Finnish Minister of Education Li Andersson, Minister of Interior Maria Ohisalo, Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni in Helsinki, December 2019.
Vesa Moilanen / Reuters

In 2014, Margot Wallström, then serving as the foreign minister of Sweden, proclaimed that the Swedish government would adopt a so-called feminist foreign policy, becoming the first nation ever to do so. Since then, Canada, France, and Mexico have followed suit, and a handful of other nations—most recently, Luxembourg, Malaysia, and Spain—have pledged to develop similar policies. 

In each of these countries, the announcements have provoked questions among foreign policy experts. What, exactly, do these policies set out to achieve? At a time of rising global activism for gender equality, what does it mean to conduct foreign policy from a feminist perspective? And in an era of economic uncertainty, is a focus on gender equality an unnecessary distraction?  

A Natural Fit

Evidence from recent studies suggests that the status of women is closely aligned with a country’s prosperity and security. In this respect, promoting gender equality as a foreign policy priority seems like common sense. Closing the gender gap in workforce participation could add as much as $28 trillion to the global GDP. Ensuring women’s meaningful participation in peace processes makes agreements more likely to last and be implemented. The more women there are in a country’s parliament, the lower the incidence of human rights abuses and conflict relapse. Equalizing access to agricultural resources for women could result in 150 million fewer hungry people on the planet. The bottom line: research confirms that nations seeking to fortify their own security, better use foreign aid, or support stable and democratic partners should prioritize women’s advancement.

Women’s rights have had a place in public policymaking since at least the late 1970s, supported by both international institutions and a proliferation of local ones in more than 100 countries. But national reforms have primarily addressed domestic concerns. A feminist foreign policy offers something different, in that it promotes programs that make gender equality and women’s empowerment central to national security, including diplomacy, defense, aid, and trade.

The government of Sweden has undertaken the most comprehensive plan of this type with the feminist foreign policy it first articulated in 2014. But the Swedish policy actually builds on the prior efforts of many other nations. Such efforts share a focus on promulgating change in three broad areas. They seek to promote women’s leadership, to commit to policies that advance equality, and to allocate resources in a manner that supports those commitments. The specific initiatives governments have proposed vary, as do the extent of their implementation and the means of measuring their success. And although all aim to elevate gender equality as a foreign policy priority, not all are explicitly termed “feminist.”

Closing the gender gap in workforce participation could add as much as $28 trillion to the global GDP.

Over the last decade, many countries have brought more women into their foreign policy decision-making circles and placed greater emphasis on gender equality in their conduct of foreign affairs. Today, a record 34 countries have female foreign ministers, 84 have female ministers of trade, and 20 have female ministers of defense. Several countries have established ambassador-level positions to promote women’s issues abroad or within their foreign policy apparatus. Not all of these countries have signed on to a foreign policy unequivocally dedicated to advancing women’s rights, but the shifts in their leadership have diversified foreign policy debates and led to effective policies.

Countries with and without explicitly feminist foreign policy agendas have pursued policies and dedicated resources that further gender equality, some of them adopting specific plans to address women’s rights through diplomacy and development cooperation. Eighty-three nations have adopted national action plans to encourage women’s participation in peace and security processes. Donor countries, including Australia, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates, have pledged a percentage of their foreign-assistance funds to programs that promote the advancement of women, or they have created new pooled funds to support women’s rights organizations. These efforts add up to a collective shift in resources and political will.

Too Much, Too Little

The effort to change leadership, adopt policies, and commit resources in order to advance gender equality as a foreign policy priority has met with some skepticism. Critics argue that increasing the focus on women’s rights and gender equality detracts from promoting other national interests abroad. Even many who believe that gender equality is a worthwhile goal do not agree that it should be institutionalized as a foreign policy priority.

Such criticism overlooks evidence that gender equality is not only a human right worthy of protection but also a means to advance a country’s economic and security interests. Raising the status of women and girls has been shown to increase GDP, improve global health, combat radicalization and extremism, improve the chances of lasting peace, and strengthen democracy. The world confronts too much poverty, insecurity, authoritarianism, and violence for any nation to afford to overlook the talents and contributions of 50 percent of its population.

Raising the status of women and girls has been shown to increase GDP, improve global health, and combat radicalization and extremism.

Other skeptics argue that a true feminist foreign policy would require nothing short of a transformation in international relations. These critics maintain that the feminist policies that the governments of Canada, France, Sweden, and other countries have adopted do not do enough to reshape aid infrastructure, decrease militarism, address the root causes of inequality, or incorporate the experiences of women and girls. But to the extent that such critiques are valid, they risk making the perfect the enemy of the good. Moreover, policies promoting gender equality in the national security space are relatively new, and it is still too early to know just what effects they will have, whether on improving the lives of women or on generating the political will to bring about further change.

Theory Into Practice

A foreign policy vision that announces itself as feminist has the advantage of making gender equality an implicit and explicit priority. But Sweden’s path is not the only way forward. By adopting and executing a carefully designed policy that ties women’s advancement to national security, as well as to economic and diplomatic priorities around the world, countries can hope to reap some of the benefits of greater parity.

To strengthen prosperity and stability, governments worldwide—including the United States—should work to advance gender equality in foreign policy. Governments should establish high-level councils to coordinate their efforts to promote the status of women and girls both at home and abroad. Each cabinet agency should appoint a high-ranking, full-time official who reports directly to the cabinet minister and is tasked with fostering gender equality. And governments and their agencies should make their own workplaces a part of this effort by prioritizing gender balance in staffing and providing effective means for addressing workplace harassment and abuse.

National leaders should draw up government-wide, high-priority policies to advance gender equality through diplomacy, development, defense, and trade. Metrics for measuring a country’s prosperity and stability should take into account the status of women and girls—by, for example, defining economic health to include a level playing field for women, free of discriminatory laws, and defining security to include freedom from intimate-partner violence and sexual assault. Parliaments can support these policy efforts with legislation that promotes gender equality and mandates government ministries to strengthen related initiatives.

Gender equality promises real benefits, not only to a country’s economy but also to its national security. In order to reap those benefits, however, governments need to invest, and they must do so at levels sufficient for achieving meaningful gains for women. Countries that can provide foreign assistance should do so in a manner that directly supports local, female-led organizations, which are proven drivers of change but often lack funds. A multinational gender-equality partnership, modeled after the Open Government Partnership, could catalyze additional financing for gender equality from governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and civil society institutions.

Rhetoric and promises alone will not generate the dividends of real progress toward gender equality. Nations should be held accountable for the work they do (and don’t do). They should commit to issuing public annual reports that assess progress toward time-bound and measurable goals along the road to equity. For its part, the United States should ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which would oblige it to join other nations in submitting a report to the CEDAW committee every four years detailing measures taken to advance gender equality.

Feminist foreign policy aims to unlock the potential of half the population. Doing so is not just a moral obligation—it is an economic and security imperative. To get there, countries must demonstrate genuine leadership, adopt strong policies, and provide generous resourcing that will not only improve the lives of women and girls but also strengthen the stability and prosperity of entire economies and nations. 

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  • RACHEL VOGELSTEIN is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Professor at Georgetown Law School.
  • JAMILLE BIGIO is a Senior Fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • REBECCA TURKINGTON is Assistant Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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