Pictured: Women attend a community meeting held at the UN Women multipurpose centre in the Ngam refugee camp. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

How the United States Can Embrace a Feminist Foreign Policy

Fifty days into the Biden-Harris administration, the United States has taken a number of key steps to revive multilateralism as a pillar of American foreign policy. Over the past several weeks on the Global Dispatches podcast, we’ve dug deep into how the new administration and new congress can pursue a multilateralist agenda in areas like human rights, climate, health, peace and security among others.

In today’s episode, we use the frame of multilateralism to explore how the United States can embrace a feminist foreign policy. A number of countries around the world have now explicitely adopted a feminist foreign policy, including many key American allies. So what would a feminist US foreign policy look like in practice?

Devon Cone, Senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International takes on that question. We kick off discussing what we mean when we say “feminist foreign policy” and then we go into detail about specific steps the administration and Congress can take to make a feminist foreign policy a reality.

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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit http://getusback.org/

Devon Cone [00:02:41] A feminist foreign policy, to me, simply means a rights-based approach- so rights-based approach across all parts of a nation’s foreign policy. To be more specific, it includes several key principles and I would say the first one is that women’s rights are human rights. And you might have heard this phrase, especially because it is a resounding phrase that came out of the 1895 Beijing Conference on Women, and it still rings true today. We just celebrated the 25-year anniversary of that conference. But sadly, we have a long way to go for countries around the world and -including the US- to really embrace this principle in our legislation and our actions. But being rights-based means a lot of things. It also means we must respect the rights recognized by international institutions and agreements -which we don’t always do in taking a risk-based approach. It also means that we need to support and defend those who are promoting the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups around the world. So that’s one of the key points of a feminist foreign policy.

[00:03:45] But also -second- a feminist foreign policy is representative and inclusive. It must include all people that it’s representing and it must be responsive and accountable to stakeholders. So stakeholders would mean the citizens of the country it’s representing. Also, a feminist foreign policy recognizes that foreign policy decisions -especially foreign policy decisions of the United States- have far-reaching and often enormous impacts on the citizens of other countries. That’s kind of obvious. But with that, comes a huge responsibility. So a feminist foreign policy acknowledges that traditionally, foreign policy -certainly in the US, but also in other countries around the world- has been implemented through white male-dominated institutions and really has patriarchal and racist and discriminatory norms. That’s been the norm. I mean, I don’t see how that can be debatable.

[00:04:44] But a feminist foreign policy doesn’t look backward to what it was. What it’s really looking to do, is to look forward to what can be. So with a feminist foreign policy, what it really says is that, to make the most effective foreign policy decisions, you have to have diversity and institutions must change. So it is based on change. And especially important, I think, is that there must be gender parity in representation. So there’s a lot more to it. But I think another important point is that feminist foreign policy promotes women’s political participation -so that representation point- and it really promotes this political participation and leadership in all societies. So, in fragile states, in states that are working towards democracy, in all the states that we work with and collaborate with. It also -I think an important point- it embraces sexual reproductive health rights. And I think that’s important to note because it means that -it allows women to actually make choices that their own lives and have a meaningful participation in public life. So that, I think, is important as we try to encourage women’s political participation.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:05] To a certain extent, Biden has espoused many of the things that you just articulated. He has not in the same way that, say, Justin Trudeau up north has been explicit about the United States charting a feminist foreign policy or adopting a feminist foreign policy. However, Biden does have a multilateralist instinct. So I’m wondering what are the ways in which multilateralism could enhance and support that kind of feminist foreign policy vision that you just articulated?

Devon Cone [00:06:41] Sure. You know, multilateralism is part and parcel of a feminist foreign policy. A feminist foreign policy really values collaboration and participation and sharing common values and with other countries and states and also with other institutions. So I think the fact that Biden says things like America is back or some of those phrases -what he’s really saying is that the US is ready and willing and excited to engage with other states, with multilateral institutions, with UN agencies, with the World Health Organization, even. So, I think that really demonstrates -like you said- perhaps not an official explicit feminist foreign policy in the way -like you said- Canada and Sweden and Mexico and Luxembourg and France. I mean, there are many countries that are now adopting formal feminist foreign policies because they see the value in it and they see that what has been done in the past has not always worked and it’s time for a change. But, you know, the Biden administration is certainly demonstrating some of those qualities of values and principles of a feminist foreign policy.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:10] So I’d like to maybe drill down a little bit and talk about some specific policies that you would advocate the Biden-Harris administration adopt in pursuit of some of these ideals, specifically on gender-based violence. Can you describe for listeners sort of what existed, what policies existed to combat gender-based violence around the world at the end of the Obama administration that may now be built upon?

[00:08:41] Sure. Well, the Obama administration had an executive order that addressed violence against women and girls and gender-based violence. That executive order was important and did a lot and engaged many agencies that work both domestically and abroad. But what the Biden-Harris administration has done is they’ve built upon that and they’ve really recognized that gender-based violence is a huge issue in the United States, but also in all the countries where we work and engage with -especially in the topics I work on. Gender-based violence is a huge problem among displaced communities. There are limited resources, there’s high stress, there’s limited legal recourse for women and girls, especially, that are affected by gender-based violence. So so the Biden-Harris administration has recognized this and to be honest, they’ve been prepared before they even took office. They’ve been prepared and have been putting together policies and teams of people really to deal with this. So, you know, I mean we can talk more about the White House Gender Policy Council, which was just announced and created on Monday on International Women’s Day.

[00:10:05] But there were policies in place at the end of the Obama administration. The problem -and we don’t have to go too far back and spend time talking about the last administration- but the problem is, is that following the Obama administration, the Trump administration really dismantled a lot of these policies and really just showed over and over again through a variety of policies and actions that they really did not value women’s equality and gender equality and really didn’t value or really understand, perhaps, the extent of gender-based violence, in particular. I mean, there are certainly people in civil service that have worked on these issues very, very diligently over the last four years. But in terms of in terms of demonstrating an Executive Branch priority on this, that just wasn’t the case in the last administration.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:09] So if you were crafting the executive order on gender-based violence -combating it internationally- what would it include and what would you expect this executive order to include from the Biden administration?

Devon Cone [00:11:24] Well, I would expect it to include a lot that actually is included even in this executive order that was signed on Monday. So, this White House Gender Policy Council, it recognizes the extensive nature of gender-based violence. And actually, it recognizes that it’s increased dramatically during Covid-19. So we both had an existing problem -gender-based violence- before the pandemic. It’s been exacerbated now. And the Biden Harris administration recognizes that and is putting into place some measures to address that. There are also congressional measures and congressional legislation that I can talk about later.

[00:12:07] One of the specific pieces of this White House Gender Policy Council is that -it’s even listed, I think, as number four, I believe- what the federal government plans to do to advance gender equity and equality, and that is to prevent and respond to all forms of gender-based violence. So, you know, they’re coming up with the policies, the specific policies to do so. But one of the main pieces of this executive order that’s really important is that it includes all the secretaries of agencies and other high-level and senior-level staff members. So it’s definitely more than 35 individuals that really have the power and decision-making abilities and budgets behind them. And so I think, you know, what I would do is, is do a lot of what they’re doing already. So I’m optimistic and hopeful and really pleased to see that from the time the report I published in December telling recommending to the Biden-Harris administration what they should do, to now -there have been many steps taken,

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:21] It appears they read it. And I’ll post a link to your policy brief in the shownotes on the website. So you just briefly alluded to, I believe, the International Violence Against Women Act, which is an opportunity before Congress. Can you describe what that act entails?

Devon Cone [00:13:41] Sure. I mean, it really just ensures that addressing violence against women is a key component of US foreign policy. So there’s a Violence Against Women Act already that’s domestically focused. And obviously the International Violence Against Women Act is more internationally focused. So it really it does a variety of things. But one of the key things it does is also put money behind some of these efforts. And I think that’s what’s really important. I was going to say that before that there’s a lot of policies that can be written, they can be signed into action, they can be supported in rhetoric. But the resources and money behind those efforts need to be there.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:30] So can you give me an example of what that would look like -a policy that is ostensibly a good policy, that has no funding behind it, but can be made robust if the International Violence Against Women Act is is a funded piece of legislation.

Devon Cone [00:14:44] Yeah, I mean, one of the things within policy that is often noted is that there needs to be training, there needs to be training on I mean, even in overseas. So, for example, with organizations that the US government funds to implement programs overseas -so programs that prevent, mitigate, and respond to gender-based violence. There are those programs, but sometimes those programs don’t have funding to adequately train people, to train people on how to address survivors of gender-based violence. Especially programs we have to, for example, train police and law enforcement in other countries and and military in other countries. We need money behind that to say, yes, they’ll be sensitized to how to deal with how to appropriately and effectively deal with and respond to survivors of gender-based violence. But how do they do that? How do they know how to do that? Is there any training budget behind that? So those are the kinds of things that need to be resourced. And I think, you know, gender-based funding internationally, not just from the US, but overall for gender-based violence programming, is woefully inadequate. So it’s not just the U.S. but that’s something that needs to be addressed, especially given Covid-19. I know there’s a lot of other priorities, but responding to and preventing gender-based violence is really an essential service, and I think that needs to be both stated and all the policy documents, but also supported.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:26] To that end, what opportunities exist to more robustly support policies to ensure gender equality or rights for women who are refugees around the world or in situations of migration, forced or not? I know this is a corner of the policy world that you have you have spent your career studying. So what would you recommend the administration do to enhance policies at the intersection of gender and refugees and migration?

Devon Cone [00:17:08] Well, I think the first step is they should include them so-.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:11] Well, that’s a good first step.

Devon Cone [00:17:13] Yeah. Not to say that they aren’t but I think explicitly include them because it is true. There’s people that focus their careers, like myself, on this intersection, of gender and forced displacement or even just forced displacement. I mean, I’ve done a variety of things, but that certainly right now I’m focusing on gender and forced displacement. And so there are people that focus on forced displacement. There are people that focus on development. There are people that focus on really nice things. And that gives them an expertise. But it also can, not blind them, but there are some blinders on there, and they can not intentionally but unintentionally miss other things.

[00:17:59] So I think that every policy that relates to development relates to humanitarian assistance. You know, all the policies and programs that we have and support and that we will enact, I think needs to have a gender analysis -needs to take a gender analysis with it. And by that I mean, you need to determine how is this going to affect women and girls, but also how do we include displaced people? You know, when you have a development policy in X country, people and policymakers need to think about, does that country host displaced people? Does it host refugees? Does it have asylum seekers? Does it have stateless people? And are they included in this? Are they explicitly included? So I just think that that’s the first step is to include them.

[00:18:55] The second step is to, while including them, recognize the unique challenges they have. So, again, if you’re enacting and policies related to development or spending money on the overseas assistance, that relates to development, does that development include refugees and asylum seekers and displaced people? But also do they have different needs? Do they have different legal rights? Are they included? If you’re giving assistance to bolster a health care system, a national health care system and infrastructure, is that national health care system including the large numbers of displaced people that are there? Because oftentimes a lot of the countries that we are assisting with are overseas foreign assistance, they are struggling countries and they’re often countries that are close to other countries that have experienced conflicts or are conflict-affected. So many of those countries have large populations of displaced people, whether internally displaced or asylum seekers or refugees from neighboring countries. And so, I think ensuring that the policies we enact that relate to these countries also include refugees and asylum seekers.

[00:20:12] And then finally, I think that here in our own country, I mean, there’s a huge issue at the southern border with how we have, in the past, really blocked people from asylum. And I think those policies really are -they’re being changed but they have to be changed and they have to be changed thoughtfully with all of these things in mind.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:38] When it comes to engaging with multilateral institutions, specifically, to address issues around gender in migration and gender and refugee issues. Are there one or two policy opportunities that you see are sort of ripe for the picking? Is there something that the administration ought to be doing right away?

Devon Cone [00:21:08] I think rather than within multilateral institutions and engagement, I think what’s, to be honest, more important is addressing our own issues with migration and refugees and asylum seekers and demonstrating our commitment to the protection of people and to the international legal conventions and legal obligations that we have. And so I think that that, first of all, reestablishing that credibility and leadership is important. And so I think both between how we revamp the asylum system, I think that’s really important. But then, number two, I think we can demonstrate leadership in refugee resettlement, which has been decimated over the past four years and is just ramping up again. But the Biden-Harris administration, has committed to drastically increasing that that presidential determination on how many refugees can be resettled in the United States. But they have not taken action yet. So they haven’t actively changed that number in this fiscal year, which advocates like myself and others are really pushing for. And so I think that’s number one, because that is engaging with multilateral institutions.

[00:22:38] The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the organization that identifies and refers individuals, refugees for resettlement. And the US was the leader in that years ago. And since the last administration, we have not been. And so I think that that’s certainly a way to reengage with an international organization and a multilateral institution to demonstrate that we. Care about the protection and rights of people that are on the move that are refugees and that need protection and that we will do that immediately. So I think that’s you know, that’s not gender-related or focused on women and girls, but it certainly provides the most at-risk women and girls that are already refugees and already have spent time in a host country where they really can’t survive. It provides them a lifeline. And I think we need to step up and do that immediately.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:47] Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d want to plug or highlight in terms of policy ideas going forward that the administration or Congress may sort of harness in this space?

Devon Cone [00:23:59] Sure. I think I do want to talk a little bit about how Congress can supplement and complement these actions and general policy recommendations I have for the Biden administration. You know, Congress has in a bipartisan way, have introduced several pieces of legislation that really speak to the issues of displaced women and girls and women and girls in humanitarian settings. And you mentioned, one, the International Violence Against Women Act, but also there’s an act called the Safe from the Start Act. And it was introduced before in the previous Congress. But it’s been introduced again for 2021. And it’s got bipartisan support because what it really does is it instructs the US government on how it needs to spend money based on gender-based violence. And so what it does is it ensures that that US government money goes to organizations that are prioritizing the essential services of preventing and responding to gender-based violence. It says that gender-based violence is a life-threatening issue, in emergencies, that needs to be addressed as a priority. So I think that’s key and that’s exciting that that’s been reintroduced and that it’s bipartisan support.

[00:25:27] There are some others as well, there’s a refugee sanitation facility act, and that sounds very specific, which it is. And it really says similarly that US government money should go to organizations that are prioritizing the safety of bathrooms in refugee settings, which sounds, again, really kind of specific, but sanitation facilities and bathrooms and refugee settings are often don’t have locks, don’t have lighting, and that’s where a lot of gender-based violence happens. So Congress as well and our representatives are looking into these issues and are taking action. And I think that’s really important.

[00:26:10] The final thing I want to plug actually is, is support for UNFPA. And UNFPA is the UN agency that’s responsible for sexual reproductive health. And during the last administration, we gave zero money to UNFPA because of political reasons and political backlash. And you can imagine why. But this administration has reinstated funding to UNFPA. Not as much as I have recommended. But, you know, I expect and hope that that will continue to increase because, again, I think as a feminist foreign policy approach requires, women and girls have to have choices and reproductive health or else they won’t be able to engage in the formal economy as well as they could. They won’t be able to access opportunities. They won’t be able to participate in political life the way we want people to have the choices to do. So I think those things are really important and there’s legislation around that as well.

[00:27:19] So between Congress and the Biden-Harris administration and all the really amazing women and men that are working within the administration already and will continue to be appointed to do so. I think, I’m certainly really hopeful and, you know, I feel empowered and motivated and inspired and hopefully, things will change and improve. And I will say that International Women’s Day is, you know, I think was just Monday. The theme was “Choose to Challenge” and I think that’s what we need to do. I think a feminist foreign policy is important. And I think that we as the US are moving in that direction. But there’s more to do. There’s a lot more to do and I think I think there’s plenty of people to start implementing these policies and improving them.