Feminist Foreign Policy and Deterrence

Feminist Foreign Policy and Deterrence


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policy of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.

When Margot Wallström introduced Sweden’s “Feminist Foreign Policy” (FFP) in 2014, many wondered what difference that declaration would make. Certainly some things have changed, and for the better: progress has been made in terms of greater participation of women even in top-level national security/foreign policy decision-making, the US NAP WPS mandates gender-disaggregated policy analysis, and real, though small, budgeting has been put in place to do the work. Even so, we would argue that the full potential of FFP is largely untapped. 

We assert that FFP has the potential to change how we analyse threat response, a concept that is at the heart of national security planning. While we could write a book on the subject (and perhaps will in the future), in this short think piece we touch only on the issue of deterrence.

As a hegemonic superpower since the end of the Cold War, the US has had the luxury of establishing robust deterrence to offset several pressing threats. Deterrence is a prerogative of the powerful, not the weak, and effectively saves both blood and treasure. Many of the threats faced by the US in the ‘20s continue to be addressed through a deterrence framework established decades ago, such as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in the case of nuclear deterrence, or the stand-off over the Taiwan Strait.

However, we argue that there is an underlying masculinist perspective to American-style deterrence that makes it increasingly fragile in the modern day. Psychologists now understand that the “fight or flight” instinct when faced with threat is actually largely a male threat response. Deterrence in the US tradition, we assert, has been conceived in such “fight or flight” terms: in a sense, deterrence is the international equivalent of a “haka” dance, which is traditionally performed only by males.  This entails looking very fierce, weapons in hand, prepared to meet any challenge in order to deter potential adversaries from attacking. Post-deterrence in this approach looks more like the “flight” alternative.

We submit that this particular conception of deterrence comes with a not insignificant price tag—a price tag measured in strategic loss and in human insecurity. This is because “fight or flight” puts all its emphasis on deterrence, seeing any attempt at post-deterrence planning as undermining deterrence. This fixation on the necessity of not planning for a post-deterrence world in order to assure deterrence leads, we suggest, to a predictable and lamentable post-deterrence scenario: the Americans flee and leave people—many people— to die. The South Vietnamese can offer a vivid description.

Now, we pause here to state firmly that we are not arguing that the Americans should never cut their losses and quit their engagement in a particular threat scenario. What we are arguing is that “fight or flight” are not the only options available in threat response. Furthermore, we argue that deterrence, American-style, is no longer the optimum strategy. US power is declining on the world stage, and we will thus see more deterrence failures in the future than we did in the days of US hegemony in world affairs. In addition, the most likely deterrence failures will involve massive human insecurity.

Perhaps, then, it is time to complement the masculinist approach to deterrence with a more feminist approach to deterrence, which we assert would strengthen deterrence overall, and improve post-deterrence planning, in this period of American decline. Psychologists tell us that when they finally used females in these threat trials, the reaction was not “fight or flight,” but “tend and befriend,” that is, females attempted to shelter and protect others under threat, and to calm the aggressor, blunting their appetite for revenge. Indeed, the female experience is often centred on post-deterrence, as women are often unable to deter aggressors’ intent on harming them.   In other words, rather than seek domination in a “fight” response, females attempt to mitigate threat through de-escalation (“befriend”), and seek to bolster human security in situations of deterrence failure (“tend”).

To cut to the chase, we believe FFP lenses lead to the conclusion that it’s time to jettison the idea that robust post-deterrence planning undermines deterrence. Indeed, we argue that robust post-deterrence planning steadies and strengthens deterrence. We assert that such planning can provide not only improved human security, but actual strategic benefit, as well. We aim to demonstrate this proposition by means of two case studies: nuclear deterrence and Taiwan Strait deterrence. We argue that a blended deterrence stance of “fight and befriend,” coupled with post-deterrence planning of “tend and flight” offers clear advantages over simple, conventionally masculinist “fight or flight.”

Nuclear Deterrence

Classic nuclear deterrence rests on the assumption that one state will not use nuclear weapons against another because they know that the targeted state will retaliate in a way that makes any putative victory pyrrhic at best. In the early days of the Cold War, these assumptions may have been viable because of the limited number of states with nuclear weapons, the limited number of weapons themselves and the bureaucratic and political constraints restricting leader behaviour.

But the modern world is different. Not only are there more nuclear powers, but there are also rogue non-state actors in search of various weapons of mass destruction. Such actors pose much more challenging constraints for effective deterrence in the classic sense, precisely because it is unclear how non-state actors might be effectively targeted for such deterrence to work. Moreover, actors given to suicide may be impossible to deter with the threat of almost certain death.    

In addition, many more of the modern nuclear states, or those striving to develop such weapons, are headed by personalist leaders who are less constrained by mass publics, political bureaucracies, or even small cadres of supporters; Kim Jong Un in North Korea provides the iconic example of this kind of largely unconstrained leader. The discourse between Kim and former President Trump around the use of “fire and fury’ and debates about the relative size of their nuclear buttons provides a classic example of just the kind of masculinised discourse that, while simply silly from one perspective, poses real danger if it leads to the use of nuclear weapons or the outbreak of war.

And here is where the limits of the logic of deterrence become clear. Deterrence fundamentally rests on the belief each side must have that the other will launch in retaliatio
n if attacked. And yet both sides know such a response is futile in the nuclear age; the only thing such retaliation will produce is total destruction. And yet no one doubts that such retaliation will occur. Why?  Because everyone recognises, at some level, the psychological power of the desire for revenge in the face of attack. 

 Why does this matter for our current argument?  If revenge is the universal sentiment it has been shown to be, that means that once an attack takes place—any attack—violence will escalate.   And yet because deterrence is assumed to be stable, almost no planning has gone into how to de-escalate in the face of conflict. Indeed, most arguments run contrary: they assume that escalation is what will produce de-escalation, running completely contrary to any psychologically accurate understanding of human nature.  If policy-makers believe that deterrence is stable and will not fail, then they will not plan for what happens when and if it does fail, and that could produce much more destructive consequences than if adequate preparation for post-deterrence de-escalation were put in place.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear how Mutual Assured Survival is any less of a robust deterrent posture than Mutual Assured Destruction. One of the best ways to see this important point is to remember the conversation between the US and the Soviet Union at the Glassboro, NJ summit in 1967. This was the summit in which Robert McNamara laid out the elements of MAD, and argued that while nuclear offensive weapons were moral, defensive weapons against those weapons in a post-deterrence scenario were immoral. Both sides would have to stand before each other completely vulnerable for MAD to assure deterrence. The Soviets were aghast, and developed several defensive systems. Later, Ronald Reagan was similarly aghast, and thus was born the Strategic Defense Initiative of ballistic missile defense. If deterrence failed under classic McNamarian MAD, millions and millions of lives would be lost since it was considered to be both immoral and strategically unwise to plan for a post-deterrence world because such planning would undermine deterrence.

Equally important, a MAD approach to nuclear deterrence assumes that little else needs to be done to protect and defend oneself outside of destructive force. This could not be farther from the truth.  Laying defensive systems to one side for the moment, investment in diplomacy, economic development, and aid can help develop greater interdependence among nations where hostilities are then less likely to break out, or if they do, there is the possibility for resolution short of conflict. This is the “befriend” part of the blended deterrent stance. Consider two nuclear powers, Russia and the United Kingdom. The US would immediately assume an alarm regarding an attack from the UK is false, while one from Russia is true. The destructive potential of these nations’ respective arsenals is not the trigger for this differing response; what does differ is the assumed intent of the other side based on the pre-existing relationship and the relative levels of trust between countries.  An approach that focused as much on “befriending” as on “fighting,” coupled with robust post-deterrent defensive capabilities, would be more likely to reduce the risk of retaliation precisely because the desire for revenge is hugely mitigated when one party does not treat the other party badly, believing they can get away with it simply because they are stronger. This blended approach, we argue, can make nuclear deterrence more robust, and during the Cold War some made the case for enhanced CSBMs (confidence and security-building measures) for this very reason.

Taiwan Strait Deterrence

Our second case centres on deterrence across the Taiwan Strait. Many feel it is likely that within this decade China will attempt to absorb Taiwan either through less explicit means of economic/technological strangulation or by means of outright island-hopping invasion. 

However, recent polls show only a minority of Americans (38% in 2019) would favour sending troops in the event China invaded Taiwan, with only a third of Americans (and less than half of Republicans) willing to sell Taiwan advanced weaponry that China opposes. A 2020 CSIS poll finds that on a 10 point scale, the willingness of the American public to undertake “significant risks” should Taiwan be threatened by China hovers between 5 and 7; among the 18 to 30 year olds who would fight any resulting conflict, the average is the lowest of all age groups surveyed.  (By contrast, the percentages are highest for those over age 67; still, fewer than a quarter of seniors favor taking the highest level of risk.)

These poll numbers have real-world consequences for deterrence. This is certainly why Anthony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, has stepped out with a hard-line statement concerning Taiwan: “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” As the author of the recent “Longer Telegram” makes clear, the US is putting many important eggs in the Taiwan deterrence basket: “if China launches a military or paramilitary action against Taiwan and the United States does not respond . . . the United States needs to understand that at that point its general strategic credibility across Asia would evaporate. . . The effectiveness of the rest of US strategy against China also would collapse, just as Beijing’s domestic and international political hubris over its Taiwan “success” would become a new driving force in Chinese global behaviour.”  Just so.

However, deterrence will not hold.  All of these measures delay the day when it will not hold, but do not avert it. China’s military has grown exponentially, including new capabilities in anti-access/area denial (A2AD) to prevent the defense of Taiwan.  Despite the new arms deal with the US, Taiwan will forever be only 100 miles (and Taiwan’s Kinmen Island, 6 miles) from the shore of a rising superpower which claims it as a “rogue province.” 60% of Taiwanese do not believe Taiwan can defend itself but believe that the US would intervene militarily to defend it. Despite Blinken’s tough rhetoric, the election of Joe Biden has only deepened uncertainty, and scholars such as Philip Zelikow and Robert Blackwill openly wonder if Taiwan’s military is adequate to the task before it, and are “skeptical” that regional powers have coordinated a planned military response to a Taiwan confrontation.

If those in the US national security establishment truly are foreign policy realists, they would have to admit that while deterrence may be Plan A, it cannot forever protect Taiwan. Despite the assertive bipartisan Congressional rhetoric and the judgment of the Long Telegram’s author that “the United States should plan to deploy its own forces to Taiwan to help defend the island at the first indication of Chinese aggression,” there is very little domestic public support for the US to send soldiers to fight the Chinese over Taiwan, and China’s veto will block any UN response.  The conventional approach to deterrence that we see the US undertaking today is not in the end going to be effective, and this will help usher in an era of Chinese predominance in world affairs. What happens in Taiwan will in large part determine the character of a new international order. 

How could that king hit scenario be avoided? We suggest incorporating the feminist threat response so that post-deterrence planning is given equal weight. Sure, by all means, invest in Plan A-style deterrence; talk tough to the future perpetrator; arm the intended victim. But there must also be strong contingency planning for “tend and flight” for Taiwan as Plan B.

A good percentage of the 24 million people on Taiwan will want to leave rather than live under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule if Taiwan’s sovereignty is compromised.  Have Taiwan’s diplomatic allies been canvassed to determine how many Taiwanese each nation will take?  Has the US Department of Defense, in concert with regional friends and the Taiwan military, prepared extraordinary means of mass transport to make this possible?  Have Taiwan’s friends developed an assimilation plan, complete with funding for housing, health care, and education, as well as regulations allowing for transference of credentials and access to work permits?  Has Taiwan itself an emergency fund to facilitate such planning? 

Has the Taiwan government plans to spirit out of the country important historical documents or objects that would otherwise be destroyed?  Has the government made plans to ensure financial continuity if an escape were necessary?  For example, during the lead-up to World War II, several European monarchies shipped all their gold to England. What is the 21st century equivalent? How will Taiwan save its global semiconductor industry?  Are there plans to ensure that symbolic leaders, such as the president herself, will be able to leave and reestablish a voice for Taiwan? Are there types of military equipment or strikes that would allow for safer transportation of those who wish to leave, without escalating to direct war between the US and China?

And can any movement of persons and materiel be accomplished now, without fanfare?  Are there special measures that could be taken with regard to the future of the Taiwanese—that is, their children and young people—that would ensure most of them are able to escape or have already left when the situation comes to a head?

We assert a successful escape for the people of Taiwan will be vital in shaping a new order in the world. That is, in addition to providing greater human security, post-deterrence “tend and flight” can also offer strategic advantage by vitiating the success of aggression. Consider Dunkirk.  Though certainly Dunkirk resulted from British weakness and successful German aggression, the sheer audacity of the successful evacuation operation became a point of pride for the British people, and became a beacon of hope to all those whom the Nazi regime would attempt to crush. And the Dunkirk escape certainly did not redound to either the glory or the power of the Nazis, for it was a potent symbol that resistance was not futile, and that all persons of good will could stand together and hope to out-maneuver a powerful nation threatening them. Consider that in a domestic violence scenario, a common frame for women’s threat response, the true victory is saving the intended victim, not ensuring she stays in her current living situation.

Escape must be married with effective punishment, as well, which should also be strategised now, not after the fact. This Plan B would also include non-physical means of hurting the perpetrator where it really counts—not as a means of deterring the attack, for domestic violence perpetrators are often undeterrable, but as a means of real punishment for the crime committed.  

Would ensuring the financial independence of nations that China openly seeks to bully, such as Australia, be part of a punitive package? Can we assist those countries in financial debt to China to successfully default on those debts? After the enormity of such an attack on Taiwan, would a far more robust collective security treaty organisation in Asia become a real possibility?  Would a radical divestiture of foreign investment and operations in China be possible, a “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)” for China that would effectively dismantle the One Belt, One Road initiative?  Would nations refuse to continue to train young Chinese researchers, hampering China’s technological progress?

The objective of this contingency planning is that while it may not be possible to deny China’s eventual control over Taiwanese territory, it is entirely possible—with planning–to deny China’s control over the Taiwanese themselves, and it may be possible to tangibly hurt Chinese power on many levels, both hard and soft. We predict that Americans would almost certainly support undertaking significant risks to help the people of Taiwan make their escape, even though they evince no ardor for doing the same to retain the island itself, given its geographic position.  Xi should consider that a massive Dunkirk-like international response will galvanise a strong anti-China global alliance, will utterly shame his leadership, and might well lead to regime change in his country.  This will not be the pulverising king hit to that woman, Tsai, and her country Taiwan, that he was imagining.  

If the US is successful in that post-deterrence response, the era that follows will showcase the limits of China’s physical power to get what it wants. It will highlight China’s lack of impunity.  It will be an era of adroit balancing on dimensions besides physical prowess instead of an era of predominance/decline gauged by military might alone.  This would be a far better strategic outcome for the US alliance.

Of course, we have hopes that these post-deterrence plans are already in place, but are secret. If so, bravo and carry on. However, if the planning we recommend is not i
n place, the Biden administration would do well to swiftly develop those plans even if they cannot be made public. This is not to suggest we abandon Taiwan or that we think it’s not worth fighting for. But unless there is some unexpected black swan event, Taiwan—and its friends–will need viable post-deterrence plans.

Deterrence and jus ex bello

What we have discussed about FFP and post-deterrence planning is not limited to these two cases, of course. For example, we think about the situation in Afghanistan, and wonder if Feminist Foreign Policy might inform a jus ex bello position for the United States in similar fashion. Consider that the United States strove to improve the situation of women in Afghanistan, and offered training and education to many women there in the hopes that empowering Afghan women would lead to improved outcomes for the population. But now we see that the Taliban are intent upon assassinating these very women; they have targeted educated women not only in Pashtun areas, but all around the country, even in the capital city of Kabul.

The US will leave Afghanistan, yes. But is anyone considering these women? Has anyone proposed a special asylum scheme for them? Or special scholarship programs to get the best and brightest women of the younger generation out of the country before they are slaughtered? And if not, why not?  And this issue is not just limited to women who are targeted for their education and independence; it also holds for translators and others who have worked with the US government during their decades long campaign who will also become targets for disloyalty once the US leaves. The US bears some responsibility for the welfare of these individuals, and their treatment will speak volumes to others contemplating helping or supporting the US in other places around the world in the future. 

In conclusion, it is time to incorporate a Feminist Foreign Policy lens on deterrence. It is strategically erroneous and also harmful to human security to continue to assert that post-deterrence planning for human security undermines deterrence. It is strategically erroneous and also harmful to human security to eschew de-escalatory and trust-building initiatives during periods of deterrence for fear of undermining that very deterrence. It is time to articulate the strategic  and human security advantages of a blended “fight and befriend” plus “tend and flight” approach to deterrence and post-deterrence planning. In extending our understanding of threat response, we can also undertake a more robust conceptualisation of jus ex bello, which has received short shrift under the more masculinist approach to threat response.  US power on the world stage is declining, and US-backed deterrence may well fail more often in the future than it did in past days of relative US hegemony in international affairs. The time for this discussion about incorporating complementary feminist approaches to threat response is upon us.

Valerie M. Hudson is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of International Affairs in The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the Program on Women, Peace, and Security.

Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University, and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 


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