By Angela Wilton
This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”.
Advocating for the development of a feminist foreign policy (FFP) in Aotearoa New Zealand is in itself an anti-feminist act. This is perhaps an odd statement for a feminist scholar to make, particularly in a country that became the first in the world where women had the right to vote (noting however that Māori women “voted” long before colonists arrived), and that has had an openly feminist Prime Minister, a highly diverse Cabinet, and an Indigenous female Minister of Foreign Affairs who has committed to “doing things differently” in foreign policy. Surely the political landscape is ripe for a FFP in Aotearoa NZ.
However, the political (landscape) is also personal. For I am also a white settler in a land, sea, and sky where exogenous systems, structures, and policies have been imposed by settlers for the last 180 years. To advocate for a FFP within a colonially imposed state structure, which continues to breach the Treaty signed with Indigenous peoples, would be an act of reinscribing those same colonial logics that FFPs aim to dismantle. FFPs may challenge inequitable power structures both globally and locally, but in settler-states, such as Aotearoa NZ, if foreign policy is not (co)created by and with Indigenous peoples, a FFP runs the risk of being yet another tool from the master’s house.
This essay, then, briefly articulates three interrelated conundrums posed by entangling Aotearoa NZ with FFP discourse and concludes with what is needed for a more socially just foreign policy to unfold.
Firstly, the issue of who sets foreign policy is critical. In 1840, Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Māori and the British Crown. Due to the existence of two versions of the Treaty—in English (the Treaty) and te reo Māori (Te Tiriti)—there have been different understandings of “sovereignty, governance and the terms for co-habitation.” The Crown has privileged the English version and has put in place systems and structures that have repeatedly (dis)possessed Māori. As a result, the political landscape in Aotearoa NZ continues to be (un)settled (what I refer to below as the settler state), despite what was agreed to in Te Tiriti, and centuries of Māori resistance.
Māori scholar Bargh states that foreign policy has often been constructed around notions of how “’we’ deal with ‘them’,” and yet in Aotearoa NZ, the Crown has historically assumed the right to define the “we,” to define “by whom” and “on what terms” others are dealt with. Māori “interest groups” may be consulted or asked to advise in these processes, but consultation is a far cry from self-determination, co-creation, or co-governance with equal partners.
With the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta—herself Indigenous—as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2020, there has been a significant shift towards more Indigenous-centred approaches to foreign policy in Aotearoa NZ. However, these approaches are still embedded within a Crown structure, which is founded on settler-colonial frameworks and operates within a UK Westminster system. Despite evolving conversations across Aotearoa NZ about alternative governance models and constitutional transformation that would increase Crown/Māori co-governance and power-sharing, a groundswell of racist and conservative backlash continues to stall meaningful progress. Like Sweden, which repealed its FFP in 2022 with the arrival of a new right-wing government, it is possible that the space for meaningful change may contract with the increasing popularity of the right-wing opposition in Aotearoa NZ. As within many settler-states, these forces stress the importance of national “unity” and “shared identity,” citing the “divisiveness” of identity-based politics. In this context, “unity” means perpetuation of the settler status quo, the side-lining of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the assimilation of “Others” within “settler space.”
Secondly, the question of whether “feminism” is the starting point for foreign policy in Aotearoa NZ is important. For example, Foreign Affairs Minister Mahuta has reinforced Indigenous values in recognising the mana of wāhine (the unique spiritual essence of women), “not defined by western feminist thinking, but the values that have long underpinned our culture, histories and traditions.”
Mahuta’s statement highlights the recurrent dissonance, locally and globally, between Indigenous world views and what can be seen as universalising notions of Western liberal feminism. Non-Indigenous feminists are also settlers, intricately inscribed within the “postcolony” as both relationally colonised and materially colonising. Indigenous feminists speak of having to challenge the prevailing structures of power on the dual fronts of race and gender, and having to navigate multiple points of oppression, including white patriarchy, Indigenous patriarchy, and white feminism.
Thus, entangling a FFP within the settler-state, and within an Indigenous context wary of white feminism, runs the risk of perpetuating marginalisation at “home” due to the ongoing presence of that same settler state in which Indigenous peoples may or may not be “included.” It also runs the risk of reinforcing exogenous notions of feminism which themselves may be unsettling.
Finally, Aotearoa NZ is intricately entangled within the international system of global politics which continues to impoverish the “Global South” through extractive trade deals, crippling debt obligations, predatory corporate “deals,” and aid flows from the Global North to the Global South which are a drop in the ocean compared to “financial resources that flow in the opposite direction.” And yet too often these global connections, and their links to the imperialist past, are erased. This “colonial amnesia” that disconnects current global inequities from the legacies of empire is pervasive in Aotearoa, with Māori and settler histories also “remembered and forgotten and reinvented” in what has been termed the “dementia wing of national history.” Additionally, colonial ideological enclosures within foreign policy have led to siloed and compartmentalised approaches, separating aid flows from trade deals from policy approaches and more. As a result, critical interconnections within and between foreign and domestic policy are invisibilised or overlooked, both temporally (in terms of the intergenerational disconnection between past, present, and future) and spatially (in terms of policy incoherence stretching across political spaces). It may not be possible, then, for a FFP alone to untangle the multi-layered complexities of a settler state built on Indigenous (dis)possession and woven into an inequitable global world order. Thus, there is much deeper and wider work to be done.
A FFP in Aotearoa NZ would thus be territorialised i) within a domestic landscape which itself is contested because of the ongoing colonial project; ii) through an exogenous notion of feminism/s which does not always speak to Indigenous feminism/s; and iii) across a neo-imperialist, neoliberal international system which privileges the Global North and perpetuates disconnections between global and historical inequities and global/local power.
If a FFP is about challenging hegemonic power, marginalisation, and oppression in all their forms, then it also needs to be open to the possibility of its own power (un/intentionally) centring itself while de-centring those who have been de-centred for 180 years. In a settler society, there must be a “break between the settler subject and the idea of a centre,” and a move away from the settler demand for “Others” to speak in the settler voice and on settler terms. Equally, a FFP, if shaped through settler voices and on settler terms within a settler state, could simply be yet another (albeit less masculine) chapter in the centuries-old story of settler-centred sovereignty in Aotearoa NZ. Instead, foreign policy must be positioned within a Te Tiriti-centric model that honours the decision-making of both tangata whenua (Indigenous people of the land) and tangata Tiriti (non-Indigenous people of the Treaty). To advocate for anything different, including a FFP, would simply be un-feminist.
Angela Wilton is international development professional and is nearing the completion of her doctorate with a focus on the intersection of feminism, settler-colonialism, Te Tiriti o Waitangi and foreign policy. She is based in Aotearoa New Zealand.
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 Carisa R. Showden, Karen Nairn, and Kyle R Matthews, “’So People Wake Up, What Are We Gonna Do?’: From Paralysis to Action in Decolonizing Activism,” Ethnicities 22, no. 5 (2022): 663–684.
 Maria Bargh, “Te Tiriti o Waitangi in International Relations and Trade,” in Always Speaking: The Treaty of Waitangi and Public Policy, ed. Veronica MH Tawhai and Katarina Gray-Sharp (Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand: Huia Publishers, 2011), 48.
 Nanaia Mahuta, “A Legacy of Mana Wahine—Women’s Leadership,” Opening Address to Maori Women’s Welfare League 66th National Conference, September 27, 2018, https://www.beehive.govt.nz/speech/legacy-mana-wahine-%E2%80%93-womens-leadership
 Celeste Liddle, “Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman’s Perspective,” The Postcolonialist. June 25, 2014, http://postcolonialist.com/civil-discourse/intersectionality-indigenous-feminism-aboriginal-womans-perspective/
 Jason Hickel, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions (London: Penguin Random House, 2018).
 Columba Achilleos-Sarll, “Reconceptualising Foreign Policy as Gendered, Sexualised and Racialised: Towards a Postcolonial Feminist Foreign Policy (Analysis),” The Journal of International Women’s Studies 19, no. 1 (2018): 43.
 Rachel Buchanan, “The Dementia Wing of History,” Cultural Studies Review 12, no 1 (March 2007): 174.
 Avril Bell, Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 196.
Photo credit: By Free Nature Stock in Nature