Politics of Poverty

What comes after America First?

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Oxfam America President and CEO Abby Maxman and staff at the 2019 Women's March. Photo: Oxfam America/Coco McCabe

A feminist foreign policy might be just what the US needs.

When I bring up the idea of a “feminist foreign policy” in Washington, DC, I usually get a, “That’s interesting, but so unrealistic,” in response. Sometimes I get an eye-roll.

But lately, I’m starting to get, “Why not?”

By almost any objective measure US foreign policy is at a low point in history. But a return to the bipartisan, middle ground foreign policy approach popular before the Trump administration neither inspires enthusiasm nor offers a clear vision for the role of the US in the world.

So why not envision something new?

US foreign policy leadership is missing in action

The signal accomplishment of President Trump’s America First foreign policy has been abandonment. Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. He has hinted at withdrawing from NATO and the World Trade Organization. And right now, in the middle of a global pandemic when international cooperation and solidarity is crucial, Trump has personally attacked leaders and the World Health Organization as he seeks to deflect blame for his own administration’s failings.

US foreign policy leadership has been awful under President Trump. State Department morale and function is terrible and retirements and vacancies have ballooned. Secretary Mike Pompeo, America’s lead diplomat, has brought a conspiracy-theory mindset to the job. He hinted darkly at threats without evidence—nearly bringing the US to war with Iran—and more recently peddled unsubstantiated rumors about nefarious doings around the coronavirus. Foreign policy leadership at the White House has been a stream of four National Security Advisors who have set out to shrink foreign policy expertise and capacity.

All in all, a sad, broken mess.

A feminist foreign policy could transform how the US sees the world

While women’s rights and gender equality have been a growing focus of US foreign policy in recent years, a feminist approach offers a more transformative framework. This approach requires deep analysis of the patriarchal power structures and inequalities that exist in the world, identifies forms of exclusion and denial of human rights, and challenges systems of oppression.

Feminist critique of foreign policy and international relations has a long history and comes in many varieties, ranging from early pacifist movements through decolonization, to deconstructionist approaches. Other insights include centering the lived experience as a source of policy insight; continual reflection and revision based on expanding participation; and the direct involvement of affected parties in the decisions that affect their lives, especially women who are excluded from foreign policy-making roles.

A new way forward for justice and equality

Part of Trump’s winning message was a clear and resonant critique of bipartisan foreign policy. The American public was—and is—exhausted by decades of inconclusive and costly war in the Middle East. Although the public generally supports trade, there is also a skepticism that economic globalization has been good for Americans.

A feminist approach to foreign policy represents a new way forward and a small, but growing, trend among countries. Sweden launched a feminist foreign policy in 2014. Canada followed in 2017. Then France, Luxembourg and most recently Mexico. Each is different and none is perfect. But the idea of capturing the knowledge, insights, and values of feminist thought and applying them to foreign policy is gaining traction. So why not in the US?

To that end, Oxfam has spent months working with experts and advocates exploring just what a feminist foreign policy might look like in the US. The paper, “Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States,” launches today with the support of more than 50 organizations, as well as many foreign policy experts.

As the world is facing an unprecedented crisis, maybe the time has come for a feminist foreign policy—one that reconceptualizes national interest in the context of global goods: people, peace, and the planet.

Take a look yourself.

The new paper "Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States"

Download now
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