A new paper, Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States, was recently released. With the launch of Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy in 2014, Canada’s Feminist Foreign Assistance Policy in 2017 and France’s Feminist Foreign Policy in 2019, a group of Washington-based foreign policy experts and advocates for global gender equality came together over the course of three days in August to sketch out what such an effort might look like for the U.S. I was happy to take part in the gathering.

Our discussion built off of a research review of feminist foreign policy as expressed by other countries, ideas surfaced from consultations with more than 100 feminist activists from over 30 countries and a paper Smash Strategies recently released. This paper is much broader covering policy ideas in the following areas: diplomacy, defense, foreign assistance and trade, as well as in the cross-cutting issue areas of climate change and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

This paper is just a starting point. A final policy agenda will be refined through global consultations and input of additional experts and organizations, and will be published ahead of events marking the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and resulting Declaration and Platform for Action. This document elucidates a vision for the highest standard of U.S. foreign policy that promotes gender equality, human rights, peace and environmental integrity. It includes a proposed definition, key principles and policy recommendations that will be expanded and refined over coming months.

Defining a Feminist Foreign Policy for the United States

A country’s foreign policy is a statement of its values and priorities. The implementation of foreign policy, across all of its various levers, is one demonstration of how a nation lives its values. Now more than ever, the United States needs a feminist approach—one that fundamentally alters the way the nation conducts itself, prioritizing the importance of diplomatic solutions, cooperating with allies and international institutions, embracing a progressive, inclusive and rights-based agenda, valuing the voices of the most marginalized and addressing racist, ableist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic and patriarchal and/or male-dominated systems of power.

Foreign policy shapes how a government defines and prioritizes peace and security, structures trade, provides humanitarian aid and development assistance and works with other nations and non-state actors. Coherence across all aspects of foreign policy is paramount for a feminist approach; so too should coherence extend across domestic and foreign policy, with both embracing the same feminist values.

To clarify the goals of a feminist foreign policy and to promote coherence of a feminist approach across policy domains, the following draft definition is proposed:

Feminist foreign policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes gender equality and environmental integrity, enshrines the human rights of all, seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures, and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision. Feminist foreign policy is coherent in its approach across all of its levers of influence, anchored by the exercise of those values at home and co-created with feminist activists, groups and movements, at home and abroad.

Taking that as the guiding vision for feminist foreign policy, there are a number of key principles and policy recommendations that apply across the whole of the U.S. government.

Key Principles for U.S. Feminist Foreign Policy

Given the complicated legacy of U.S. global engagement as both a colony and colonizer, as well as its associated history of struggles for racial, gender and environmental integrity both at home and abroad, a number of key principles should underpin a U.S. feminist foreign policy.

First, human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. U.S. foreign policy must respect the rights recognized by international and domestic law and should place itself on the side of those seeking to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups around the world.

Second, U.S. policy should be representative, inclusive, responsive and accountable to stakeholders. Foreign policy has traditionally been informed by patriarchal and discriminatory social norms and implemented through male-dominated institutions. A feminist approach demands gender parity in representation, as well as active commitment to gender, racial and other forms of diversity, equity and inclusion. A U.S. government commitment to diversity and inclusion should not exclusively focus on rhetoric and internal processes, but also on the impact of its policies and public-private partnerships on diverse communities. As such, this principle includes a government-wide commitment to consultation with civil society and feminist movements outside of government, including and especially in the Global South.

Third, a feminist foreign policy should take an intersectional approach to feminism. This is an approach that takes into account and seeks to address the multiple and often intersecting forms of discrimination such as gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion or ethnicity.

Fourth, a feminist foreign policy should promote and protect bodily autonomy. Recognizing that the oppression of women and gender-nonconforming individuals has traditionally been expressed in the regulation and restriction of bodies and rights, a feminist approach would model its inverse, starting with the basic principle of bodily autonomy. A feminist approach embraces sexual and reproductive health and rights, which according to the Guttmacher Institute is defined as: “A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to all aspects of sexuality and reproduction, not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity. Therefore, a positive approach to sexuality and reproduction should recognize the part played by pleasurable sexual relationships, trust and communication in promoting self-esteem and overall well-being. All individuals have a right to make decisions governing their bodies and to access services that support that right.” This approach should also enshrine bodily autonomy, which the Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice defines as: “Achieving the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health and rights is based on the fundamental human rights of all individuals to: have their bodily integrity, privacy and personal autonomy respected; freely define their own sexuality; decide whether and when to be sexually active; choose their sexual partners; have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences; decide whether, when and whom to marry; decide whether, when and by what means to have a child or children and how many children to have; and have access over their lifetimes to the information, resources, services and support necessary to achieve all the above, free from discrimination, coercion, exploitation and violence.”

Fifth, environmental integrity. Here, environmental integrity is defined as the sustenance of biophysical processes that support all living organisms, by protecting diversity, ecological functions and resilience of all ecosystems. Climate change erodes human freedoms and limits choice. However, the impacts of climate change are not felt equally. Climate change affects everyone, but women and men experience the impacts differently, and women are often disproportionately negatively affected. Women, compared to men, often have limited access to resources, more restricted rights, limited mobility and a muted voice in shaping decisions and influencing policy. Climate change can also impact security, particularly for those who are already most vulnerable in a society, often women, girls, gender minorities and LGBTQIA+ persons, those with disabilities and most especially those with intersecting marginalized identities. Threats related to the climate crisis generally viewed as a “threat multiplier- a phenomenon that can worsen or exacerbate other sources of instability and conflict, such as competition for natural resources and ethnic tensions.” By way of just one example, following extreme climate-related flooding in Bangladesh, child marriage rates soared. All efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change must include specific protections for and acknowledgment of the harm to communities of color, indigenous peoples and other frontline and marginalized communities around the world, while seeking to address gender inequality.

Cross-Cutting Recommendations for Implementation of Key Principles

There are five cross-cutting elements that are necessary to advance feminist foreign policy across the whole-of-government: (1) High level leadership with mandate to promote feminist foreign policy; (2) Commitment to gender parity, diversity and inclusion both internally, among leadership and staff, and externally, co-created with feminists outside government; (3) Training and capacity-building to ensure robust implementation; (4) Gender analysis underlying all aspects of foreign policy; and (5) Adequate resourcing to ensure all of the above.

Following this in the paper, specific policy recommendations are made for each of the major levers of foreign policy—aid, trade, diplomacy and defense. This is not yet a complete policy package; additional consultations and efforts will augment, refine and supplement this opening salvo over the course of ensuing months. However, it is a solid start.

If you are interested in taking part in an upcoming consultation or would like to send written feedback, please contact me at [email protected].