By Margherita Sofia Zambelli
This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”.
The recent news that Sweden is abandoning its national feminist foreign policy (FFP) has caught the attention of all those interested in feminism, gender equality, and foreign policy. The new Prime Minister, leader of the Moderate Party, a liberal-conservative political party, said that the label has become more important than its content. Beyond the feelings of disorientation and perplexity that it may evoke, this change provides an opportunity to reflect on the content of feminist foreign policy and its vulnerability when it is tied to the political party in power at any given point in time. Removed from the label, what remains—and must remain—in the container? In the past few years, the words “gender equality” and “feminism” have been over-exploited by actors who are neither feminists nor gender equality advocates. The business and entertainment sectors, among others, operating on and offline, have increasingly used these words with profit as their sole objective. Actors and social media influencers promote a “feminism” distant from its real meaning. A luxury brand sells a plain cotton t-shirt that says, “We Should All Be Feminists”—inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay and TEDx talk of the same name—for over $900.
This appears to me as an empty, shiny feminism—or, the misappropriation of feminism in the public and private spheres, a surface-level application of the term without a deep understanding of its meaning and implications. Although shiny feminism may be more immediately apparent in the private sector, it shows up in the public sector, too—from domestic to foreign policy—and at multilateral, bilateral, and national levels. In light of the frequent use and misuse of the words “feminism” and “feminist,” this essay intends to reflect on feminist foreign policies and their ideal configuration and essence.
The essay provides a set of questions, as tools, to analyze feminist foreign policies and to verify whether they bring a transformative change to foreign policy—or whether they are only a new way to designate (gender) strategies and action plans that should have already been in place for a long time. Hence, the next paragraphs present some provocative questions on which the ministries of foreign affairs (MOFAs) that engage in feminist foreign policy should ponder. The answers will reveal whether the FFP pursued is only a shiny label without content or a real, new, transformative foreign policy.
Guiding questions for feminist foreign policy-makers
- Does the FFP vacillate (or risk vacillating) with political changes?
The rise in insecurity, extreme far-right politics, and anti-rights movements jeopardizes the promotion and safeguarding of gender equality. Political changes over time and even the natural fluctuation of political parties cannot be a threat to civil and political rights. Foreign affairs, like all ministries, are tied to the political colour of the country at a specific time. This observation is not new but remains crucial. Gender equality is often a fragile achievement, exposed to the ever-changing weather of politics, and the same applies to FFPs. The Swedish case provides an example. For this reason, states should aim at institutionalizing feminist foreign policies as a core principle and cornerstone of their operations. Similarly, when gender equality is anchored in national commitments as a fundamental and non-negotiable principle in all its components—intersectionality, transformation, and human rights—foreign policies are more likely to be automatically feminist.
- Does the FFP reinforce existing geographies of power?
Feminist foreign policy is intrinsically and naturally linked to foreign policy. But whose foreign policy? Of the countries that have formally adopted or committed to a feminist foreign policy, five are among the 15 countries with the largest gross domestic product (GDP) —France, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Nations with higher economic, financial, and political power are particularly influential in their foreign policies, making it necessary to reflect on the risk that FFP could be used as another form of power, foisting the agendas of powerful countries onto less powerful ones. It is important that feminist foreign policy not be seen as a new standard of wealthy nations and owned and claimed only by representatives of the global political and economic elite. Aware that discussions are being held on the challenging relationship between feminist foreign policy, power, trade, and defense, I deem necessary two essential steps to ensure that FFPs do not reinforce global power imbalances. These steps would ensure a genuine feminist foreign policy that would transform unequal power relations both within and among countries.
The first step entails an internal process regarding how a country adopts a FFP. Feminist foreign policies should not be formulated and implemented with a top-down approach at ministries of foreign affairs but should be as inclusive as possible in their drafting and implementation. They should involve and reflect the perspectives of feminists and gender equality movements within the country.
The second step entails an external process concerning how foreign aid is distributed by countries with a FFP. Wealthy countries often have a considerable amount of aid allocated to development cooperation and dedicated agencies within their MOFAs in charge of disbursing it. Aid is measured against gender targets—such as the OECD DAC (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Assistance Committee) Gender Equality Policy Marker—that assess development activities with gender equality objectives. The same countries mentioned above with the highest GDP are also among the top so-called “donor countries” that allocate the most funds to gender equality in their foreign aid. MOFAs with a formal FFP should use foreign aid to provide a platform and funding for local women’s and gender equality organizations in “recipient countries” so they can pursue their own agendas, rather than simply import the agendas of donor countries.
- Does the FFP fail to disrupt unbalanced power relations at the societal and institutional levels?
Institutional culture change, gender-responsive leadership, and gender-mainstreaming capacity-building areall imperative to identify and disrupt gender power relations. Yet, after decades of work, progress is still slow. The work on institutional culture change for gender equality must be accompanied by a deep reflection on power and privilege. Strict hierarchical workplace relations affect workers’ experiences at all levels. Power and privilege are those peculiar, seductive forms of influence that distort relations in the workplace (as in other institutions), making it easy to discriminate against someone’s age, gender, sex, and ethnicity, among others. Harassment in the workplace and violence and sexism in politics are two examples. The underrepresentation of women in foreign affairs, as well as other domains, is another. Notably, in 2023, women served as the head of government in just 13 of the 193 member states of the United Nations.According to the 2023 Women in Diplomacy Index, only 20.54% of all ambassadorships are held by women. Based on these numbers, diplomacy and foreign affairs appear to be patriarchal institutions with structural barriers to the inclusion of women. This is why national strategies for gender equality and feminist foreign policy must be mutually reinforcing. As Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of politics at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, stated on the occasion of the resignation of former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern: “Women have been liberated but ‘patriarchal institutions’ have not evolved enough to support family life. Her situation is cause for reflection about what we can do more to support women in politics.” To “walk the talk,” feminist foreign policies should challenge structural discrimination in ministries, embassies, consulates, and other institutions, which impedes individuals of all genders from performing their roles the way they wish to.
These are three important questions that must be asked in the coming years, answers to which will shape the contents of FFP—whether the label of “feminism” is flaunted or discarded.
What remains when a country abandons feminist foreign policy in name? It could be asserted that Sweden’s intrinsic and rooted commitment to gender equality will continue to positively influence its foreign policy. Analyses of the lingering effects of the Swedish FFP (and monitoring of civil and political rights) will confirm or disprove this assertion. If confirmed, this could provide hope for the future of feminist foreign policies around the globe: that a genuine domestic commitment to gender equality can continue to influence foreign policy, even if by another name. Given the volatility of our current global context, FFP proponents would do well to reinforce the transformative foundations of FFP so it can maintain its critical potential in the face of political changes and continue to challenge unequal distributions of power between and within countries, as well as inside foreign policy institutions themselves.
Margherita Sofia Zambelli is an expert and international consultant on gender equality and gender mainstreaming. She can be reached at email@example.com
Chehab, Sara. “Women in Diplomacy Index 2023.” Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, March 2023.
Clancy, Laura, and Sarah Austin. “Fewer than a Third of UN Member States Have Ever Had a Woman Leader.” Pew Research Centre, March 2023.
Lamb, Kate, Lucy, Craymer, and Kanupriya Kapoor. “Ardern’s Resignation Resonates for Women in Power.” Reuters, January 19, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/sign-times-nz-pm-arderns-resignation-resonates-women-power-2023-01-19/.
OECD-DAC Network on Gender Equality (Gendernet). “Definition and Minimum Recommended Criteria for the DAC Gender Equality Policy Marker.” OECD, December 2016. https://www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development/Minimum-recommended-criteria-for-DAC-gender-marker.pdf.
Thomas, Merlyn. “Sweden Ditches ‘Feminist Foreign Policy.” BBC News, October 19, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63311743.
World Bank. “Gross Domestic Product 2021.” World Development Indicators Database, July 2022. https://databankfiles.worldbank.org/public/ddpext_download/GDP.pdf.
“Which Countries Support Gender Equality in Their Official Development Assistance?” Focus 2030, February 10, 2020. https://focus2030.org/Which-countries-support-gender-equality-in-their-Official-Development.
 T-Shirt selling price available at: https://www.dior.com/en_us/fashion/products/213T03TA001_X0200-we-should-all-be-feminists-t-shirt-white-cotton-jersey-and-linen .
 World Bank, “Gross Domestic Product 2021,” World Development Indicators Database, July 2022, https://databankfiles.worldbank.org/public/ddpext_download/GDP.pdf.
 The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy offers compelling publications on this subject at: https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/publications/.
 The Gender Equality Marker is a qualitative statistical tool to record development activities that target gender equality as a policy objective. The gender equality policy marker is used by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members as part of the annual reporting of their development activities, to indicate for each aid activity whether it targets gender equality as a policy objective. Some philanthropies, private sector organizations, non-DAC donors, and other actors have started monitoring their development activities using the policy marker. OECD-DAC Network on Gender Equality (Gendernet), “Definition and Minimum Recommended Criteria for the DAC Gender Equality Policy Marker,” OECD, December 2016, https://www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development/Minimum-recommended-criteria-for-DAC-gender-marker.pdf.
 Laura Clancy and Sarah Austin, “Fewer than a Third of UN Member States Have Ever Had a Woman Leader,” Pew Research Centre, March 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/03/28/women-leaders-around-the-world/.
 Sara Chehab, “Women in Diplomacy Index 2023,” Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, March 2023,
 Kate Lamb, Lucy Craymer, and Kanupriya Kapoor, “Ardern’s Resignation Resonates for Women in Power,” Reuters, January 19, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/sign-times-nz-pm-arderns-resignation-resonates-women-power-2023-01-19/.
Photo credit: David Gill