Leanne Smith and
James Cockayne

Why we need a feminist foreign policy

Seventy-five years ago, Australia committed to a rules-based international order. Our continuing commitment to that order is based both on pragmatism – the peace and prosperity it has provided; and on principle – the “fair go” that the rules-based order promises.

The problem with continuing to champion that order, however, is that it may not offer a “fair go”, but rather entrench privilege.

There is a way Australia could signal that our support for the rules-based international order comes not from a commitment to international hierarchies of the past but to fairness in the future: we could adopt a feminist foreign policy.

In recent decades, the rules-based international order has delivered great gains for human rights, health and prosperity. But it has also institutionalised privileges: in the veto power of permanent Security Council members, in unequal voting rights in the international financial institutions and in unequal market access.

For some, the system’s colour blindness has come to seem like wilful blindness to inequality and systemic discrimination.

Around the world, domestic and global coalitions of people are contesting such systemic unfairness and challenging entrenched privilege.

It can be seen in grassroots movements, such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter. We are also seeing this from nations, including in calls for reforms of voting rights in international financial institutions and the Security Council, and calls from vulnerable Pacific Island states for “climate justice”.

The danger for Australia is that at the very moment others are calling for systemic change to address global injustice and promote fairness, our arguments to protect the rules-based system can sound like an argument to protect the privileged – who are still, for the most part, white and male.

One solution is to make clear our commitment to the central promises articulated 75 years ago in the Charter of the United Nations. To work collectively to ensure peace and security. To build relations between nations based on equal rights and the self-determination of peoples. To solve global problems through international co-operation. And to promote respect for the human rights of all.

This is not an idealistic or ideological suggestion. It is, in fact, radically realist: feminist foreign policy requires honesty about how power dynamics distort and disrupt the “fair go” the rules-based order promises.

As Australia’s minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, put it to the UN Human Rights Council on July 13, 2020: “For societies to be secure, stable and prosperous, we must address gender inequality.” There are good reasons to put gender equality at the heart of foreign policy.

The data are very clear.

Increased female participation in parliament reduces the likelihood of human rights abuse and conflict abuse. Increased female participation in peace processes makes peace deals more likely to be implemented and to endure. Equalised access to agricultural resources could reduce global hunger for 150 million people.

A 2015 study by global management consulting firm McKinsey found closing the gender gap in workforce participation could add $US28 trillion to global gross domestic product.

This is why Canada, France, Sweden, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico and Spain have all committed to feminist foreign or development policies.

It is why, in the United States, organisations from the Council on Foreign Relations to New America advocate such a step, and why the British Labour Party has made a similar commitment.

But what does it mean in practice?

The Swedish government’s feminist foreign policy handbook is organised around four Rs: rights, representation, resources and the reality of women’s and girls’ lives. Close to 90 per cent of Swedish aid is earmarked for gender equality.

Canada also links aid to gender equality: tackling poverty, education and economic barriers to women and girls’ success. Canada is embedding gender analysis in trade decision-making and has appointed an ambassador for women, peace and security.

Mexico’s detailed vision for a feminist foreign policy includes a commitment to intersectional analysis, efforts to combat gender-based violence and equal representation.

France has committed to mainstream gender equality across all diplomatic activity.

What is common to these approaches is a commitment to, as Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström puts it, “Standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.”

Equal representation and voice in making foreign policy in Australia is crucial. When women’s voices are absent from policy design and decision-making, women’s interests and potential contributions are ignored.

“Women are agents of change in our societies and economies and, as such, need to participate in decision-making as equal partners,” Foreign Affairs Minister Payne explained to the Human Rights Council.

And as the shadow Foreign Affairs minister, Penny Wong, has recently pointed out, if our foreign policy is to reflect our national values, it must include gender equity.

Women currently occupy key foreign policy roles in Australia, including the posts of Foreign Affairs minister, Defence minister, shadow Foreign Affairs minister and the top foreign policy civil service role. We even have an ambassador for gender equality, Julie-Ann Guivarra, Australia’s first female Indigenous ambassador.

But there the good news ends. A comprehensive 2019 Lowy Institute study, “Foreign Territory: Women in International Relations”, found only one in three heads of Australian missions abroad are women.

There has never been a female Australian ambassador to our key strategic missions in Washington, DC, Jakarta, Tokyo or London, and women’s leadership in formal policy development processes is vanishingly rare.

The Lowy researchers concluded that Australia has “fewer women in important diplomatic and intelligence roles, policy-shaping activities and senior positions compared with international peers, the corporate sector and the public sector as a whole”.

Aggressively addressing this gap would be a first step by Australia towards a feminist foreign policy.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has taken important steps in that regard, including creating presumptions in favour of equal representation and flexible work arrangements. But there is still clearly work to do both there, and in other departments, to address very real obstacles.

This is not just a question of voice and representation, but also one of substance. A feminist approach requires incorporating power analysis across policy development and decision-making.

Are our policy positions built on such analysis to help address exclusion, marginalisation and systemic privilege? Do they contribute to the legitimacy, integrity and sustainability of a system that creates peace, justice and prosperity for all?

These questions belong not only in traditionally feminised domains of foreign policy – such as aid and diplomacy – but also in more traditionally masculinised domains, especially defence, intelligence and security.

As we look for partners in our efforts to support a fair and inclusive rules-based international order, the list of countries that have adopted feminist foreign and development policies – Canada, France, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Spain and Sweden – offers a useful place to start.

These are all countries whose commitment to democracy at home – varying from liberal democracy to social democracy – matches Australia’s own.

Collaboration with such like-minded countries will help Australia diversify its partnerships and support beyond our immediate region and, as Penny Wong has said, avoid getting “caught in the slipstream of US–China strategic competition”.

It will signal Australia’s commitment to a system that has value because it actually delivers results for people and our shared futures.

Above all, a commitment to a feminist foreign policy will help clarify why Australia is arguing for the rules-based international order – not for its privileges but for its promise.

Australia’s outlook is arguably more uncertain than ever before. For the first time since European colonisation, our security guarantor and our largest trading partner are rivals.

Covid-19 clouds the short-term horizon, and climate change and biodiversity loss threaten systemic disruption in the long term.

The upside to this uncertainty, though, is that it frees us to think creatively about how to achieve our national interests.

Adopting a feminist foreign policy may seem like a radical turn, an ideologically driven fantasy.

But that objection fails once we understand such a policy as an expression of our fundamental commitment to social justice, social democracy and the “fair go”.

Middle powers such as Australia have a crucial role to play in ensuring the rules really are authentically fair, do not simply reproduce privilege and entrench injustice, but produce positive impacts for people.

That can only make us more relevant, respected and, in time, more secure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2020 as "Why we need a feminist foreign policy".

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