What a Feminist Foreign Policy Looks Like

By McPhedran, Marilou | Herizons, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

What a Feminist Foreign Policy Looks Like


McPhedran, Marilou, Herizons


What would our foreign policy look like if we adopted the radical notion that a country's national security should be measured less by the might of soldiers and weapons on the ground than by a paradigm of strong human rights? This is where a feminist foreign policy would begin.

Feminist critiques first challenged the international security theory known as realism and its belief in "necessary war" more than 25 years ago. As human rights expert Catharine MacKinnon noted in her groundbreaking book Towards a Feminist Theory of State, "No state effectively guarantees women's human rights within its borders. So, internationally, men's states protect each other from women's rights the way men protect each other from women's rights within states."

International relations theorist Ann Tickner, in her 1988 book, Feminist Reformulation, also challenged many assumptions about sovereignty and militaristic security when she wrote, "International relations is a man's world, a world of power and conflict in which warfare is a privileged activity."

It was around this time that political scientist Cynthia Enloe investigated the treatment of female soldiers in the military, the construction of masculinity in national armies and the presence of female prostitutes around military bases. Her book, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, articulates how gendered power really operates under the realist theory of international security.

An important breakthrough came when the Human Development Index was developed for the United Nations Development Programme by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq. Anchored in the work of Indian Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, the Human Development Report for 1994 recast security in basic human terms such as "a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced." The report redefined "human security" as "protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions to the patterns of our daily lives-whether in the home, in our jobs, in our communities or in our environment"

Since then, additional human rights measures, including the gender equality measurement, have stepped away from militaristic notions of security. And yet, as any policy wonk can attest, there is a huge gap between brilliant policy reformulation and the realpolitik of implementation.

Former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy was an early leader in shifting diplomacy toward human security. He wrote in the journal Global Governance, "Security will be interpreted as: security of people, not just territory." In his 2001 article "Human Security and Global Governance: Putting People First," Axworthy emphasized the "Security of individuals, not just nations. Security through development, not through arms. Security of all the people everywhere-in their homes, in their jobs, in their streets, in their communities, in their environment."

Axworthy's views were shared by foreign ministers who banded together to found the International Human Security Network in 1999. Founded by Canada, Austria and Norway, the Human Security Network promotes the concept of human security as a feature of national and international policies. However, this concept did not, at first, adequately address the security of women, particularly the security of women in conflict zones. This shortcoming was addressed by the historic UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security adopted in 2000 following an unprecedented level of engagement by women's rights advocates from around the world.

This was needed because the new wars that have ensnared women in recent decades have not been conflicts between states but rather within them. These conflicts are fuelled by tribalism and nationalism as they harness militaristic violence to destroy infrastructure as well as humans; and they involve the systematic use of rape as a weapon. …

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