Retrieved #1 Why feminist foreign policy?


In this introductory episode of the ‘Retrieved’ series on feminist foreign policy, we talk with Nina Bernarding, CEO and co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy:

Retrieved trancript 1

"we know that the higher the level of gender inequality is within a state, greater the likelihood that the state will not only experience internal or external conflict, but also terrorism or fragility. And the idea behind it is really that in a society, women is the first other. And how you treat this first others, whether you're used to dominate the other, really sets the example of how you deal with other others, so be it other states or other nations."

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“Sweden is the first country in the world to pursue a feminist foreign policy”. “The notion of a feminist foreign policy is nothing new, but just last week…”. “The government of Spain is committed to gender equality and to feminist policies”.

Christina: You might have heard the term ‘feminist foreign policy’ in the news over the past few years, but what exactly is it? And how can it help us better understand the shape of things to come?

George: Why are so many countries rushing to adopt it? And how does it affect everything from climate justice to peace talks to aid and development? Can it really work in the structures we have or do we need to change them altogether?

Christina: I'm Christina.

George: And I'm George and we're producers and journalists at the Greek Podcast Project.

Christina: Welcome to ‘Retrieved’, the podcast that shines a light on the new chapter of foreign policy, taking it out of its dusty past and into a fairer future. George, who are we speaking with today?

George: So for our first episode we've got Nina Bernarding who is the co-founder and director of the Centre of Feminist Foreign Policy. She's worked with a number of governments, advising them on feminist foreign policy. And before that, she was working a lot in the Horn of Africa, she's worked in Cyprus with conflict resolution talks, she is probably the perfect person to help get us started with this series.

Christina: I think so too. I think she's going to help us put a lot of the things that we've been learning about the theory of feminist foreign policy into practice and I'm really excited to learn what her opinion is on whether we need to dismantle the system from the ground up in order to apply a truly feminist foreign policy.

George: Yeah, and how countries can actually, sort of, hold themselves accountable, I guess, and what it means to be rhetorical in your foreign policy, but also what it means to actually follow through with those gestures I guess.

Christina: Definitely. So should we jump into it?

George: Yes, let's do it.

Christina: Hi Nina, welcome to the show.

George: How are you today, Nina?

Nina: Good, how are you?

George: Pretty good, yeah.

Christina: So today we're going to be talking about what a feminist foreign policy is, since it's the first episode of the show.

George: Nina, could you just introduce yourself, your title and give us a little bit of information about the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy?

Nina: Yes, of course. I'm excited to be here! Thank you for the invitation. I'm Nina Bernarding. I'm one of the co-founders of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. We are a Berlin-based, independent, non-governmental organization promoting a feminist approach to foreign and security policy. And I myself have a background in peace support, so I used to work on peace mediation and peace dialogue processes before I founded the Centre.

Christina: You've worked in nations that grapple with internal conflict, nations like Ethiopia. You've also worked in Cyprus, which is quite close to where we're based. What was it that made you jump from this line of work into feminist foreign policy?

Nina: That's a really good question. And I continue to be a big supporter of, obviously, the dialogue processes and mediation support processes. But back then I felt that there was not a strong or not a strong enough focus on really using these dialogue processes as an opportunity to reshape society. Rather, there tended to be a focus on ending violence, which is immediately physical violence, which of course is so, so, so crucial, but it doesn't end there. And I felt for various reasons, the work that I've been doing was not going deep enough and was not systemic enough. And I really wanted to find something where I feel I can change the structures and the oppressive and patriarchal structures that so many of us are suffering from.

George: And one of these ways that you've found, I guess, to try and challenge these oppressive and patriarchal structures is feminist foreign policy. So let's get into what a feminist foreign policy actually is. Can you tell us what's missing from traditional foreign policy? Why do we need a feminist foreign policy?

Nina: That's a good question, but there's so much missing. Two of the most important aspects that are missing from foreign policy as it's been traditionally understood and in shape is, first of all, understanding that policy decisions, and be it on budgets, on priorities, on processes, have different impacts on different people and communities. And linked to that is that different people and communities have different security needs that need to be included when making policy priorities. And maybe I can give a concrete example to elaborate on what I mean when we're talking about it. Germany is one of the biggest arms exporter of the world, and the public has always tried to grapple with it. What does it mean for human rights, for example, especially when we export to countries such as Saudi Arabia? But only for, I would say, maybe the last 10 years or so, there's really been a decision about what arms exports mean for women and other marginalized communities, specifically linked to gender based violence, because previously it was just not considered. And if you don't consider these different security needs or perspectives, then you risk a further marginalizing already marginalized communities. And that is one of the big aspects that is missing of traditional foreign policy. Another one is that traditional foreign policy really is being built by and around patriarchal structure.

one third of all femicides are being committed with small arms or firearms

And again, there is an example when we talk about arms exports in Germany in particular, but also other countries, when they grant decisions for companies to export arms to third countries, it's mainly, at least rhetorically, linked to strengthening security. But we know, for example, that one third of all femicides are being committed with small arms or firearms.  These are just a couple of examples, but it really it comes down to that currently foreign and security policies are being made by a certain group of elitist white men and for their perspectives and needs and vast majorities of perspectives and needs are being left out.

Christina: Right. Just a clarification when you said that one third of all femicides are committed through the use of small arms. Is that a global statistic? Do you know?

Nina: Yeah. And just also to not use words that might not be familiar for everyone, but ‘femicides’ means that you're being killed as a woman because you are a woman.

Christina: That's quite a shocking statistic, I think. And it's definitely something that countries need to take into account when they consider trading arms to other nations.

How would you say that feminist foreign policy values manifest in different aspects of foreign policy, for instance, in security, in climate justice and trade and development policy? Can you give us some concrete examples of how we can implement these values?

Nina: Yeah, of course. It not only manifests itself in the various foreign policy fields, but also in the processes of how you come to a conclusion on what to do, for example, when we come to trade policy, for example, or what are your funding when you want to advance a certain trade policy. So it's not only about the priorities, but it's also really much about the processes and the resources. But when we talk about the various priorities within the foreign policy fields, one example is that currently international development policy, for example, is mainly understood as a policy that advances economic growth measured by GDP. And a feminist understanding of development policy would, amongst others, focus on really fostering equality among genders, but also among people in general. So the goal would not be to increase the GDP, but really to increase gender equality.

And we would see something similar with trade. We wouldn't advocate for an inclusive trade policy, but we would advocate for trade equality that really takes into account the different impact trade policies have on women versus men or gender and non-binary people. Or it would really focus on supporting trade areas where mainly women work or other marginalized communities. Within global health, we really would look at prioritizing reproductive justice and health, really decreasing maternal mortality and really ensuring that everyone has the right to safe abortion, for example. So, when we say you would need to implement a feminist policy, you would really need to focus on countering what we call the ‘anti-feminist’ or the ‘anti-gender’ movement internationally. So what we are seeing is that there are governments, but also civil society initiatives and think tanks that are actively trying to undermine the international legal framework when it comes to women's rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. And they're not doing that because it doesn't align with their beliefs or the majority of them doesn't do it because it doesn't align with their beliefs, but because they want to create a world in which certain human rights are more important than others. For example, the right to religious freedom is more important than the right over your own body, or the right of parents to educate their kids in a way that pleases them is more important than the right to sexuality education of those children, for example. And as you said, it's really about the universal human rights that is at stake here.

George: We've seen obviously since 2014 Sweden implementing the feminist foreign policy. We've since seen quite a few number of countries adopting it. We've seen Spain, Canada…
I know it's still at the beginning of the process of countries implementing it but from your expertise, what can we learn from these countries successes and what can we learn from their failures?

Nina: I mean, all of these approaches are very strongly and I mean, as you said, like Sweden set the stage in 2014 with the first country to adopt a feminist foreign policy. They did it in a way that they also published a very comprehensive handbook. For example, we have other countries like France, for example, who have announced that they would pursue a feminist foreign policy, but so far have not published a handbook or a guideline or strategy or so on. And you can see that there are different approaches being taken to feminist foreign policy.

But I think what you can really see and what is really a good example is that in most of the cases, is that the announcement of a feminist foreign policy and or a development policy is in most cases, but not always, accompanied by an increase in commitment to fund in a gender sensitive or gender transformative way. So, for example, Germany just announced in the beginning of March the guidelines on feminist foreign policy. And the Foreign Office committed to by the end of 2025, I think, 85% of the projects are being funded in a gender sensitive way. And I think that is very important because we know that that money is power. We know where the funds are going when we come to criticism. So what we always criticize on is that within all of these approaches, two pillars are always kind of neglected.

And this is on one hand, in particular, the decolonial approach. I mean, I did mention Germany is the only country for now that has done so. Canada is doing it to a certain extent internally, looking at how they've treated First Nations on their territory. But the other pillar is obviously disarmament. And we, for example, criticize that France is not committing to a global zero of eliminating all nuclear weapons, for example. We've criticized that Germany did not commit to really decrease the amount of arms that they're exporting. So these are the two main criticisms that we always bring to the different government approaches.

George: I guess it's one of those things of what battles to fight at what moment in time, like you say, in terms of feminist foreign policy working through incremental steps. And I guess you can't just go all out and change all those ways, but recognizing those contradictions, I guess, is the first step to trying to change them, right?

Nina: Yeah. And also, as you said, like, acknowledging that we won't have a revolution by tomorrow, but that really, I mean, the structures that we're trying to change, they've been built over centuries and we can't dismantle them within a day or within a year. And we always encourage governments to be as radical as possible, but we also acknowledge their constraints and still support them in making decisions to have an imperfect feminist foreign policy than not have one at all.

Christina: On that front, I'd also be curious to know how countries can hold themselves accountable for when they decide to pursue a feminist foreign policy, because it's good to commit to it in conversation, but it's also important to be able to make sure that you at least follow through with some of the promises that you make. So how can governments' feminist foreign policies be evaluated against their own objectives, but also against general feminist foreign policy values? Like, is there some sort of international body that can make sure that these countries are following through with their promises?

Nina: No, no, we don't have an international body for now.

Christina: You need to make one!

Nina: I mean, we're trying our best and we are one of the leading organizations on feminist foreign policy and we do criticize governments and try to hold them accountable, but I think it comes back to what we discussed earlier, that we encourage governments that once they've committed to a feminist foreign policy to also publish and to put in writing what they mean when they speak about a feminist foreign policy. And I think a guideline or strategies or a handbook is really good for a step. But what you would need ideally have action plans and ideally yearly action plans of how you will operationalize the various goals that you've set in a strategy or in guidelines. But I think what governments could do better is really to institutionalize exchange with feminist civil society, both at home but also in countries that are impacted through, for example, a German feminist foreign policy to really have, I don't know, a yearly meeting with feminist civil society where on a ministerial level or a state secretary level, you're being briefed about what you did over the last year and how this has influenced and changed the way that you're doing foreign policy in general.

George: When you say a feminist civil society, what does a feminist civil society look like?

Nina: I mean, it's an organisation like ours that are committed to a feminist policy, but also to strive for dismantling power inequalities within foreign and security policy. And that can be on an advocacy level like we are doing it, but it can also be other organizations that directly work with women peace-builders, for example, that support them in their day-to-day work in various countries around the world. It can be people who will advocate for the rights of the queer community, who provide services to women and people who can get pregnant. So it's a range. I think that's also the flanks of feminist civil society that we're doing so much and we have so much expertise. The governments could benefit from this expertise and they are benefiting, but I think they can, they could benefit more.

Christina: Have you ever worked with a country that doesn't give space to feminist civil society?

Nina: We work with a lot of feminist civil society in countries that are with difficult circumstances for them to work in. So, for example, we had a project over the last year where we supported Afghan women's rights defenders to really make their voices heard in Berlin and in Brussels. But we didn't engage, for example, with the Taliban or the governments that are really restricting the rights.

Christina: Yeah. And do you manage to engage with people that are critical in countries like Afghanistan, for example, who might be even scared to voice their opinion?

Nina: Yeah, I mean, in Afghanistan, the project was very much focused on supporting the women rights defenders. But in general, yes, of course, we always do this also in background channels and off-the-record discussions. And we also talk to governments that are very committed to driving feminist cause in foreign and security policies, but are not yet naming it a feminist foreign policy or who have questions about it. And we're not sure if that is the right thing for them. So we really try to be open and supportive to everyone who is generally interested in the concept.

Christina: That's fascinating. I think it’s quite difficult work, but very important because we shouldn't leave out countries like that from the discussion.

Nina: No, and it's also, I mean, you only drive change if you have, if you have a – well, if you convince people that this is the right way to go and also take their concerns on board and take them seriously and consider them.

Christina: Definitely.

So, at this point, we would also like to define a little bit what the fundamental values of a feminist foreign policy is. So could you briefly go over them for anyone that might not be familiar with them?

Nina: One of the most important ones for us is that it's really based on a comprehensive understanding of gender. So which really acknowledges that gender is not an identity marker or not only an identity marker, but really a way of organizing individuals and activities, but also behaviors based on dominant understandings of masculinity and femininity.

But we know that in the vast majority of societies, anything that is considered as masculine is often considered as strong and as rational and as brave. And that's always connotated positively. Whereas when we look at what activities or human beings that are associated with ideas of femininity, they're often considered as irrational or weak and emotional, and it's negatively connotated. But it's really this power structure that you need to consider when you talk about a feminist foreign policy. And linked to that, of course, is that a feminist foreign policy, in our understanding, needs to be intersectional. That means that you take into account how different identity markers such as race, gender, or age, but also ability, intersect and can create new and more concentrated circumstances of oppression.

In our opinion, a feminist foreign policy that is only for women is not a feminist foreign policy

And in our opinion, a feminist foreign policy that is only for women is not a feminist foreign policy. Another value of a feminist foreign policy is that it needs to be anti-racist. So a feminist foreign policy should be critical of the influence of whiteness and white supremacy in the field of foreign policy. And lastly, and I think which is often forgot, and when we look at the different approaches that are currently being adopted by various governments, is that it really needs to be transparent and accountable, so that it needs to allow civil society to understand what governments are trying to do, when they are trying to do it, how they are trying to do it, and how they are funding different projects and priorities, because only if the civil society can understand that, then they can also hold the government accountable.

Christina: Right. And really what sticks out to me in what you were talking about is that a feminist foreign policy isn't a policy that's only directed towards women or people who identify as women, but really to a lot of different marginalized populations. And the first question that we had when we started researching this topic is why is it called a ‘feminist foreign policy’ if it's trying to fight for so many different populations?

Nina: I think why it's being called a ‘feminist foreign policy' is also may be related to Sweden, the first government to adopt such approach, they've called it a ‘feminist foreign policy’ and since then obviously the term has been coined and shaped by various actors but yeah.

Christina: So you don't believe that there's a necessity for changing the term?

Nina: No, but it is important that we always stress that it is intersectional, but I wouldn't advocate for changing the term, no. Especially in this debate, it is important that we, for once, really focus on the marginalized communities. It shouldn't be about investing resources and time and money to convince everyone to buy into this concept. 99% of all political processes are about those that are not marginalised. So the concept really should be about the marginalized.

Christina: Right. That's very interesting. And the way that I understand it, every time a country would take a foreign policy action in the realm of climate justice, trade or development policy, it would have to consider the specific needs of women and other marginalized populations when implementing this policy. This is gender mainstreaming, right? Does feminist foreign policy go beyond gender mainstreaming?

Nina: No, it really goes beyond it. Because as you said, like, yes, taking into account the different needs and perspectives of different genders when we're designing policy is the first step. But then really doing everything you can to dismantle inequalities and dismantle power structures, not only limited to diverse genders, but really to the whole group of marginalized people. And if you only take their needs into account, then yes, you know what they need, but you also need to follow through, to really then dismantle the structures.

Christina: Okay, this is very useful. It's the first time that it's clear to me how a feminist foreign policy is going beyond gender mainstreaming. So it's because it's trying to change the system from the ground up.

George: Now one of the main things about feminist foreign policy is looking into making decisions from a person-centric approach, right, rather than a state-centric approach. Are you able to just kind of unpack these two terms and and kind of show us what the differences are between that state-centric approach and the human-centric approach.

Nina: Yeah, of course. So, I mean, in the beginning we spoke about a traditional understanding of foreign policy and what has been at the centre of these traditional approaches is really the security of the state. And the feminist foreign policy, on contrast, really focuses on a human-centric approach or a human security approach.

what we need to talk about when we talk about international security is about the security of the people, of the individuals in the communities and not so much about the state

So really recognizing that what we need to talk about when we talk about international security is about the security of the people, of the individuals in the communities and not so much about the state. But a feminist approach adds another layer to it and says that, yes, we need to focus on the security of humans, but we need to acknowledge that not everyone has the same security needs. And I think what is also becomes really clear is that in a lot of instances, when we focus on human security, it can be the state that violates human rights of marginalized communities. Amongst others, we also work, for example, on a feminist approach to the cyber security. And only this week we talked about the state surveillance of activists, of queer activists, of women activists. But this only becomes visible and only becomes a question of security when you look at it from a human or a feminist perspective on security.

George: Basically what we were thinking when we were reading this was that the overall objectives are fantastic, incredible, but we were sort of reading it and we were like are these goals achievable within the current system that we have or is a feminist foreign policy here to kind of, to change that system and to rework that system itself?

Nina: Yeah, I mean I would totally agree with you George. I think we would need a transformation of the current system and the current national and international structure. But that doesn't mean that a feminist foreign policy cannot give answers to today's crises. We don't need to wait until we have a full transformation. We can always work with short-term and medium and long-term recommendations of how systems and people and processes can change. So we don't really have a choice, I would argue.

Christina: And on that, we see that actually pursuing a feminist foreign policy has some very concrete benefits for the entirety of society. We fell into this very interesting bit of research that suggests that a country's level of gender equality can determine the likelihood of that country opting for peace. Can you very quickly go over why there's a correlation between peacefulness and gender equality?

The higher the level of gender inequality is within a state, greater the likelihood that the state will not only experience internal or external conflict, but also terrorism or fragility

Nina: Yeah, I mean that's feminist research and yes, as you say, we know that the higher the level of gender inequality is within a state, greater the likelihood that the state will not only experience internal or external conflict, but also terrorism or fragility. And the idea behind it is really that in a society, women is the first other. And how you treat this first others, whether you're used to dominate the other, really sets the example of how you deal with other others, so be it other states or other nations. And so if you used to use violence at home, then you also, you're much more likely to use violence on an international level. And the same goes the other direction. We know that in states, governments that really use violence to further their own needs internationally, they really legitimize violence as a means of disparate resolution and thereby also legitimizing violence at home and making it harder for women and gender non-conforming people to leave abusive situations.

Christina: Right, that's very interesting. So it really sets the precedence.

Nina: Yeah.

George: And just on that, correct me if I'm wrong, is there research showing as well that if more women are represented in peace talks after conflict, then that then speeds up the peace process?

Nina: There is a study by, I think UN Women you are referring to, that says: if a certain amount of women, I think it needs to be more than one third of women participants are part of a peace negotiation, then the peace agreement will last longer. And I think you can debate the exact numbers and you can debate the exact percentages, but I think the message is really clear. The more interest and needs and perspectives are represented in an opportunity where you really not only deal with the past, but will really lay the foundation for the future of a society. Obviously, the more you can address those needs and perspectives, and that's also more likely to hold. So, I mean, the question that we always get asked a lot is like, “oh, so women are just more peaceful or they're better humans”. And obviously that's not true. We know from history that there are a lot of very violent women who have started wars, for example. But it really comes down to the various interests and perspectives that are represented at the table.

Christina: I think maybe we should also drop a quote here that comes out of this bit of research. It's by Texas University professor of Political Science, Valerie Hudson. And it goes something like this: Feminist foreign policy is smart policy. It's not just the right thing to do, because we want equality for all. So as we've seen, there's very measurable impact of putting this sort of policy into place. So, ultimately, it's the most intelligent thing to do, right?

Nina: Yeah, definitely.

Christina: Maybe it's a bit of a naive question, but do you think that countries in Europe, for example, or in any part of the world, actually, should be able to enact a feminist foreign policy if they haven't yet achieved a certain degree of equality within their domestic policy?

Nina: I think that's a really good and really important question. And I would say yes. And ideally, obviously, we always advocate for a very coherent approach to policy. So we would like to see a feminist foreign policy, but we would also like to see a feminist domestic policy. But only because you don't have a feminist domestic policy, it doesn't mean that you couldn't start with having a feminist foreign policy. And I think this is just based on how we believe that we drive change. However, I think your question really is important. Specifically, countries in the Global North or in Europe, particularly that have announced a feminist foreign policy really also need to look inwards, they need to look at their own institutions, they need to look at their own practices and they also need to reflect on their own position and power within the international system and this obviously in particular holds true to former colonial powers. And we don't see as much as we would like to see but we would still say that doesn't mean that those governments shouldn't try to have a feminist foreign policy.

George: Right, so essentially just because you haven't got everything sort of together at home, doesn't necessarily mean that you can't try and implement change elsewhere. And do you think then that when somebody's implementing a feminist foreign policy, do you think that that makes them more accountable for the domestic policy?

Nina: Yeah, definitely. And I think we really see it as like a moment of also apply pressure again on Germany to also look at what they can do better internally. And I mean, when we talk about Germany's feminist foreign policy, one of the numbers that have also been mentioned when the guidelines were launched is that I think only a quarter of all embassies, of German embassies abroad are currently being headed by a woman ambassador. But again, we also obviously need to take into account that countries in the Global North have a particular role to play. And we've seen it with the Women, Peace and Security agenda, for example, that countries in the global south are expected to formulate action plans that are mainly looking inward and looking at their domestic policies, whereas governments in the Global North, well, the majority of them has not even an internal perspective at all in the national action plan. So this is not good practice and that reinforces power structures within the international system. So we need to change that. But we would still never advocate for Global North countries to not have national action plans. We would advocate for them to have better national action plans.

Christina: I like this idea of responsibility, but could it also be that by them trying to impose certain values on other countries, they're imposing, we're talking about the Global North here, they're imposing Western norms on other countries? So in the case of feminist foreign policy, could we also consider it a feminist imperialism, for example? Or is it just a matter of applying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and helping other countries uplift themselves through development policy?

Nina: We get this question a lot, and I think there are a couple of points that I would like to make in this regard. We have feminist movements in all countries across the world. So why are those voices not being visible? When we are being honest, we know that the conversation about intersectional feminism was not coined by white women; it was coined by black women and feminists. So when we imply that the values are only Western values, we silence all the work and all the engagement of feminists across the world. And in many cases, they are fighting for their lives. They're fighting very different battles than we are fighting. So they might not call it feminist, but they're fighting for the same. And having said that, again, if a government doesn't look at their own history, at their own colonial history, and doesn't acknowledge racist pattern in their institutions or colonial patterns in their institutions, then there is a risk of reinforcing power inequalities that are already there in the system. So, no, I wouldn't say that feminist foreign policy, if it's truly intersectional and implemented in the way that we would like to see it, is no imperialism, no.

Christina: So maybe we can conclude this interview very quickly with a last question. I wanted to ask you in your experience, how does consolidating equality for all genders and sexual orientations benefit the entirety of a society and not just these populations?

Nina: I mean we know that also men, for example, are suffering from gender stereotypes, be it that they need to provide financially for their family alone, that they are not allowed or shouldn't take parental leave, for example. I mean, we know about queer men that suffer from ideas of masculinities that they don't want to adhere to or that they can't adhere to. But I think what also needs to be clear is that, yes, it would benefit the overall population and society, but there are certain people that will need to give up power. I mean, we can not talk about it, but if you have too much power at the moment, you need to give up some power so that everyone has the same amount of power.

Christina: That's very interesting, Nina. Thank you. I think you've clarified a lot of things for us today.

George: Yeah, this is a very enlightening conversation.

Christina: And very useful to have at the start of this show, that's investigating feminist foreign policy at large. We'll be sure to be checking in with you periodically to make sure that we're saying the right things at this show.

Nina: And thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

George: So that was our chat with Nina Bernarding, and we really enjoyed getting our teeth stuck into feminist foreign policy and what it really means beyond the theory.

Christina: Yes, and I think it really gives us a little insight as to what to expect from the rest of the series, where we're gonna be looking into how feminist foreign policy affects everything from migration to conflict resolution to climate justice.

George: In the next episode, we'll be speaking to Merle Spellerberg about a feminist foreign policy when it comes to arms, security and defence. See you then.

Christina: This podcast series is produced by the Greek Podcast Project and supported by the Thessaloniki office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, distributed under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.