Centre for International and Defence Policy

Centre for International and Defence Policy
Centre for International and Defence Policy

Building a feminist alliance

Opinion: Open Canada

18 November 2020


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets members of Senegal's gendarmerie during a February 2020 visit to the country. Photo by Seyllou / AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s disdain for multilateral diplomacy and international organizations prompted American allies and partners to participate in like-minded coalitions such as the Ottawa Group or the European-led D10. Although the election of Joe Biden promises to reverse the trend, it is unlikely that these groups will simply disband overnight. In fact, while the whole world seems to be celebrating Biden’s victory, the United States’ internal divisions will impose constraints on what Biden can achieve in terms of international collaboration and global leadership.

As America’s democratic allies continue to hedge their bets, remaining engaged in traditional fora while also seeking alternatives, there is an opportunity for Canada to lead. In 2017, Canada adopted a feminist foreign policy, and this is the basis upon which a new coalition of like-minded states could be struck.

So far, Sweden, France, Mexico and Luxembourg represent a cluster of states that could form the core of an international feminist partnership, a feminist alliance of sorts. They have all embedded feminist principles within their foreign policy statements or white papers. Club membership could also be more expansive and potentially include states that have adopted a national action plan on women, peace and security (so far, 86 countries have done so). In fact, states already work together to promote the women, peace and security agenda through informal groupings within international organizations, such as the Friends of 1325, which advocates for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 at the at the UN, or at NATO. If Canada is serious about its feminist foreign policy, it is time to have something more formal in place.

“A feminist alliance represents an opportunity for Canada to create partnerships that are not based on regional affiliation or economic performance, but on the principles of a feminist international policy.” 

This feminist alliance would represent a great opportunity for Canada to create partnerships that are not based on regional affiliation or economic performance, but on the principles of a feminist international policy. 

A feminist foreign policy is one that “prioritizes gender equality and enshrines the human rights of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, allocates significant resources to achieve that vision and seeks through its implementation to disrupt patriarchal and male-dominated power structures across all of its levers of influence (aid, trade, defence and diplomacy), informed by the voices of feminist activists, groups and movements,” according to the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington-based non-profit.

Is it not time that Canada coordinate its efforts with other countries that have made these principles an integral part of their foreign policy priorities?

There are few barriers to setting up such an alliance, but two come to mind. The first and most obvious barrier might be ignorance. Even in fairly specialized foreign policy contexts, people often do not have a clear idea of ​​what a feminist foreign policy is. While the aforementioned definition is fairly intuitive, sharper communication efforts should be deployed around the principles of feminist foreign policy. These were articulated by former foreign minister Chrystia Freeland in a June 2017 address.

“Women’s rights are human rights. That includes sexual reproductive rights and the right to safe and accessible abortions,” she said. “We know that empowering women, overseas and here at home, makes families and countries more prosperous.”

More needs to be done to make these principles intelligible to Canadians and ubiquitous in Canada’s foreign policy narratives. A useful parallel here is Canada’s leadership throughout the 1990s in defining and promoting the concept of human security, which prioritizes the security of people rather than states. This perspective was not familiar to domestic and global audiences during the Cold War but quickly became part of the foreign and defence policy lexicon and has endured until today.

Another obvious obstacle is the skepticism that could be expressed by feminist activists and groups, who may object to the instrumentalization of feminism to amplify Canada’s diplomatic standing.

The most visible manifestations of Canadian feminist foreign policy are quite militarized. Canada launched the Elsie Initiative at the UN with the goal of increasing the number of uniformed women in UN peacekeeping operations. The chief of the defence staff issued a directive on women, peace and security and the appointment of gender advisors, set the recruitment target for women in the Canadian armed forces at 25.1 per cent and has allocated more command posts to its women general officers.

By contrast, a feminist view of international politics challenges military entrenchment in the way we approach conflict resolution. It views the gender mainstreaming efforts advanced by the UN, NATO and national governments as the cooptation of feminist advocacy, as “making war safe for women,” to quote Cora Weiss, one of the co-drafters of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Upon closer scrutiny, this might in fact be more of an opportunity than an obstacle. This kind of feminist critique could lead to a better balance between the civilian and military dimensions of Canada’s feminist foreign policy and of its diplomatic efforts within a feminist alliance.

Canada is at the very beginnings of its own experience with a feminist foreign policy and would greatly benefit from working with other like-minded states to achieve its stated objectives. Building a formal feminist alliance could help make that happen. The international community may wait a long time before the United States is willing to reclaim its mantle of global leadership, but Canada does not have to. 

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