Feminist Foreign Policy: Disarmament, Diplomacy & Decolonization

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On May 10th 2018, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), in collaboration with University College London, organized a panel discussion on disarmament, diplomacy, and decolonization. With CFFP co-founder Kristina Lunz moderating, the panelists - Alice Musabende, Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Cristina Varriale, and Zarina Khan - tackled a range of challenges: from defining the ever evolving concept of feminist foreign policy to implementing such a policy at a practical level.

Panelists were in agreement about the continuing evolution of feminist foreign policy and its basic tenets of correcting power imbalances and accounting for intersectionalities. However, their approaches and ideas about feminist foreign policy varied between their specialties and areas of expertise. Zarina Khan’s advocacy and aid sector experience along with Alice Musabende’s focus on human rights and activism in post-conflict states were balanced with Sebastian Brixey-Williams’ security research background and Cristina Varriale’s nuclear weapons policy expertise.

Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy University College London Kristina Lunz Alice Musabende Sarina Khan Sebastian Brixey-Williams Cristina Varriale

Khan opened the discussion on defining feminist foreign policy by imagining a world in which her work would not have to involve advocating and building cases for respecting women’s rights. In this more ideal world, women’s rights would be a given. Furthermore, a feminist approach which respects humans at its core would allow for more discussion regarding intersectionality, most notably race, white supremacy, and colonial legacies.

Musabende added to this by questioning the power structures involved in foreign policy and the pursuit of state interest. Embracing those who have been left out historically—including, but not limited to, women, people from LGBTQI groups, and people from the Global South—and creating more dialogue is an important end in and of itself. Developed countries which are largely driving foreign policy and development agendas need to be held accountable for their policies. But, perhaps most importantly, as long as state interests remain at the heart of foreign policies, power structures will remain largely unchanged, no matter how many voices are heard, and no matter how many people have a seat at the table.

Echoed by several panelists, a central tenet of Brixey-Williams’ feminist foreign policy vision is the notion that people should be front and centre in foreign policy development and implementation, especially in the area of peace and security. He also supported the goal of changing the atmosphere to be more inclusive for women, getting more women around the male-dominated table, and recognizing the role women and minorities have played in the arms space so far.

Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy University College London Kristina Lunz Alice Musabende Sarina Khan Sebastian Brixey-Williams Cristina Varriale

Varriale formulated more concrete ways to get more women into the room and actually heard at the table. Speaking more specifically to nuclear policy, she mentioned that such a topic requires a range of experts and fields of knowledge. Fields like engineering and chemistry, which contribute to nuclear policy, are also very masculine spaces. To get more women into these fields, there needs to be more opportunities for women to enter during the formative years of education. And rather than focusing solely on getting more women to the table, part of the solution is making the nuclear and arms space less normatively masculine and more diverse.

Naturally, the conversation turned to how we can change these heavily masculinized environments and structures. On the one hand, without including diverse perspectives (in terms of gender, race, age, etc.), structures are unlikely to change. On the other hand, the perspectives and people often entering these structures do so because they are willing to more or less conform to the established norms. For example, in a military context, those entering the military are already more comfortable with using military action to achieve state goals. In terms of gender, there is a tendency for women to model more hegemonic masculine personas. These women get in the door and sit around the table, but there is little change to the patriarchal culture which currently inherits these spheres.

Widening the scope to broader discourse, the hegemonic masculinity currently found in the military and nuclear policy worlds perpetuates the current approach to peace and security. Women become associated with peace and anti-militarism, and men continue to be associated with counter-proliferation, deterrence, and arms control. As succinctly put by Brixey-Williams, this is a socially constructed dichotomy, which can be changed. Under a feminist foreign policy, overriding this dichotomy could very well begin the process of denormalizing militarized violence.

Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy University College London Kristina Lunz Alice Musabende Sarina Khan Sebastian Brixey-Williams Cristina Varriale

Imbalances in accepted perspectives shift military structures and foreign policy away from the people who should be at the centre of policy making decisions. For example, in the development aid sphere, and specifically when it comes to tackling colonial legacies, well-established aid institutions are a product of colonialism. Khan noted the institutional legacies these structures have reified and the all too common occurrences of “white saviors”. Reforming the seemingly less violent structures, like those within the aid sector, is also a challenge as donors and governments often set the development agenda with little input from Low and Middle Income Countries. As Musabende mentioned, indeed local structures are quite resilient and more effective at development if given the proper support, financial and otherwise.

Even without sufficient funding and support, feminist organizations and grassroots movements are continuing to fight and to democratize foreign policy spaces to build a more human-centric, less violent approach.


Event summary by Liz Colavita, Editor at CFFP.