The Gender Bias in Foreign Policy

Despite more and more women gaining powerful roles in Washington politics, the foreign policy field remains largely dominated by men. American foreign policy discourse is distinctly "masculine" in describing objectives, power, and strategic interests. The “hard” politics of statecraft and homeland security contrast the “soft” (i.e. feminine) politics of humanitarian and economic aid.

Creating new states, dismantling governments, and reorganizing populations require muscular power; economic development and humanitarian aid, largely needed because of the aforementioned processes, requires compassion. In reality, these activities overlap, but in gendered terms, they are distinct. Practitioners and analysts alike should reframe our foreign policy dialogue so we understand what our policies mean for America and the people it hopes to help or influence.

Decades of progress in theorizing gender led us to collectively understand that women are not biologically more drawn to work for peace over war, sympathy over strategy. But in a world where masculinity is linked to power and national security demands masculine power, “assistance” is often the feminine side of foreign policy. Gendering international relations polarizes it and changes politicians' privileges. When women engage in foreign policy discourse, they must follow the norm or risk being drowned out and marked less committed to U.S. foreign policy.

During the protracted decision-making process on military engagement in Libya, the president was described as being “henpecked” by a group of top female advisers advocating for a military intervention, ultimately getting their way. A flurry of excitement followed, as the surprise of this reversal of gender stereotypes registered. However, the advisers were described as “Amazon women” — overtly masculine — because they had to fit the paradigms of security and military action. Obama’s masculinity seemed to be threatened because he was less aggressive than the females advising him.

Yet this construction is muddled by the nature of humanitarian and strategic aims, revealed by Libyan intervention supporters like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, who all have human rights interests. Women advocating for war is not enough to change the polarized dynamic of our foreign policy discourse. We need to reframe the language to focus on life and to make this the politics of all humanity, not the perceptions of one gender.

Instead of more discussion on how gender stereotypes are confirmed by White House decision-making, analysts should focus on the real impacts of policy decisions. Realpolitik maneuvering and warfare should not be more important because of their association with masculinity. Obama’s female advisers, both human rights and war advocates, show that real international issues don’t fall on one side of our invented gender binary.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mandana Nakhai

Originally from Tucson, AZ and a graduate of Vassar College, Mandana has an academic background in political science and geography. She is interested primarily in international education, gender theory and politics, critical IR, international institutions, sustainable development, religion, and the politics of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Mandana works in international academic exchange in Washington, D.C.

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