Claire Yorke

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Marissa Conway (MC): Why don’t you tell me a bit about the research you are currently working on?

Claire Yorke (CY): I completed a PhD on the role and limitations of empathy in diplomacy. I’m really interested in exploring the way in which there are attempts to understand the diverse lived experiences and perspectives of others within our foreign-policy making and the conduct of diplomacy. There is a combination of a theoretical and practical approach.

I explore how people practice empathy, and whether it even is something that’s practiced. Is it something that’s missing? Or is it actually something that is there but that we don’t understand and don’t know how to identify? I’m fascinated by exploring the concept of empathy and its implications through different theoretical and conceptual lenses.

MC: And I’m assuming this has revealed very gendered dynamics as well?

CY: Yes, I think what’s interesting with the concept of empathy is that we tend to naturally attribute it as a feminine quality. We assume that empathy is akin to compassion or sympathy. And [that] it’s something more innate to women because they are considered to be natural mothers and wives and caregivers. I think what’s limiting in looking at it that way is that it overlooks how empathy is also something men do, it’s something that everyone as humans do, or equally it’s something they choose not to do.

My research largely focused on President Nixon because I looked at the case study of the U.S. rapprochement with China in 1972. It’s one of the most significant diplomatic transformations of the Cold War and given how empathy is advocated as an asset in improving relations and building bridges between people and societies, I was curious about whether it was evident in that case.  

Focusing on gender, it’s quite interesting looking through the diplomatic cables from that era because they talk about women in certain stereotypically gendered ways, commenting on their societal roles, marital status, their clothes, attractiveness etc. Although women weren’t as well represented, there were a lot of women who were involved in diplomacy at different levels. Predominantly, though, it is men conducting foreign policy and trying to make sense of the Chinese or the Soviet Union or whichever foreign policy crisis is on at the time.

It was interesting to observe the tone and content of the cables, but for me, I think we have to detach empathy from the gendered connotations because it’s then also seen as a weakness whereas, even if it is a female attribute, it is a strength. To be empathetic is a strength in its own right. I’m not sure if that explains it properly but unfortunately, when we describe it as something feminine, it’s almost seen as a weakness. That you’re understanding people, you’re willing to concede, you’re willing to compromise. [That] you’re willing to see things from another view is a capitulation rather than actually a strength and an asset in trying to determine, “How do I get the best deal for both of us?” I don’t think that it’s helpful to have that misconception.


MC: This reminds me of Carol Cohn’s Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals – she went into a nuclear defense think tank and had this exact experience where they were doing some sort of simulation where there were two teams and they were doing a nuclear fallout scenario, I want to say. It’s bang on with what you are saying. It’s her saying that if they started to think about the consequences – the actual consequences of a nuclear explosion on the individual human – all the other men in the room saw that as a weakness. Like, no, we are talking about reducing, they’re talking about millions versus billions, and then when she was like, “no, what about these more specific…,” like to ground it. And everyone just saw it as a weakness essentially.

The other thing I thought about that, you almost have to have a certain detachment in that conversation as well. If you are talking about potentially killing millions of people and you actually stop to think about the reality, that is crippling. You think about drone warfare and the people who sit over in the U.S. have to zone out wherever in a different part of the world that are blowing up things and they just go home to their families. There has got to be so much bizarre emotional baggage that you have to separate, almost compartmentalize how these things will affect you or not let them affect you.

CY: I think that’s something with the way in which we look at ideas of empathy, and also I think compassion and sympathy in this regard. There are barriers: you cannot have infinite empathy and compassion because actually it’s painful, it’s quite a weight. If you are trying to feel everything everyone feels, you then can’t feel what you feel yourself. You are not in touch with it. That’s the interesting thing with the way in which these concepts, these ideas, these feelings translate into policy-making. We still have to recognize there are strategic and political imperatives, that decisions have to made that are tough and there are trade-offs.

But what I think is so vital and I think what you said about being in this room with people who said you can’t think about this, there’s an assumption in foreign policy and diplomacy and international relations that rationality is supreme. That somehow the best foreign policy is rational and by implication detached from the ‘irrational’ dynamics of emotion. I’m always amazed when people say this as rationality, to me, is underpinned by emotional ideas. What you value and your interests are underpinned by ideas of pride or shame or grief or humiliation or fear.

All of these are emotions and the idea that somehow emotion is a weakness, is a flaw I think. It is vital in diplomacy to understand how people are going to interpret an event emotionally. Yet too often emotions are seen as something that are irrational, or something that shouldn’t be the concern of statesmen. Good statesmen are meant to be rational, and there are often again gendered assumptions within this. But then you look at it and you think, leaders should be able to combine the two and be attuned to reason and emotion and their interaction.

I think that’s what I found so fascinating about Nixon. This is an incredibly complex man with huge chips on his shoulder, fighting various demons, but we always regard him as a rational man. But I feel like this is a man who always felt like an outsider. Don’t tell me that’s not an emotional reaction to other people. He felt like he was the underdog. That means that his decision-making is underpinned by a need to prove his worth, his sense of pride, his sense of “I’m not valued, I’m worried about being left out…”

MC: This reminds me of another U.S. president [laughter].

CY: I think there is a broader issue with it. We need to start viewing politics and policy as the domain of humans. Humans are a combination of reason and emotion. Antonio Damasio talks about how emotions underpin what we value and what we are interested in and what we think. And we have to start connecting that much more to creating a richer understanding of foreign policy. I don’t know how, but that’s what I want to do.

MC: How do you take that and turn that into policy?

CY: I would love to spend a long time looking at that. But I think part of it is looking at issues and asking “ok, what are we feeling about this?”, what are the emotional currents at play? Where do they reside? And why are they potent? In particular, if we look at some of the dominant issues that we are facing now in international affairs, looking at things like Russia at the rise of nationalism. I mean, we’re in Britain, look at Brexit, and the ideas and the sense of pride and national identity it reveals. And they are not rational concepts. It’s not rational to remove yourself from a cooperative union that gives you wealth and free trade and free travel. It’s very emotional.


So many people go, “we need to remove the emotion from this.” No, we need to understand the difference between negative and positive emotions and we need to start talking about what emotions and sentiments these ideas are connected to, both individually and collectively. I think part of the problem is it is so hard to quantify and we want to try and quantify things in foreign policy.

Again, I think it goes back to a positivist trend I think is not entirely helpful – particularly in IR scholarship – that we need to be able to measure things. But we forget that we can’t measure power. We can’t determine why it is that suddenly America elects a new president and the rest of the world no longer feels they have the power that they used to. And we can’t quantify that. You still have the biggest army, you still have one of the biggest economies, but still we feel that that power is diminished. We have to be able to deal with intangibles.

I think having conversations where you identify emotions or you talk about how the British public at the moment feel isolated or they feel shame, or the Remainers feel humiliation. And knowing these feelings, how then do you bring them on board with policy? You have to find a way to restore their pride and what it means. I’m not entirely sure how we bring it to policy. But I think part of it is having the discussions and trying to normalize the idea that emotions are not irrational, external components to very important policy debates, but integral elements, if that makes sense.

MC: I am so fascinated by this, I have never thought about that before. For my paid work, I do comms for a public health charity that focuses on tobacco control. One of the things that we focus on is denormalizing smoking, and especially smoking in front of children. It’s denormalizing it so they don’t grow up thinking, “this is just a regular part of life.” But I’ve never thought about this in the opposite way, of normalizing certain things in the policy world, or normalizing specific things and then making policy to reinforce that rather than trying to denormalize smoking and then making policy to reinforce that.

CY: Sometimes we don’t understand the emotional implications of policy on different communities. For example, I think shame in foreign policy is so interesting. If you make people feel ashamed, they actually don’t act in the way you think they will. If you humiliate someone, it doesn’t mean they are actually going along with the idea that you have of what they should do. They tend to entrench in what they were doing. I don’t know if that can be measured again but I always feel it’s understanding the ways in which humans react. 

MC: How do you see feminist theory fitting in with the research you are doing?

CY: I think in a number of ways. Primarily, it’s really about recognizing that international relations and foreign policy – both as discipline and practice – involve conversations and dialogues between people of multiple voices and backgrounds and experiences. And I think there’s been a real issue and challenge in bringing these voices in to the discipline. It’s interesting looking at it with my students. There are discussions now in international relations and politics about how so much of the IR discipline is Western, it’s male and it’s white. There are great ideas emerge from the discipline, which have been helpful in trying to explain IR, but it’s only a proportion of the world.

The moment you start to get more female voices in, the more you start to get this intersectionality and you start to get the experience of people who come from very different experiences you get conversations along the lines of ‘you know my experience of empire was not one of power, it was one of domination. And that’s a very different experience to what you say it gave you. Look at the consequences it’s had for me. While it made your country richer and stronger, it’s made my country poorer and weaker, and it’s disempowered people who have just as much to contribute but have not had the opportunity.’ All this fits into ideas of understanding different lived experiences of people. People like Cynthia Enloe have done lots on this by writing about the diverse effects of policy, particularly on women in conflict zones and in aid and development. It raises all sorts of questions around the distribution of money, the distribution of support and care and relief. That have a big impact on the creation and implementation of policy.

But it is also important to shine a light on how women are actually active agents within foreign policy. One of the things that I am really keen is that we are able to see women not just as victims but as both villains and heroes. There are multiple characters of women and the different roles we play that have to be explore. It is so key and there are people doing fascinating work on this. My good friend Joana Cook does work on the different roles of women in conflict and counterterrorism, for example.

We have to see women as fighters, as strategists and we have to see them not just as ones that pick up the pieces when men come home. They are also holding down the fort in the first place and doing all sorts of things outside traditionally gendered conceptions of their role.

It’s also about encouraging people who have not seen women in this space to see them. There is sometimes this idea of this space being gender-neutral. That certain domains are not about gender, but about decision-making. But making it much more tangible and getting people to realize how different people are affected. There is so much that can be done in this space and it’s such a fascinating area.


MC: I think that point too, particularly about not casting women as victims. That’s one of my biggest qualms with women in the security agenda: it’s often women as victims or women as peacemakers. That’s what pushed me into feminist foreign policy. I want to talk about feminism and I want to talk about women’s empowerment in the context of foreign policy, but I don’t want this conversation. I want something else and I don’t know what that something else is but know it’s bigger than where we’re at right now.

CY: Was there an event that you saw that sort of started that?

MC: Not particularly. I mean, I love Carol Cohn. I met her once and called her a feminist goddess, and she complimented my shoes. Anyways, her work I think is what made me start thinking about how to apply feminism in different situations. I wrote my dissertation on masculinity and nuclear weapons. I went into it being like, I want to write about nuclear weapons. I basically was just, “what is the most hard security, most masculine field in my mind that there is right now?” Nuclear weapons. Right, let’s take feminism there.  I only read one piece of hers and thought, I hope there is literature to support this. And there is luckily.

Feminism is so much more than just women. It’s more than just including more women, it’s more than women’s equality. To me, feminism is power and understanding power relationships and dynamics, and gender is such a big part of how that is constructed. But there’s also more than just gender that puts all of that together. That’s why I was just like, feminist foreign policy, that to me hits the nail on the head. It’s a completely different conversation than what has been happening in political history yet. And I was just so fascinated by it.

CY: And I think it brings us to the question of what can feminist foreign policy bring to this idea? I think we often – I don’t know if you find this – but we often look at foreign-making policy as this neat space. But we make decisions in a broader environment where there are different structural constructs and different structural inequalities and it doesn’t matter how good a policy it is, it’s got to overcome all sorts of other obstacles that may be beyond the initial foreign policy domain.

Another thing that came up at the event that was interesting, and like you mention, is masculinity. Shedding light on the fact that this is not just about women, it’s about the way in which men are also subject to structural and cultural norms and expectations that prevent them from being able to express a far greater range or roles or at least where they do express it, we don’t observe it because its outside ideas of ‘masculinity’. We don’t factor it in in the same way, which I think is fascinating.

MC: What do you think of feminist foreign policy? If you were to define it.

CY: I think a feminist foreign policy is a foreign policy that recognizes and highlights the role, value, and diverse experiences of women and men within the space of foreign policy. I don’t know if that is clear, but to me it’s not just about women. For me, feminism is about equality. And I think most feminists are of the view that it’s not about women dominating men or rebalancing so that there’s a tip in the other direction. It’s about equality. It’s about discussing the gendered relations, the role of women and their relations with one another, with men, and with these different policies. How do you define it?

MC: Very similarly. I equate feminism with power. I tend to take a very theoretical approach with feminism. It’s about understanding power and then understanding what Cynthia Enloe loves to talk about. She kicked off with connecting backrow level policy with local impacts and always asking, “where are the women?” That’s how you really see how policy affects the every-day lived experience people in a specific community, finding out where the women are.

CY: I think that’s great and I think that part of it has to be shining light on where women have always been but we have not studied. Like we were talking about, that you look at history and women are either portrayed as androgynous or male. When we talk about Thatcher, it is framed as if she was not a normal woman. No, she was a woman. She was strategic and political and it doesn’t matter if you don’t like her politics, she was a woman who got to the top. I’m amazed whenever you go to museums. For example in the Natural History Museum on some of labels for the archaeological men, they have little subnotes that say, “his wife actually found that bone.”

MC: I’ve never seen that before.

CY: And you think, so why was she not given the credit? I read something the other week about this woman who in around 1910 decided to do a round-the-world trip, she was a journalist and wanted to follow the travels of Phineas Fog. This is a woman in the early 20th century, going around the world and she beat the time, the 80 days around the world, she did it in I think 72. As a young woman, she challenged where people would have told her her horizons would be.  I think most of us have been lucky that we’ve come from backgrounds where today our horizons so much wider and there is so much potential and opportunity to have adventures and aim for the top.

MC: And I think it’s important for men and boys to grow up seeing that.

CY: For them to have heroines.

MC: Yes!

Interview by Marissa Conway, Co-Founder of CFFP. Twitter: @marissakconway

Marissa Conway