On this International Women’s Day, it is impossible not to begin by reflecting on the situation of Ukrainian women: fighting for their lives and their country, struggling to survive, caring for young and old people, making decisions about life or death to know whether to stay or go.
There are also many women in the world who do not make the headlines, but who are also trapped by a disastrous and failed system – the women of Yemen, of South Sudan, of Tigray, of Burma. And women grappling with the consequences of the climate emergency and the collapse of natural systems – with plastic waste pollution and dangerous pesticides, facing threats to their safety from a degrading environment quickly.
The current international system is, quite literally, a man-made system, and created by small, exclusive groups of particular men – as a much-talked about photo from the recent Munich Security Conference helped to underscore. There are many more niches for citizens of Western countries to study and work on “defense and foreign policy”, in think tanks, universities, newspapers and national governments, and citizens who correspond to particular social characteristics of class and outlook, than there are in other nations and other peoples. And most servicemen are far from representative of their populations, with women massively underrepresented.
Language is revealing and it matters. A prominent Conservative trope in the UK has been to “smoke Britain” – a model of state-licensed buccaneers plundering at will. It is a deeply gendered image, as well as a neocolonial image.
There were and are women pirates – at least, in theory, a model of Robin Hood redistribution from below – but not buccaneers.
While human technology and society have advanced in many ways – including in the acceptance of human and even ecological rights, in the realm of practical politics, we are still largely trapped in a Clausewitzian conception of “war as continuation of the policy by other means”. ‘.
And, in international relations, ‘foreign policy’ is what is done to and about ‘others’. The model is not one of a cooperative effort to tackle the world’s problems together, but rather to see how we can advance “our” interests in competition with others.
One way out of this impasse is to work towards a feminist foreign policy, as I said in the House of Lords debate following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The world leader in this area has been Sweden, where in 2014 a centre-left coalition including the Green Party declared itself to have such a policy. This was defined as being ethically informed and based on standards of global justice, peace and gender equality, while aiming to ensure increased political and economic participation of women and girls, including in peace processes and in the fight against the violence they too often experience in conflict and post-conflict situations and in close relationships.
The policy recognizes that state actors are increasingly not the only factor in physical dangers to life. To take just one example, many girls and women have fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in the face of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The international #BringBackOurGirls campaign – focused on 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria, who were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014, focused on rescue. The national campaign demanded more, “bringing them back to a better life”.
It’s important to recognize that just having a few women in positions of power, even at the top, is not a sign of “feminist foreign policy,” or anything like that. Benazir Bhutto, as Prime Minister of Pakistan, gave his full support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. India’s deeply non-feminist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had female Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Sushma Swaraj) and Defense (Nirmala Sitharaman).
And that while lip service might be given to the threat of the climate emergency and nature crisis to our security, from sources ranging from the US military to the UK Security Review, all too often – as we We’ve seen it from Boris Johnson calling for a ‘climate break’ – it’s seen as a second-order luxury issue, to be dealt with once the old-fashioned crisis has passed, instead of an underlying cause of the crisis. state of our world already.
Often, when the analysis of climate change and nature collapse focuses on the human impact, it only singles out women as victims and victims – while they very often hold the knowledge, the skills and the ability to be leaders to deal with it.
However, we are clearly at a turning point. The dominance of the military-industrial model has given us the unstable, insecure, and profoundly dangerous world we have now.
And it turns out to be less and less effective. America – with its military spending higher than China, India, Russia, UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, Korea of the South, Italy and Australia combined – was defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan (a group she had played a big role in helping to create). Today, Russia, with a military budget 10 times that of Ukraine, is struggling to make military progress against the nation it aimed to eviscerate.
A feminist foreign policy examines this evidence, examines the dangerously unstable state of the world today – its natural wealth in a state of collapse, its people in a state of misery and fear – and demands a different approach. Its time is, it must be, now: nations working together, embracing the inspiring work of civil society, creating the framework for an order based on equality and rights, acting against aggression in unity.