22 January 2020 
By Marissa Conway, Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. 

Feminist foreign policy (FFP) is quickly gaining traction around the world as a powerful way to transform foreign policy as we know it. First launched by the Swedish government in 2014, countries like France and Mexico have followed suit by announcing their intent to develop a full FFP framework, and others have developed one-off feminist policies, like Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy or the UK’s Labour Party’s Feminist Development Policy. Activists, researchers, academics, celebrities, and policymakers alike are vouching for its transformative potential. So what exactly is a feminist foreign policy, and why does the UK need one?

According to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, FFP uses feminist values of transparency, intersectionality, justice, equality, and solidarity, among others, in its development of foreign policy. It is both a means to an end (societal equality) and a means in and of itself (feminist policy processes). In other words, it’s a way to develop feminist policymaking processes as well as a framework to generate feminist policy outputs. FFP is not so much about addressing the symptoms of inequality but is rather oriented towards creating structural and institutional change which gets to the root causes of oppression: patriarchal values of sexism, racism, colonialism, and capitalism (to name a few) which are used to keep power in the hands of an elite few. It also means not just developing initiatives to alleviate the violence that women experience but also the violence against people of colour, indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ people. Most importantly it recognises that UK policy is a key player in the continuity of such violence both at home and abroad. Ultimately, FFP ensures that the experiences and needs of those who are most impacted by UK foreign policy are considered to be the key informant in all foreign policy decisions. 

With the latest Brexit deadline set for the end of this month on 31 January, and the disarray that years of negotiations has thrown UK politics into, the question of the UK’s place in the world independent of the EU has surfaced frequently, both in Brexit propaganda and its critical analyses. The phrase “global Britain” has been used often by politicians since the Brexit vote. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson stated that Brexit is an opportunity “to recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world.” Such an identity, however, is deeply rooted in colonial nostalgia of Britain as Empire. This nostalgia, rooted in a desire to maintain a powerful position atop the global hierarchy, is dangerously ignorant of the way in which playing geopolitical God via colonisation has wreaked havoc on the lives of many and continues to do so.

Despite such vague appeals to a “global Britain,” the question of what foreign policy will look like in a post-Brexit era remains unanswered even after three years. It is of critical importance that for all moves made by the UK as an upcoming EU outsider, all policymaking and policy outputs are grounded in feminist values like equality, transparency, and justice. Attempting to reconstruct a post-Brexit UK as Empire 2.0 will only perpetuate ongoing violence. 

For example, the UK is now the world’s second biggest arms exporter. Action on Armed Violence noted last year that about a third of UK arms sales between 2008 and 2017 went to countries which are on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) own list of human rights “priority countries”. These are designated as countries the FCO is “particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where [it] consider[s] that the UK can make a real difference.” It has also been demonstrated that the UK Government is not currently conducting ample oversight to ensure these weapons are not used in violation of international humanitarian law. Actors in the war in Yemen, like Saudi Arabia, use British-sold arms, while at the same time, the UK Government prioritises an ongoing agenda to address sexualised violence in conflict. Arms sales and sexualised violence in conflict are inextricably linked.  The only possible path to ensuring sexualised violence decreases includes responsible - and reduced - arms sales. A feminist foreign policy framework would focus in on this connection and draw out policy objectives which focus on improving the lives of those impacted by arms violence by all means necessary. This includes cutting back on arms sales across the board.

As more countries begin to explore adopting feminist foreign policy, it has become somewhat trendy to showcase feminism in polical processes. However, it’s important to remember that what feminism asks of states and individuals alike is not just PR-friendly advocacy for easily agreed upon, branding-conscious policy positions. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s famous gender balanced cabinet has faced criticism from women like Christie Blachford who argue that “women were invited to Trudeau's cabinet table, but expected to play by old boys' rules.” What feminist foreign policy truly calls for is an internal process that demands we rethink the very nature of institutions in order to collectively unlearn patriarchal patterns of operating, replacing them with feminist ones. And it is for precisely this reason that feminist foreign policy offers the best possible political framework for negotiating a post-Brexit foreign policy truly rooted in equality for all. 

About the author: 

Marissa Conway is the Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, a current doctoral candidate earning her PhD in Politics at the University of Bristol, and is on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Follow her on Twitter at @marissakconway and view her website at www.marissaconway.com for more information about her work.