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What Kind of Feminist Foreign Policy Should We Expect from Germany’s New Government?

November 30, 2021
12 min read
Photo credit: Iven O. Schloesser / Shutterstock.com
In the coalition contract published last week, Germany’s incoming government has committed to pursuing feminist foreign policy.

With the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock set to lead Germany’s foreign policy, we can expect the promise to be taken seriously. But do the Greens agree on what feminist foreign policy entails—and what can we expect from this government’s version of it?

The idea of feminist foreign policy (FFP) has established itself in the past few years, including in Germany’s Green Party. But the moniker of feminist foreign policy encompasses two different approaches to foreign and security policy: one based on feminism as the pursuit of gender equality and one that draws from (radical) feminist theory.

The first, more established version was pioneered by Sweden, which created an official feminist foreign policy in 2014 based on the 2000 UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS). Since then, Canada (in 2017), Mexico (in 2020), and others have formally adopted at least some elements of FFP, the European Parliament has called on all EU member states to follow suit, and the EU Commission has released a Gender Action Plan. The Swedish model of FFP is relatively straightforward, focusing on the three Rs of rights, representation, and resources. Do women and girls have equal rights, equal representation, and receive equal resources? Women should be at the table influencing foreign policy decisions and these foreign policy decisions should consider the realities of women and girls in society and their often-particular challenges—and in terms of resource allocation. These goals are, ideally, mutually reinforcing, in that with (more empowered) women at the table, issues that affect women and girls would be more likely to be considered, and when the realities of women and girls are considered a matter of policy, expertise on such issues gains import. Organizations such as Women in International Security and projects such as SHEcurity and the Brussels Binder are part of an effort to push governments toward more gender equality in foreign policy.

Women should be at the table influencing foreign policy decisions and these foreign policy decisions should consider the realities of women and girls in society and their often-particular challenges—and in terms of resource allocation.

This greater inclusion of women is both a worthy and practical goal. As the Swedish foreign ministry explains: “The policy is a response to the discrimination and systematic subordination that still characterizes everyday life for countless women and girls all over the world. Feminist foreign policy is an agenda for change to strengthen the rights, representation, and resources of all women and girls.” Furthermore, numerous studies suggest teams that are more gender diverse perform better; the data seems to show that boosting women helps everyone: societies where women are more equal are more secure.

Yet, in 2021, feminists concerned about more equality and representation understand that diversity cannot be focused only on women and girls. Equity must take a broader—one could say intersectional—lens. Women are not the only repressed minority in the world, and hence, an approach that considers the rights, representation, and resources of all non-dominant members of societies would be a valuable and feasible extension to a “feminist” foreign policy not included in the Swedish model. After all, if 50 percent of Germany’s foreign-policy decision-makers are women, but the table is still dominated by the children of lawyers and doctors without a migration background—is that the right kind of representation? (SHEcurity, for example, which is led by German Green MEP Hannah Neumann, argues in its 2021 index report that representation must move “beyond ‘women’” and Juliane Schmidt, advisor for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, calls for a Green Feminist Foreign policy “rooted in intersectionality.”) Moreover, in terms of objectives, it is obvious that a policy toward Myanmar made with women and girls in mind but ignoring the vulnerabilities of the Rohingya minority is clearly not representative enough.

Women-influenced decision-making that considers the security of the vulnerable in societies should serve for a safer, more secure world—but it is not necessarily anti-militaristic.

One can debate whether this approach should still be called feminist foreign policy or if “inclusive foreign policy” is a better term, but either way, it is an approach that by now finds relatively broad support in many democracies, not just on the far left. It is also an approach that can be operationalized and measured. However, one should not confuse this approach with a pacifist one, though the history of women’s peace movements, including WPS, and feminism is intertwined. Women-influenced decision-making that considers the security of the vulnerable in societies should serve for a safer, more secure world—but it is not necessarily anti-militaristic.

U.S. Afghanistan policy is a good example, perhaps not during the initial invasion, but during Barack Obama’s presidency: a woman, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, was the central architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, which—even during the Bush administration—explicitly prioritized the rights and representation of Afghan women and girls as a central part of policy. (The results of these policies were clearly mixed, even before NATO withdrew.) The military intervention in Libya is another example. The action that ousted dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi was pushed for by Flournoy and other women influencing foreign policy in the Obama administration: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council advisor Samantha Power—and it was done in accordance with international law (though many argue that the mission exceeded the terms of the UN resolution). We all know that the intervention in Libya has had disastrous consequences and created even more insecurity for women and girls (and others). But, in the Swedish sense, it was arguably a feminist foreign policy decision: one made at least equally by women motivated by humanitarian, “feminist” concern for the safety of the threatened population in Benghazi and beyond.

A More Radical Feminist Lens

This women-driven, humanitarian-intervention version of FFP stands in contrast to the second version of FFP—a more alternative, theoretical interpretation. This more radical version of feminist foreign policy goes beyond the representation of women and girls in policy, instead attempting to fundamentally re-envision foreign policy structures and concepts using the lens of radical feminist theory or feminist gender analysis. As feminist IR scholar Cynthia Enloe explains, “conducting a feminist gender analysis requires investigating power: what forms does power take? Who wields it?” In asking “Where are the women?”, these approaches include investigating whether women are in positions to influence foreign policy decisions. But more importantly, they also seek to widen the view of foreign policy to include mothers fleeing conflict with their children or women working at a disco near a military base. In this, the academic approach is compatible with the mainstream (Swedish) one.

But the academic approach often goes further and sets a stark contrast between “traditional” security policy (identified with the patriarchy) and a feminist foreign policy. This alternative theorization of foreign policy quickly gets complicated, not least because there are various forms of feminist theory (Marxist-feminist, liberal-feminist, and so on) and because feminist theory is only one branch of critical theory. A postcolonial re-evaluation of international relations is equally relevant. For now, many of these complexities remain the stuff of academic debate.

Green Feminists: Both Realist and Fundamentalist

Yet, elements of this academic debate are also introduced in thinking in and around the German Green Party, which has strong radical, pacifist roots. In the Green Party 2021 election platform, feminist foreign policy is described as having “the goal of a world order in which conflicts are not resolved by the rule of the strongest, but around the negotiating table.” This Green vision of FFP “prioritizes protecting the rights of marginalized groups, cooperation and rule of law, peaceful and coordinated crisis prevention.”1 In this version of FFP, elements of a more pacifist feminism coexist with the mainstream version. In the Feminist Foreign Policy Web Dossier published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (the political foundation affiliated with the Greens), there is an attempt to operationalize the more radical vision of FFP. The dossier reads: “Nevertheless, nation states continue to use armament and deterrence as the preferred mode of handling … conflicts. It is high time to break up such power structures and to view security not in a military context, but in a humane one. Women’s rights need to be strengthened, and women need to be recognized as shapers of peace and security policy.” Recognizing women’s rights and women as policymakers is paired with a challenge to a “military” view of security.

This kind of feminist theoretical approach too often undermines its practical relevance by oversimplifying mainstream foreign policy. These critiques ignore distinctions between realist or neo-realist foreign policy (which thinks in terms of relative power) and liberal international relations that are based on international law, cooperation among nations, and identify actors (and interests) within countries. Approaches inspired by radical feminist theory also argue in terms of an oversimplified binary of militaristic versus feminist or weapons versus peace. In one contribution to the Heinrich Böll Stiftung FFP dossier, the authors call for “a radical re-prioritization of the concerns of foreign affairs” and argue that “feminist foreign policy means abandoning the militarization of security structures.” Mainstream foreign policy is depicted as being structured around the common belief that “more weapons equal more security” while NATO is depicted as a “military alliance … built on the belief that security derives from the capacity to dominate.” There is much to unpack here. First of all, foreign policy is not the same as security. Foreign policy already includes the explicitly non-military activities of international relations, including the diplomacy of the foreign office, the projects and policies of the development ministry and agencies, and even cultural policy.

Security, on the other hand, is indeed traditionally envisioned as including military means and structures, even centering defense and military capabilities. Still, even George W. Bush, who could perhaps be considered a neo-realist, argued that terrorism could not be defeated with military means alone (though he certainly overestimated what could be achieved by military means), and both EU and U.S. national security papers of the past decade and more take a broad perspective on security that includes health and climate issues, as well as societal change from technical innovations. Indeed, more weapons should not be the focus of security policy. But the right kind of defense and security concept should include the weapons, tools, and talents necessary for the capabilities a state needs in a world that is not always peaceful. These might include the kind of military capabilities (lacked by Germany) to secure an airport and evacuate citizens from a conflict zone. More weapons do not equal more security, especially if they do not provide the right capabilities. But less military capacity also does not equal more security.

To characterize NATO as an alliance aimed at domination is demonstrably wrong, though NATO skepticism has traditionally found support among a left wing within the SPD (who have traditionally been sympathetic to Russia) and the Greens (who have a history of being pacifist and strongly anti-nuclear). Yes, NATO is a military alliance whose first function is, in the words of Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel’s 1967 NATO review, “to maintain adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression and other forms of pressure and to defend the territory of member countries.” An interpretation where any military capacity is about dominance and aggression does not allow for a distinction between deterrence and dominance—but the distinction is a crucial one. Similarly, to not distinguish between realist and liberal foreign policy is to think of NATO as a military alliance in the model of the Entente or Central Powers of WWI. But, NATO, while indeed a military alliance, is a novum of modern/liberal security policy because of its collective defense core of Article V, which commits sovereign states to defend one another against an attacker. Unlike alliances in the past, which were mutable and generally formed on the eve of conflict, NATO is an organization of collective defense, without a commitment for common aggression. NATO and its members have undertaken missions that stretch the definition of defense, such as Afghanistan or Bosnia and Kosovo, but it is hard to argue that NATO led the Bosnia or Kosovo intervention in order to “dominate” Yugoslavia. Nor has NATO set out to “dominate” its neighbors, though Kyiv may perhaps wish that NATO had been dominant enough within Ukraine’s borders to deter Russia from invading it. It was a Green foreign minister, after all, who advocated German participation in the NATO (military) mission in Kosovo—a humanitarian intervention that was not supported by international law. It was a military action (after years of failed negotiations). Had there been women at the table, could we have called it a feminist decision?

An Ambitious, Progressive Feminist Foreign Policy

Advocates for peace, for human security, and for minority rights, whether feminist, Marxist, or otherwise, are essential to a fulsome security debate. This advocacy is also not new: the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has been pursuing the “goal to develop mediation strategies to end the war and, ultimately, eradicate the root causes of war” since 1915. But it not the right kind of feminist approach to inform German policymaking, especially in a world that needs a more globally engaged and responsible Germany.

Luckily, judging by the coalition agreement, the “traffic light” coalition of the Social Democrats (red), Greens, and Free Democrats (yellow) has opted to follow the Swedish model based on the three Rs. In the coalition contract published on November 24, the new government commits “in line with feminist foreign policy”2 to “strengthen the rights, resources, and representation of women and girls worldwide and promote greater diversity in society.” It thus adopts an appropriately broad definition that includes a view to diversity beyond gender, an important update from the original Swedish model. Thankfully, the coalition does not succumb to the either traditional security/or peace trap set by some feminist foreign policy proponents or the more pacifist left wing of the SPD and the Greens. It takes an interpretation of today’s challenges that are aligned with the Biden administration’s “systemic competition” framing, recognizing the importance of both “a sovereign EU as a strong actor in a world dominated by insecurity and system competition” and NATO “as an indispensable foundation of our security.” There may even be a door open to increased military spending, as “fairer burden sharing in the transatlantic alliance” is explicitly mentioned. The NATO commitment of two percent of GDP to military spending is not addressed directly, but instead a (long-term) goal set to spend three percent of GDP on international engagement includes mention not only of “strengthening diplomacy and development policy” but also “fulfilling NATO commitments.”

The version of foreign policy set out in Berlin’s new coalition agreement is thus, on the whole, the right kind of feminist. It is inclusive, broad, and progressive without being binary or reactionary. It recognizes serious threats to Germany and the global order that more pacifism will not solve. Germany’s partners in and beyond Europe need to take on more foreign policy responsibility. This can be done, as laid out in the contract, with “an integrated and inclusive approach” (ein vernetzen und inklusiven Ansatz) that is both progressive and realistic—and, most importantly, ambitious enough to equal Germany’s role in the world.

  • 1All translations from the German original texts are by the author.
  • 2Author’s translation: „im Sinne einer Feminist Foreign Policy Rechte, Ressourcen und Repräsentanz von Frauen und Mädchen weltweit stärken und gesellschaftliche Diversität fördern.“