Foreign Policy – Better Fair Than Feminist?




Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, Gender Equality

By Eirliani Abdul Rahman and Jesse Bump

Foreign policy has long been too conservative, too outdated – it has taken a long time to break its old structures and with the concept of Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) there finally seems to be change, especially in Germany with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. More inclusion, more participation, more equality. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The authors Eirliani Abdul Rahman and Jesse Bump see room for improvement.

Because “there have been various attempts to define FFP and a few studies on its efficacy, but there is no consensus definition or framework, and no cross-country comparison of its effect. This is despite seven countries adopting some form of it to date since Sweden launched its feminist foreign policy eight years ago – Canada in 2017, Luxembourg and France in 2019, Mexico in 2020, and Spain, Libya and Germany in 2021.These uncertainties are problematic. More broadly, differing understandings of a feminist foreign policy have created frictions between governments and civil society organizations.”

In addition, the concept would not realize its potential, the authors find and list four main points:

“First, the term ‘feminism’ is sometimes polarizing. A 2020 survey about Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy found that more than 50 per cent of respondents believed feminist development, gender equality and/or women’s empowerment programming did not benefit women but rather undermined men and boys. This perception runs counter to feminism’s goals, and it is a serious obstacle for effective foreign policy.” Because feminism tends to scare off people who are critical of feminism, it would be easier to change the wording so that women and other groups are more likely to benefit. Making feminism more attractive, and not calling it by its name, probably not everyone agrees with that.


“Second, a feminist foreign policy does not explicitly account for intersectionality, making it ineffective for issues with multiple dimensions or power differentials“, the authors write. So Eirlani and Jesse give an example: “If it overtly focuses on women and girls, as in Sweden, it may fail to capture complexities of race, ethnicity, religion, or age, and does not account for other vulnerable or marginalized groups. In Sweden’s model, it is unclear whether intersectionality is actually implemented. For instance, it is insufficient in Europe to focus on women and girls without examining how Roma people may be excluded. Thus far, only Mexico and Spain have explicitly focused on intersectionality.”

Looking at the German foreign federal office, it states on its website: “In this context, the Federal Foreign Office applies the formula “3R+D”: the aim is to promote the rights, representation and resources of women and marginalised groups, as well as to enhance diversity. In other words, feminist foreign policy describes first and foremost the way in which we want to work together in foreign, security and development policy in future.”

Third point of the authors critique: “FFP is specifically concerned with an outward-looking mandate and does not address domestic policies, leaving implementing governments open to accusations of hypocrisy and policy incoherence” and a fourth point, especially relevant regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine: “Feminist foreign policy debates sometimes oversimplify militaristic versus feminist, or weapons versus peace into false binaries”.

So the authors call for an expanded yet ambitious approach: “Although equity is central to feminism, we advance ‘Fair Foreign Policy’ or FFP2.0 as a more inclusive concept with many advantages beyond a feminist foreign policy. FFP2.0 can resolve the four weaknesses we identify above. Where feminist foreign policy is centred on gendered problems, fairness is inclusive of all groups and does not carry the implication of favour or disfavour to any.

But do they run the risk of being very broad? As they themselves write: “We employ the term ‘fair’ broadly, meaning ‘treating an individual or a group of people in a right or reasonable manner, equally, not coloured by personal opinions or judgment’. Fairness could inform foreign policy to challenge the gendered binaries inherent in post-Westphalian diplomacy – the masculine state as the benchmark – and the patriarchal association of masculinity with universality and objectivity, while alternatives are silenced or dismissed.”

It is clear that the authors want an approach that goes explicitly beyond narrow versions of feminism that are not intersectional. “‘Fair’ makes space for gender diversity”, they say, “citing an applied version of the legal and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, “FFP2.0 permits the disruption and transformation of harmful historic norms such as relate to colonialism, racism, patriarchy, ableism and sexism, and recognizes the rights of LGBTQI+, rural and indigenous people.

So they resume an important aspect: “‘Fair’ foreign policy is untainted by the colonial and imperial links to the term ‘feminist’ and is therefore more appropriate globally.”

If you want to read the five main principles of FFP2.0, please continue reading here.


About the authors:

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is the co-founder of YAKIN, an NGO working in the field of child rights and child protection issues and she continuously aims at raising awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, the consequences of child labor and mental health issues.

Jesse Bump  is Executive Director of the Takemi Program in International Health and Lecturer on Global Health Policy in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Member of the Bergen Center for Ethics and Priority Setting at the University of Bergen.

Published on October 12, 2022.

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