Why Trump Is Bad News for Gender Equality in Foreign Policy

From a meeting about the Iran deal and Syria between EU’s high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini and Iranian minister of foreign affairs Javad Zarif, flanked by their respective teams. Posted to Mogherini’s Twitter account 14 June 2016

While 2015 was in many ways a year of celebration for women’s participation in international politics, 2016 on the other hand seems to be a year of disappointments.

What will happen to women’s participation and gender equality in foreign policy when Donald Trump becomes the next President of the United States?

2015 – a year of celebration

For those of us interested in the role of women in international politics, 2015 was a year of optimism. We celebrated the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Sweden appointed its first feminist government, and became the first country to implement a feminist foreign policy. Coming up on the horizon, we saw the possibility that 2016 would be the year when the United Nations would elect its first female Secretary General. It even seemed plausible that the United States would elect its first female president!

2016 – a year of disappointments

Now that 2016 is drawing to a close, the atmosphere is somewhat different. The so-called migration crisis in Europe provided an opportunity for an increased focus on securing national borders, while at the same time Putin continues to exercise his military muscle, this time in Syria. With Brexit we saw xenophobia surfacing in Europe for real, and nationalistic anti-immigration rhetoric becoming everyday fare. No woman was appointed as UN Secretary General, despite the existence of several well-qualified female candidates. But at least they lost out to a very well-qualified man. In the United States, Hillary Clinton did not simply lose to a far worse-qualified man, but to a man who conducted an election campaign that had clear sexist and racist undertones.

Trump’s foreign policy

The nature of Trump’s foreign policy is not completely clear, but we did receive some hints of it during the election campaign. Trump has said that he will use all means to crush IS and that he will re-introduce the use of water-boarding. He thinks that what he calls the United States’ current strategy of nation-building and regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria is a huge fiasco. In addition he wants to restrict immigration (build a wall along the border with Mexico) and renegotiate the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, so that America will be “great again”. And finally – in comments that have perhaps garnered most attention here in Norway – he wants to build bridges with Russia’s President Putin and has repeatedly sown doubts about the extent to which the United States will continue to meet its obligations in NATO.

The concept of security in flux – again

In the 1990s we saw a move away from the Cold War’s one-sided focus on so-called hard security and the arms race towards an expansion of the concept to include human security. This opened the door for concepts such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and “Women, Peace and Security” to join the international agenda. Since 2000, women’s security has gained increasing recognition as an important aspect of international security, and greater and greater weight has been attached to women’s experiences.

Although Trump has said that war and aggression would not be his primary instincts as president, his irascible and unpredictable temper has been a pervasive theme of the election campaign. Trump does not seem to have a clear ideology to guide his foreign policy, rather he has said that one must be flexible, because circumstances and the world change all the time. The election of Trump as US president will strengthen a trend that we have seen coming for a while – a move back towards “hard” security, an increasing focus on securing our borders against “intruders” and a greater and greater tendency to adopt an approach based on realpolitik.

So what?

Why is this bad news for women and for gender equality in foreign policy? Changes in the concept of security narrow the space for a rights- and values-based foreign policy, and as such may have a restrictive effect on its implementation. Trump’s apparent lack of respect for democratic principles and to some extent for human rights shakes the foundations for much of what are the underlying arguments behind a foreign policy designed to secure women’s rights and participation in important issues.

Trump is clearly not particularly interested in women’s rights and gender equality either in foreign policy or more generally. Accordingly we cannot anticipate that he will be promoting this agenda either in international fora (such as the UN Security Council) or in other processes where the United States is involved. This will result in the agenda losing political backing, and Norway and other countries that have been driving forces for increased gender equality in foreign policy will lose a potentially important ally.

A role for Norway

We know that political leadership and sound alliances may be decisive for the realization of a political agenda. It is therefore gratifying that Norway has long been a driving force for women’s participation and increased gender equality in its foreign policy. Norway has committed to follow up UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the broader agenda of gender equality in foreign policy through initiatives such as the Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security 2015-2018 and the new Action Plan for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Foreign and Development Policy (2016-2020), which was launched earlier this autumn. In this connection, the Norwegian foreign minister has also taken the initiative to establish a group to promote global gender equality.

Accordingly the challenge for the Norwegian government will be to continue to be a driving force for increased gender equality in foreign policy, and to ensure that the gender perspective and women’s contributions are safeguarded in security policy and diplomacy. It is more important now than it has been for a long time to ensure that basic principles such as democracy and human rights are firmly entrenched even as external circumstances may change.

The Norwegian government and others must not forget the relevance of the gender perspective even though the security environment might change in the future. With the security challenges we now face, it will (still) be crucial that women are actively involved at all levels, because this contributes to ensuring an opportunity for more voices to be heard and alternative understandings of security to be represented in relevant fora.

  • Jenny Lorentzen is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Lund University, and a researcher at the PRIO Centre on Gender, Peace and Security. Her research concerns gender perspectives and gender equality norms in peacebuilding and international politics, and her doctoral project has a particular focus on the post-conflict situation in Rwanda. Twitter: @jennylorentzen
  • This text was published in Norwegian at Dagsavisen Nye Meninger 17 November 2016: ‘Dagen derpå for likestilling i utenrikspolitikken med Trump som president
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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