Peace Science Digest

How to Better Define a Feminist Foreign Policy

By Padmini Das

This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”. 

 Invoking the word “feminist” can be a profound commitment, especially when it relates to international peace and security. Feminist foreign policy (FFP) is the practice that defines a state’s interactions with other states, entities, and non-state actors prioritizing peace and gender equality. It seeks to uphold, promote, and preserve the human rights of all, including women. How far states, especially powerful ones, have embraced women’s rights and promoted an FFP in practice is questionable. Several states, like Sweden (the first to announce a FFP),[1] Canada,[2] Germany,[3] France, Spain,[4] Luxembourg, and Mexico,[5] have made formal announcements to integrate FFP objectives within the broader transformative and rights-based approaches to their national foreign policy. But the shifting diplomatic and political landscapes that often dictate foreign policy have put these feminist doctrines to the test.  

In 2022, eight years after Sweden announced its FFP, a newly elected right-wing government decided to abandon the pioneering policy and justified its move with the words, “…because labels on things have a tendency to cover up content.”[6] Ordinarily, the problem with assigning labels to institutional mandates lies in the fear that decisions might favor some groups more than others—in this case, that women would gain an unfair advantage. However, no matter the political climate, enforcement of women’s rights is a concrete socio-legal necessity and therefore too big to exclude in policymaking decisions.

The Swedish example raises an important question about the implications of the word “feminist.” Often, there’s a negative implication  attached to the word “feminist” due to the multiple definitions ascribed to it and the lack of awareness among societies about what the concept really stands for. But in the end, a policy is more likely to be successful when it is approached and executed in the right way—and that means beginning with a clear description. Although the creation and adoption of feminist policies by prominent countries is an important step towards the global reimagination of foreign policy, there is a fundamental disconnect between what FFP promises and how those promises are delivered in the domestic and global performance of countries. Perhaps, part of this disconnect is due to the existing limitations in the definition of FFP. If the policy is not expounded properly to fit with the realities of domestic and international governance, then it will lack widespread adoption in the future.

One way to define FFP better is to understand what feminism means and what it is intended to achieve. Feminist theory in international relations questions the binary views of the world. Prominent feminist scholars like Jacqui True, Chris Cuomo, and Cynthia Cockburn have said that violence works in a continuum, and there is no clear boundary that distinguishes war from peace.[7] This idea is increasingly relevant in a world where wars are advertised as strategic military operations and political hostilities ensue for decades without resolution. In these instances, FFP decision-making methods are quite helpful. They enable a realist approach to conflict resolution by centering the interests of those most affected by conflict.

What is “feminist” about a foreign policy? Does it indicate a fundamental shift in thinking about how issues like diplomacy, defense, foreign assistance, trade, or climate change are being approached? And, if it does, how far does it go in determining the course of policies in these fields? Do we intend a feminist policy to integrate itself at every step of the general policy design and implementation? Or does a feminist foreign policy still mainly consist of “agenda setting”?

How does one define FFP better and combat the deficiencies in the present approaches? Margot Wallström, the former Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first person to define feminist foreign policy. When she first proposed it, she feared that the definition might be interpreted negatively in some places.[8] However, she wanted it to be a practical policy, too.[9] She used three paradigms to delineate the policy: that women should have the same rights, the same representation, and the same resources as men. These three paradigms emerged as the crucial standards of identification, quantification, and implementation of a feminist foreign policy.[10] However, in the interest of changing the global political climate and the norms of governance, Wallström’s definition requires further qualification. Feminist foreign policy should begin at home, meaning that states need to rethink their strategies and foreign policies in a way that doesn’t inherently create gendered inequalities, particularly within their own domestic framework and then subsequently abroad.

A more fitting definition of FFP can be derived from its practice and how it deviates from current foreign policy norms. I offer three ways of approaching a feminist foreign policy: prioritize human security, reduce barriers to the representation and participation of women, and work more effectively with civil society. Together, these constitute a new approach to FFP that can guide a country’s international relations. For the purposes of this essay, I focus on North Korea as a case study to examine how the rest of the world can include feminist approaches in their foreign policy towards North Korea. Considering the country’s reprobation in the international community for so long, North Korea presents a good case for how feminism could be incorporated in traditional foreign policies to deescalate tensions between North Korea and the world at large.      

Strategy 1 – Prioritize human security. The maintenance of human security refers to identifying and understanding the widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood, and dignity of people.[11] It requires a fundamental reorientation from traditional military and security concerns towards issues like migration, rehabilitation, humanitarian relief, environmental effects of weapons proliferation, and so on. Broadening the scope of security issues will allow an improved discussion on those more traditional topics at international fora and also facilitate the engagement of the North Korean leadership (and its allies) in peace negotiations. Linking “low politics” to “high politics” presents opportunities for peacebuilding and movement towards normalized relations.[12] Bringing issues related to gender and child welfare gives Western negotiators a better chance to achieve North Korea’s participation and compliance on peace deals. It helps rehabilitate the country’s international reputation on the issue of civil rights preservation. Any discussion on the welfare of North Korean citizens should include the welfare of its female population, considering the widespread discrimination and gender inequalities that continue to plague North Korean society.[13]

Strategy 2 – Reduce barriers to the representation and participation of women and other marginalized actors in foreign policy towards North Korea. Insisting that women are at the negotiation table ensures that security concerns are viewed more holistically. It also ensures that policymakers are aware of how foreign policies towards North Korea affect the North Korean population at large. Having more female representatives on the platform will balance the optics of gender balance in foreign policy, at the very least. It may also motivate the North Korean side to enlist female participation in the policy process from their side. The balance of optics may be ignored by North Korean politicians, but it will inform the North Korean public better about international political realities, thereby facilitating gender reform from within the country.  Including more female decision-makers also supports the possibility of more gender-inclusive decisions being made, which would strengthen the mechanisms of policy implementation in the country—both domestically and internationally.

Strategy 3 – Support and work with civil society. Due to repressive state policies, North Koreans are faced with serious constraints in freely organizing civil movements or non-governmental organizations. Despite that, there has been some organizational mobility in the economic sphere. Although information flows very restrictively within the country, market actors have managed to keep an ambivalent relationship with the North Korean state.[14] The fruits of marketization are precious for the North Korean economy, which is hanging by a thread in light of heavy global sanctions.[15] The existence of market forces in a dictatorial regime is proof of the resilience of certain economic actors who have been instrumental in controlling and contributing to the movement of people and goods. Economic actors in North Korea could offer an entry point for the international community to engage with and indirectly assist in supporting other civil society actors in the country.[16] In the process of doing so, the international community should aim to include as many marginalized voices as possible from North Korea so that many diverging interests of the population are represented, including women.

Implementing a feminist foreign policy essentially involves building a bridge between the global and local political realities in such a way that power imbalances can be diminished. This begins with the identification of global and local goals and integrating them into a common workable framework. However, the method in which these goals are identified and classified are important as well. The method must be democratic and inclusive so that the ultimate objective of the process is the preservation of international security.

The North Korean case study highlights important areas where a feminist perspective can inform domestic and foreign policy to develop negotiations in one of the most precarious conflicts in geopolitics. At the root of feminism lie the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and community welfare. Therefore, a feminist foreign policy should not just focus on increasing women’s representation in foreign services or the diplomatic corps. Rather, it must coalesce with broader foreign policy objectives to fine-tune both military and political strategies. Foreign policies must be developed by incorporating feminist interests at the core of international partnerships, by helping institutional identities evolve through increased female membership, and by ensuring that future policies are developed with the precondition of gender welfare and integrity.

Padmini Das recently graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a Masters in Law (LLM). Her areas of research are international relations and global governance. She is a 2023 Tisch Summer Fellow working in Second Nature, a climate research firm based in Cambridge, MA. She is an India-trained lawyer who has written on a wide range of public interest and private sector matters. Her detailed list of works can be found here and she can be reached at


“Feminist Foreign Policy.” Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Unión Europea y Cooperación. Accessed November 15, 2022.

Garcia, Daniela Philipson, and Ana Velasco. “Feminist Foreign Policy: A Bridge Between the Global and Local.” Yale Journal of International Affairs, April 29, 2022.

Global Affairs Canada. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. Ottawa: Global Affairs Canada, 2017.

“Inclusion Rather than Exclusion: What Is Feminist Foreign Policy?” Federal Foreign Office of Germany, May 3, 2022.

Peace Science Digest. “Environmental Cooperation as Peacebuilding Between North and South Korea.” Peace Science Digest. Accessed May 10, 2023.

Rupert, James. “Sweden’s Foreign Minister Explains Feminist Foreign Policy.” United States Institute of Peace, February 9, 2015.

Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores. “Mexico Adopts Feminist Foreign Policy.” Gobierno de México, January 9, 2020.

Stoddard, Jill, and Eimer Curtin. “Spreading Feminist Foreign Policy: Interview with Margot Wallström.” October 20, 2022.

Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2019–2022, including Direction and Measures for 2020. Stockholm: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d. Accessed June 22, 2023.  

Thomas, Merlyn. “Sweden Ditches ‘Feminist Foreign Policy’.” BBC News, October 19, 2022.

United States Institute of Peace. “The Building Blocks of Civil Society in North Korea.” Online panel, United States Institute of Peace, February 23, 2021. Video, 1:18:00.

“What Is Human Security,” United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, accessed February 8, 2023,

Yoon, Lina. “UN Highlights Abuses Against Women and Girls in North Korea.” Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2023.

[1] Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2019–2022, including Directionand Measures for 2020 (Stockholm: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d.), accessed June 22, 2023,  

[2] Global Affairs Canada, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (Ottawa: Global Affairs Canada, 2017),

[3] “Inclusion Rather than Exclusion: What Is Feminist Foreign Policy?” Federal Foreign Office of Germany, May 3, 2022,

[4] “Feminist Foreign Policy,” Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Unión Europea y Cooperación, accessed November 15, 2022,

[5] Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, “Mexico Adopts Feminist Foreign Policy,” Gobierno de México, January 9, 2020,

[6] Merlyn Thomas, “Sweden Ditches ‘Feminist Foreign Policy’,” BBC News, October 19, 2022,

[7] Daniela Philipson Garcia and Ana Velasco, “Feminist Foreign Policy: A Bridge Between the Global and Local,” Yale Journal of International Affairs, April 29, 2022,

[8] James Rupert, “Sweden’s Foreign Minister Explains Feminist Foreign Policy,” United States Institute of Peace, February 9, 2015,

[9] Jill Stoddard and Eimer Curtin, “Spreading Feminist Foreign Policy: Interview with Margot Wallström,” October 20, 2022,

[10] Ibid.

[11] “What Is Human Security,” United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, accessed February 8, 2023,

[12] Peace Science Digest, “Environmental Cooperation as Peacebuilding Between North and South Korea,” Peace Science Digest, accessed May 10, 2023,

[13] LinaYoon, “UN Highlights Abuses Against Women and Girls in North Korea,” Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2023,

[14] United States Institute of Peace, “The Building Blocks of Civil Society in North Korea,” online panel, United States Institute of Peace, February 23, 2021, video, 1:18:00,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Supra 14.

Photo credit: public domain