Scotland’s Feminist Foreign Policy Can Lead the Way – Caron E. Gentry

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In April, much vaunted headlines circulated amongst my policy-oriented and feminist friends: states with leaders who are women, such as New Zealand, Germany, Iceland, and Finland, are faring better with Covid.  These leaders were swifter and more decisive in their actions (attributes often more associated with leaders who are men; see this interesting Forbes article).  Given Scotland’s own success with Covid is owed, many think, to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s decisive leadership, perhaps Scotland should also be on that list of relatively successful countries.  

The success that women have had in steering their states/countries through Covid brings to the forefront the notion of a feminist foreign policy (FFP).  Although a feminist foreign policy is not dependent upon having a leader who is a woman, this is still a striking moment in time, where for once women-as-leaders are finally receiving some of the recognition long owed to them.  Therefore, as a feminist International Relations scholar living in Scotland, it raises for me whether Scotland already pursues an internal unspoken feminist policy agenda, thereby leading quite naturally to a feminist foreign policy as well.

Some may fear, though, the word and the language of feminism; yet feminism is not a dirty word. Feminism interrogates power —- who holds the power; who is harmed by the power; why it harms them in particular; and what the effect of those harms are.  Feminists understand gender as a social construction meaning the differences between the sexes is neither natural nor immutable. Instead, society determines what characteristics pertain to masculinity and femininity, and thereby men and women respectively. Masculinity is often associated with assertiveness (swift and decisive leadership would fall here), autonomy, an affinity towards violence, and rationality and logical thought. Given masculinity/femininity are dichotomous, femininity is the opposite: indeterminate, peaceable, and emotional, which thus means an inability to access rationality and logic. Because of these constructed gendered characteristics, men are associated with governance, justice, intelligence, and all the attributes needed to lead.  It is these very same gendered constructions that make the world resistant to women-as-leaders. 

Feminists contest this inflexible and archaic construction of gender, recognising that men and women — and those that do not identify within this binary — do not rigidly adhere to such characteristics. Patriarchal societies have prioritised masculinity, making masculine characteristics the norm and the desired way of being, such as accepting war and/or the threat of violence as a solution or prioritising competition and self-sufficiency in the neo-liberal economic order. In contrast, feminism emphasises a different approach, one that seeks to dismantle power structures, reducing socio-economic, gendered, and racialised harms, amongst others, via empathy, cooperation, dialogue, and diplomacy. 

This is where a feminist foreign policy enters the scene and does so in a context of rising support for women’s rights and recognition of the insecurities they face across the globe.  Beginning in 2000 with the adoption of UNSC 1325, which focuses on mainstreaming women and gender into all areas of the UN, other steps include the launch of Foreign Secretary William Hague’s initiative to end rape and sexual violence in war, for which he was famously joined by Angelina Jolie. On the other side of the Atlantic, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated her own Clinton Doctrine that argued for humanitarian intervention on the grounds of women’s insecurity. Yet, FFP really came into force in 2015, when the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the Green Party formed a coalition government, declaring it to be a feminist government with a feminist foreign policy. Accordingly, the Swedish government’s feminist foreign policy was “to become the strongest voice for gender equality and full employment of human rights for all women and girls.” They included in their “toolbox” an emphasis on women’s representation in governments and places of power, human rights for women, and reallocation, or equitable distribution, of global income and natural resources. 

Still, there can be more to FFP than just ‘adding women and stirring’. Instead, a FFP interested in upending current (masculine) power structures by redistributing power to more, if not all people, will lift all people, not just women. Thus, scholars of FFP, particularly Annika Bergman-Rosamund, Karin Aggestam, and Annika Kronsell[1], believe that FFP should “explicitly seek to renegotiate and challenge power hierarchies and gendered institutions.”  Therefore, FFP does not just addresses women’s material positions around the world but embraces a “reorientation” of foreign policy based upon cosmopolitan ideals of justice, peace, and pragmatic security. A feminist foreign policy listens to marginalised voices and aims to remove gender, racial, sexual, and socio-economic boundaries, amongst others.  It is empathetic, sensitive, caring, and relational.

And this is where Scotland enters the picture. Contemporary Scottish politics are inherently feminist. They may not be known as such — perhaps the word feminism is too scary or off-putting. With devolution and the parties that have held the most power in Holyrood, Scottish voters have noted their interest in politics and policies that emphasise equality of all kinds, parity, justice and fairness. Scottish policies aim to create a society that removes barriers rather than foster them. Policies like these will, eventually, inherently upend masculinist power structures. The combined strength of the SNP, Labour, Greens, and Liberal Democrats in Scotland demonstrates a population interested in social, economic, and climate justice. As a nation moves its political agenda beyond its borders it does so only based upon the issues and politics that are cared about internally. The Scottish vote to remain in the EU demonstrates the population’s desire to be part of cosmopolitan inter-governmental organisations. Scotland’s request for special consideration in the Brexit negotiations, maintaining an office in Brussels, alongside six other international offices, indicates that Scotland already has a foreign policy.  Arguably, it is a feminist one. 

While the Covid-centred headlines about women’s success as leaders is important, it is equally important to recognise that all leaders can adopt policies that prioritise the health and safety of people over the health and safety of the economy. Feminist policy — foreign or domestic — can be enacted by men, women, and non-binary folk as feminist foreign policy is about relationships, care, empathy and equality. To embrace these is to embrace a paradigm shift, to move away from a focus on hard security and neo-liberal capitalism.  In a post-Covid (should that day arrive) world that is also cognisant of how misogynistic, racial, and socio-economic barriers work, people living in places with feminist policies might see a better future for everyone, not just some. It is this holistic vision — of all people being better off together — that makes me believe in the future of Scotland and believe that this future is a feminist one in spirit if not name.   

Caron E. Gentry is Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews


[1] Karin Aggestam and Annika Bergman-Rosamund. 2016. “Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy in the Making: Ethics, Politics, and Gender,” Ethics and International Affairs, 30(3), 323-334; Karin Aggestam, Annika Bergman Rosamund, and Annica Kronsell. 2019. “Theorising Feminist Foreign Policy,” International Relations, 33(1): 29-39; Karin Aggestam and Annika Bergman Rosamund. 2018. “Re-Politicising the Gender-Security Nexus: Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy,” European Review of International Studies, 5(3), 30-48.