Foreign policy has been one of the most masculine dominated areas of study and practice of international politics. However, when Sweden launched a feminist foreign policy (FFP) in 2014, it opened new possibilities. In 2020, another important event took place: Mexico became the first country of the “Global South” to adopt a FFP, unsettling the previous notion that such policies were an exclusive tool of wealthy or western nations.
Feminist foreign policies have a transformative ambition, as they propose to eliminate structural differences and promote gender equality through new practices and frameworks at both national and international levels. Nonetheless, along with concepts such as homonationalism* and femonationalism**, these policies could also be a tool of national identity and exceptionalism that maintain global hierarchies and reorient certain problems outside national borders, such as the securitization of migration, the exclusion of indigenous populations and arms exports.
My goal in this piece is to briefly discuss if feminist foreign policies are addressing and disrupting the structures that exclude non-hegemonic subjects, or simply (re)producing normalised regimes of power and concealing them through a feminist discourse. Moreover, I want to examine how a decolonial approach could change the current narrative and envisage other forms of being and existing in the world, that goes beyond the policies designed by and for the State.
Foreign policy, colonialism and gender
I understand foreign policy as a social construction. This implies that it is produced by discourses, which are embedded in a system of meaning. By adding the adjective “feminist” to such policies, the aim is to change the dominant narrative that positions the sovereign subjects as male, white, heterosexual and bourgeois while claiming gender neutrality. The objective is to dismantle traditional notions of how issues are framed, prioritised, and managed. Moreover, it seeks to put the everyday lives of historically marginalised communities at the forefront of foreign policy.
Despite initial scepticism, feminist foreign policies have gained attention and a growing number of countries are in the process of adopting them***. Furthermore, some organizations are advocating for such policies globally. However, if we analyse the current FFPs by looking at handbooks, action plans, op-eds, declarations, and other official documents, we find that colonial logics remain, even in the Mexican proposal, designed by a former colony.
As Lugones argues, modernity organizes the world ontologically in terms of anatomic, homogenous, separable categories. These were created during colonialism through the construction of race as a system of social domination; the hegemony of capital as a system of social and economic exploitation; and gender, which privileges the existence of specific bodies and identities that have benefited from the prerogatives granted by modernity. This modern/colonial system is in place today and is violently backed by the power of the State.
One of the main goals of FFPs is to reach gender equality. However, gender is a tool of domination introduced by the West that designates two social categories - male and female - that oppose each other in a binary and hierarchical manner. Although some proposals, such as the Mexican, include an intersectional approach, they focus on “women” and do not go against the logic of categorisation. In fact, intersectionality —in its current usage by policy makers and institutions— has become an instrument of neoliberal ideology, governing difference by reifying these categories (women, black, homosexual, poor) and adding groups to the structure instead of eliminating the conditions that maintain racism, sexism, classism, etc. These policies, then, exclude the subjects that do not fit neatly into these groupings, such as the muxe population —an indigenous non-binary group in the Zapotec cultures of southern Mexico— and LGBTQ+ “irregular” migrants, to name some examples. These exclusions are a legacy of colonialism, as the Western-colonial gender system produces nonhumans —such as Black and indigenous women— and queer bodies, constituted according to colonial difference.
Moreover, global issues such as migration and climate change are still framed in a capitalist, racist and patriarchal logic. Violent and exclusionary practices towards migrants, usually impoverished, racialized and gendered —not exclusively but particularly in Mexico— have not been modified since the adoption of a FFPs. For instance, there are no specific policies for LGBTQ+ migrants that come from Central America, fleeing from gender-based violence. Moreover, the number of “irregular” migrants that have been deported by Mexican authorities to their counties of origin is increasing; women and unaccompanied minors are particularly vulnerable to these deportations.
In the case of climate change, states keep supporting multilateral efforts, such as the Paris Agreement, that maintain the capitalist framework of production and consumption, do not reduce inequalities, and place human beings at the centre of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. In other words, the binary and hierarchical logics of the categories citizen/migrant, legal/illegal, human/non-human, and the understanding of migration as border-control and nature as a commodity, reinforce coloniality and (re)produce the structures that privilege certain lives over others.
There is a risk that feminist foreign policies could become a new standard of civilization, claiming that the inclusion of women in diplomacy and foreign policy represents a common behaviour of advanced countries. This would only reinforce the discourse that there are universal values and ideas that everyone should adopt everywhere. Furthermore, since these policies were built from a top-down approach at Ministries of Foreign Affairs, it would also support the notion that states are the ones that grant rights and promote representation, instead of recognizing how they maintain and reproduce the global hierarchies that exclude non-normative and non-hegemonic bodies, ideas, and knowledges.
Hence, it is fundamental to decolonise FFPs. To do so, we must consider other proposals from the margins. This does not mean to assimilate various demands into state policy and advocate for representation within oppressive structures, but to reconceptualise and co-produce knowledge with the “other”, transcending the state itself. Since modernity has sought to render invisible different forms of thinking, being, and existing in the world, a transformative feminist foreign policy should be the result of a critical dialogue between diverse epistemic/ethical/political projects. A good example is the call to leave the dominant anthropocentric paradigm and to construct a new relationship with the earth, a project that has been promoted by indigenous communities in Abya Yala — the name given by pre-Columbian communities to Latin America and used by indigenous communities today.
The implications of such a move would be to consider other forms of coexisting with nature, rethinking the idea of borders, creating a different sense of solidarity that goes beyond ideas of individualism, and delinking current policies from neoliberal globalization and “universal” frameworks, such as human rights, global governance, development, among others. This would entail creating a world based on pluriversality where many worlds can exist. It would require replacing universalisms with a decolonial cosmopolitan project, taking into account the needs and proposals of a wider variety of actors.
*This term, coined by Jasbir Puar (2007), refers to the emergence of national homosexuality as a tool to justify certain interventions in the name of American exceptionalism.
**This term, coined by Sara Farris (2017), refers “both to the exploitation of feminist themes by nationalists and neoliberals in anti-Islam campaigns and to the participation of certain feminists and femocrats in the stigmatization of Muslim men under the banner of gender equality”.
***The countries that have officially adopted a Feminist Foreign Policy are Sweden, Canada, France, Luxemburg, Mexico, Spain and Libya. Additionally, the United States, the European Union, Norway, Ecuador, among others, have declared their interest in adopting one.
About the author
María Paulina Rivera Chávez (she/her) has specialized in the analysis and practice of foreign policy for the past seven years. She holds a BA in International Relations from El Colegio de México and an MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has been advisor to the Vice-Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and Director of the International Research Centre, both at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has been lecturer in gender studies, international organizations, and critical theories at Tecnologico de Monterrey and Universidad Iberoamericana. Twitter: @Pao_Rivers