German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sounded uncharacteristically defensive this week as she launched her government’s “Feminist Foreign Policy.” She’s been surprised, she claimed, that the “little word ‘feminist’” can be such a “trigger.” It’s not meant to be a “missionary” declaration to “naively improve the world,” she insisted. Instead, it’s simply … Well, what exactly?
In 2021 her party, the Greens, had written the term — in English rather than German — into the coalition contract that formed Germany’s current government. Since then, German diplomats have kept wondering what FFP might mean. This week’s guidelines, running to some 80 pages, were supposed to clarify. Instead, the befuddlement has increased.
The first country to adopt an FFP was Sweden, in 2014, although it already struggled to find a succinct definition. A few others, such as Canada and Mexico, then followed suit. The German Greens, who pride themselves on their “values-based” politics in general, were keen to join this club of the virtuous.
But the timing has proven awkward for Baerbock. Just as her ministry was drafting its big document last fall, the original pioneer, Sweden, ditched its Feminist Foreign Policy. “We will always stand for gender equality,” explained Tobias Billstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister. But “labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content,” he added. The implication was that the word had gotten in the way of the intention.
Simultaneously, Iranians — and in particular Iranian women — were just then taking to the streets against their tyrannical theocracy, demanding such basic human rights as showing hair. Aside from Tehran’s Mullahs, the whole world sided with these heroines. Germans, naturally, wondered how their newly feminist government would respond.
Exactly how the previous German administration would have reacted, it turns out, and indeed how most other European and Western governments did react, officially feminist or not: They decried the humanitarian outrage — and then went back to business as usual.
As they had to. That’s because the West, including Germany, has an overriding interest in Iran. It’s to preserve whatever remains of the fast-unraveling deal to keep the Mullahs from getting nuclear weapons. Such nukes would threaten not only world peace generally but specifically Israel, whose security has been part of Germany’s “raison d’etat” since the Holocaust. Iran is also delivering drones to the Russians so they can bomb Ukrainian civilians. Diplomacy toward Tehran, in short, is complicated. It’s unclear whether hitting the Mullahs with “feminist sanctions” would achieve a breakthrough.
It’s a similar story in Afghanistan, Belarus, Nigeria and a long list of other countries. In too much of the world, too many people suffer too much oppression and cruelty, and too much of that suffering is borne by women and girls — from rape as a war tactic to female genital mutilation and the exclusion of girls from education. Foreign policy must take that into account. As Hillary Clinton, First Lady at the time, told the United Nations in 1995, “women’s rights are human rights.”
But human rights also extend to ethnic and religious minorities, and to people whose livelihood is destroyed by climate change or war. That’s why the German foreign ministry goes out of its way to emphasize that its feminist foreign policy is meant to help all “marginalized” groups, not just women. But then why label it “feminist”?
Unintentionally, the German FFP crowd has descended into a communications morass. The background papers keep getting longer and sounding more like campus seminars on gender studies, with foreign policy aiming to challenge “patriarchal power structures,” offering a “framework for identification,” and so forth. Good luck with that in Moscow and Beijing.
When pressed for concrete examples, by contrast, Baerbock inadvertently ends up sounding banal. When rebuilding a Nigerian village, for instance, Baerbock thinks it’s good to ask the women where the toilets should be. Men might put them on the outskirts to keep the odor away, but women wouldn’t feel safe using them there. No argument there. But is that worth the new label?
FFP is much more, Baerbock hastens to add. Germany will also make sure its foreign delegations contain lots of women. It’ll be more “gender sensitive” in doling out money. In general, the ministry will hone a “feminist reflex” among all its staff.
This is beginning to sound an awful lot like virtue signaling to domestic, rather than foreign, audiences. FFP in that sense might become the diplomacy equivalent of, say, the yucky label ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) in investing.
If actually implemented in hardball diplomacy, FFP jargon is more likely to backfire, by irritating important people in other countries, whom one tends to run into when engaging in foreign policy. That’s what Sweden discovered after adopting its FFP. When Stockholm had a few things to say about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh broke off relations for a year. When they were reestablished, nothing noticeable had changed for Saudi women.
In all these ways, FFP is just the latest and wokest instance of a tension that has riven international relations for millennia. It pits so-called Realists against Idealists. The Realists include a long roster of illustrious names from Thucydides to Machiavelli, Metternich and Kissinger. They believe that diplomacy is about states using the calculus of power to pursue their interests, with ethical questions largely irrelevant.
The Idealists have a pedigree no less impressive, stretching from the Dutch Renaissance humanist Hugo Grotius to the United Nations and other multinational regimes based on the concept of international law. In this tradition, ethical norms are not just admissible in diplomacy, but the whole point.
What Sweden has understood, but Germany still needs to learn, is that foreign policy must perennially find balance between these poles — interests and ideals, power and conscience, head and heart. That’s why state departments don’t usually have labels attached. If you absolutely insist on an adjective for your foreign policy, make it “wise.”
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Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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