting a robust FFP without first addressing internal tensions in the EU.

Europe has failed to come to terms with its historical racism

The practice of FFP and the setup of global politics continues to be situated in a traditionally masculine environment. Europe, moreover, has failed to come to terms with its historical racism. The EU might aim to become a ‘feminist’ power by using gender as a tool for pursuing European interests abroad, without reflecting on patterns of exclusions within its own institutions and member states. In that scenario, the label, grounded in a political project of emancipation and liberation, is rendered meaningless.

The importance of inclusive participation…

States in the Global North are more likely to brand their foreign policy ‘feminist’, and to direct initiatives onto those in the Global South without an inclusive feminist dialogue with local actors. This approach goes against the ‘ethics of care’ upon which much FFP is built.

Similarly, calls for a FFP in the EU fail to take into account Europe’s colonial past which shapes ideas of equality. This can result in the co-optation of feminist narratives, while reproducing Eurocentricism and white supremacy. Calls for the EU to develop a FFP risk reverting to a white liberal feminist conception of states in the Global North ‘saving’ women in the Global South. The projection of ‘feminist’ values would be undermined by the failure to challenge existing power hierarchies within the global political system.

Calls for the EU to develop a FFP risk reverting to a white liberal feminist conception of states in the Global North ‘saving’ women in the Global South

In practice, many ‘feminist’ initiatives are siloed to protect ‘higher’ foreign policy priorities, like unchecked military spending or a trade agenda that marginalises already vulnerable communities. This is incompatible with feminism. A ‘Feminist’ Power Europe, on these terms, cannot challenge the persistence of toxic hegemonies. Rather, it will reinforce a Europe that crystallises patterns of social exclusion, at home and abroad.

...and self-reflection

Yet by invoking feminism, FFP forces us to consider the gendered and racialised nature of global state structures, policies and politics. Feminism should challenge social inequalities in which gender intersects with other dimensions of power (race, class, sexuality, different ability). Its purpose is to transform a system that reifies men, and masculinities, as the norm. Such a critical engagement with FFP is distinct from calls to just ‘add women and stir’.

The practice of FFP requires detailed self-reflection and evaluation by its advocates given the ‘gendered and racialized inequalities and insecurities within their own borders’, as well as the nature of relations with all states and communities globally. Without this reflexivity, FFP becomes an empty label that risks harming the feminist project of gender justice.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Katharine A M Wright Katharine A M Wright Senior Lecturer in International Politics, Newcastle University More by this author
photograph of Roberta Guerrina Roberta Guerrina Professor, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol More by this author
photograph of Toni Haastrup Toni Haastrup Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Stirling More by this author
photograph of Annick Masselot Annick Masselot Professor of Law, University of Canterbury, New Zealand More by this author

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