Foreign Policy + Feminism = ?

Foreign policy is usually defined in "masculine" terms: arms trade, intervention, war, sanctions, and MAD (mutually-assured destruction). But what would international relations look like if food security, family planning, and workplace equity were also centre pieces of foreign policy? Four women — all with experience in foreign policy — explore possible answers to these questions. Moderated by Eva Salinas, Elmira Bayrasli, Lauren Dobson-Hughes, and Lamia Naji were featured in a public forum held at Ryerson University in April 2018.
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visits the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 19, 2017. (Mohamamd Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode39:04

Foreign policy is usually defined in "masculine" terms: arms trade, intervention, war, sanctions, and MAD (mutually-assured destruction). But what would international relations look like if food security, family planning, and workplace equity were also centre pieces of foreign policy? Four women — all with experience in foreign policy — explore possible answers to these questions. Moderated by Eva Salinas, Elmira Bayrasli, and Lauren Dobson-Hughes were featured in a public forum held at Ryerson University in April 2018.

The words "foreign policy" and "feminist" aren't often paired together. But what if they were? What would a feminist foreign policy actually look like? For one, it would entail a dramatically different set of priorities. Potable water, female genital mutilation, climate change, land tenure — the foreign policy landscape would be transformed.

But there's considerable resistance, according to Lauren Dobson-Hughes — especially when it comes to issues that are seen somehow as no-go areas for feminist perspectives.

So the economy is just 'neutral', just a thing. It's not [seen as] gendered. When you start talking about like sovereign loans, World Bank restructuring, capital flight, private equity subsidization... that's all 'gender neutral', and that's just systems and finance and economists. And sometimes you feel like it's a bit like, 'Don't worry your pretty little head about it — the men will sort this one'.- Lauren  Dobson-Hughes

Things can escalate from patronizing to vicious. Elmira Bayrasli heads an organization in New York called Foreign Policy Interrupted. She's also been a presidential appointee in the U.S. State Department. She's heard the criticism that finding women foreign policy experts is hard, that there aren't very many of them, that women are disinclined to "raise their hands" and get involved.

I know from having raised my hands many times before. I get not only criticized, I actually get I get death threats and I get threatened with violence. I have gotten threatened with rape.- Elmira Bayrasli

Hostility within foreign policy circles is matched by unconscious bias, or even blindness, outside of them, particularly when foreign policy is talked about in the public. Barasli's agency did a study looking at the foreign policy and national security experts on nighttime cable and Sunday talk shows in the United States: "In 2014, 2015, 2016, the percentages were about 24 per cent women. And then the rest overwhelmingly white men."

(Foreign Policy Interrupted)

Going back to 1996, and analyzing major newspapers in the United States, like The New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the numbers, Baysrali says, are abysmal: "The numbers do increase from 1996 to 2006 to 2016 at increments of about 8 per cent. So… we're not going to actually get to gender parity until about 2040. I'll be in my mid-70s by then."

But defining what is meant by feminism is fraught territory in and of itself. Who gets to decide what it means? Or how it should be inserted into foreign policies? And in the workaday world of just getting the job done, tensions can arise among women when race isn't acknowledged.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specialising in advocacy for gender, international development and global health. 0:39

However nascent the movement to recast foreign policy in feminist terms may be, there are potential benefits that could affect the entire state of geopolitics. According to Lauren Dobson-Hughes, "Peace agreements that mention women and [which have] women at the negotiating table have a 35 per cent increased chance of success over five years — a third increase chance of success just literally by having a woman at the table. Imagine what we could do if like women were mainstreamed throughout?"

Guests in this episode:

  • Eva Salinas moderated the panel discussion. She's the managing editor of OpenCanada.org. She previously served as editor of The Santiago Times in Chile and worked for The Financial Post, Journalists for Human Rights, and the Globe and Mail Vancouver bureau.
     
  • Elmira Bayrasli is the CEO and co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted. She is the author of From The Other Side of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places and a professor at Bard College's Globalization and International Affairs Program. From 1994-2000 she was presidential appointee at the U.S. State Department. Her work on foreign policy issues has appeared in Reuters, Foreign Affairs, Washington Post, Quartz, Fortune, Forbes, CNN, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
     
  • Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specialising in advocacy for gender, international development and global health. Formerly Executive Director of an international development organization, she has background in politics and government relations in both Canada and the UK. She is also past President of Planned Parenthood Ottawa.

     

​**This episode was produced by Greg Kelly with assistance from Tiffany Lam.

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