Feminist Foreign Policy Approaches to Strengthen Multilateral Cooperation

This Argument appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Ambika Vishwanath and Aditi Mukund


20th century global governance systems are falling short of addressing the multitude of crises in the 21st century.[1] Most multilateral and intergovernmental platforms are products of post-war systems that institutionalized many forms of discrimination,[2] including gender inequality. These systems did not always consider the inequity that was created by centuries of colonialism or the potential for post-colonial states, thus further perpetuating a cycle of governance that branded a majority of the global population as “victims” or “recipients” of foreign and security policy. Multilateralism today has failed to take into account the spillover effects of protracted decades-old conflicts and their impacts on non-traditional security, to which women and marginalized populations are more vulnerable.[3]

Global processes need to be better informed by local cultures, as well as economic and social realities. India’s view of the conflict in Ukraine, for example, which has been a continuous topic of discussion at several multilateral forums, is often misinterpreted, with Western countries expressing apprehension at India’s “fence-sitting” or perceived neutrality.[4] A closer analysis of India’s position reveals that it has acted in accordance with its foreign policy doctrines of strategic autonomy and traditional non-alignment. The complex and interconnected global economic system means that India cannot cut ties with Russia, and the expectation that it must do so reinforces a Western-dominated hierarchy in the multilateral system.

Moreover, current governance systems and large, often unwieldy, multilateral institutions do not consider new challenges or confront the onus of responsibility, for example on climate change or global terror networks or access to emerging technology. These systems, in which the representatives in decision-making spaces do not reflect the world as it is today—in terms of population, economic growth, power and potential—will continue to remain wanting. Thus, it places an extra challenge, often an unfair one, on economies that have no part in the creation of these issues yet are pushed to be a part of the solution. There remains as well an overwhelming lack of trust in existing multilateral institutions that have in some cases exacerbated the very problems they were meant to solve, such as economic disparity, international security, or access to resources. These institutions are far removed from creating an equitable playing field.

The role that women play as decision-makers has likewise been overlooked. Like other international systems, multilateralism has been bereft of women as decision makers.[5] It was not until 1995 in Beijing, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, that UN countries and parties agreed on stronger principles advocating a more equal approach for men and women, subsequently resulting in steady but somewhat slow change in some parts of the world. Later, on 25 January 2022, the United Nations inaugurated the “International Day of Women in Multilateralism.” However, women still represent only 23% of delegates in peacekeeping processes led or co-led by the UN, and only 28.6% of peace agreements in 2020 included gender provisions.[6] Based on data from 2000 to 2021, another 35 years is needed on average to reach gender parity among national parliaments across the world. Latin America is closest to gender parity with 29.6% of women represented. Asia has 23.4% representation and needs an average of 41 years for parity.[7]

Mitigating contemporary warfare and conflict, strengthening security multilateralism, or addressing the often-unequal gendered impact of climate change will require the full participation and engagement of women. There is evidence to show, especially in developing economies, that women’s involvement in these spaces ensures lasting results. Moreover, conflict has a gender-differentiated impact, leading to differentiated consequences. Inadequate representation of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding further marginalizes women, who, it should be noted, do not experience conflict in a linear way.[8]

At this juncture, the growing global conversation on Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), an approach that places gender equality and inclusion at the heart of foreign policy objectives, can add value to existing multilateral systems. With 12 countries, as of November 2022, having adopted or announced the intention to adopt a feminist foreign policy, including those from developing economies such as Mexico, Colombia, and Chile, it is possible to develop a more concrete approach to feminist multilateralism. In the discourse on how the FFP approach can restore trust in multilateral systems,[9] it must be underscored that the FFP is an approach, not an outcome. Additionally, it is one of many approaches that ultimately value the ideals of equity and inclusion. It is our belief that the most comprehensive definition of FFP to date, as put forth by the International Centre for Research on Women, describes FFP as

the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision.[10]

This contrasts with a more traditional notion of conducting foreign policy, which has been informed by patriarchy and racism, which has in turn shaped multilateralism and institutionalized discrimination.[11] A feminist approach is wider in the areas it encompasses and broadens the perspectives needed for smarter decision making by engaging and co-creating with all sections of society, both at home and abroad.

While some countries might begin with a lens of gender mainstreaming, it is important to note that feminist approaches are ultimately about ensuring that all voices are represented within decision-making processes, either within a country or at the global stage. It is also important to acknowledge that while many countries do not have FFP as a new government mechanism or an intent, they already have aspects of such an approach in their existing foreign policy. India, Ireland, Australia, the UK and several others are such examples, especially in spaces of peace building efforts, international aid and assistance, climate, and trade policies.

India’s role in leading regional and multilateral processes also aims to represent a wide variety of stakeholders, including the voices of countries that have previously been left out in informing the multilateral process, by adopting inclusive policy instruments. Smaller groupings such as the G20, for which India holds the presidency in 2023, could then be the spaces to push through such efforts and bring much needed change to dated institutions. Regional minilateral groupings are proving to be an effective tool for cooperation, especially in regions like the Indo-Pacific.[12] The opportunity to mainstream gender in minilateral groupings is still underexplored but is gaining traction. The Quad security dialogue, for example, now has provisions to mainstream gender equality in its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief functions, while ASEAN has put in place a “Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework.”[13] Such provisions could lead to a more bottom-up approach within the multilateral framework.


Multilateral systems are varied, complex, and slow, but for the most part have clearly defined mandates, if somewhat outdated. The tools of a FFP approach that advocate for a wider perspective and a more inclusive approach can be brought into specific contexts and tailored as needed. Some of these tools, such as gender budgeting, gender-responsive toolkits, and a gender lens in policy planning both through representation and ensuring agency, can act as accountability mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of FFP approaches. Within the G20, for example, gender has not typically been a standalone issue, but many of the topics under consideration can benefit from the addition of a cross-cutting gender lens. Integrating FFP within a system, rather than treating it as a parallel track of conversation, can then lead to more equitable outcomes. While India has highlighted that inclusion and women’s empowerment are a key part of its G20 Agenda, the challenge lies in tying the core mandate to perspectives from diverse focus areas that are relevant to the core aims of the G20.[14]

Applying a broad conceptualization of feminism, one that can be viewed very often as a Western concept, to the multilateral system as a whole can lead to rather vague operational outcomes. For one, feminism is a term with many localized and specific definitions, and it is not immediately clear what parts of feminism can be brought to multilateralism. There is a rich history of women’s movements in many parts of the world, including India,[15] that pre-dates the feminist movement and even the word feminism. Intersectional feminism in the Global South goes beyond gender to also interrogate power and hierarchy in the context of race, class, caste, and exclusion of all marginalized groups. Ultimately, feminist multilateralism must play a role in global norm-setting[16] and in encouraging institutions to make gender equality a priority area as opposed to a sidelined area.[17] We are also arguing here that it should encourage, and perhaps even force, institutions to take a broader inclusion lens as a priority. At the very core, it is a human- and environment-centric approach tied together—not as separate areas of consideration.

Going forward, it will be helpful for actors within the multilateral system to have clarity on what a Feminist Foreign Policy is not. FFPs are not a solution to the problem: rather, a new innovative approach, possibly one of several, to either strengthen existing solutions or find new perspectives and collective solutions. As pointed out by Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, FFP is not a “swift success.”[18] It requires perseverance, sustained political will, and the multilateral system’s openness to newer and more inclusive perspectives. Among other perspectives, FFP also advocates for the inclusion of a decolonial lens. Changes in the multilateral system can be advocated for using these approaches, such that many countries in the Global South can be heard and traditional knowledge and expertise be acknowledged.

The nature of multilateralism is that constant trade-offs are made in order to achieve mutual objectives.[19] In many cases, a commitment (or lack thereof) to gender equality is that trade off, as witnessed during negotiations with the Taliban,[20] as well as in what are traditionally considered “hard” security decisions. Such commitments to gender equality are also often seen in economic or trade policy, though one can argue that this is slowly changing. FFP may not be able to solve a system whose functioning relies on the trade-offs it has to make; however, we argue that it can ensure that gender and inclusion are mainstreamed into the process to the point that discrimination and exclusion cannot be overlooked.

The Way Forward

Feminist foreign policy as a “horizontal” approach

Due to practical, organizational structuring reasons, issues of gender and inequality often get categorized into a separate vertical (UN Women in the case of the United Nations, the OECD Gender Initiative in the OECD, and the W20 in the G20). There are two downsides to this: first, gender experts and resource persons have a limited interface with an organization’s main function, and “gender” gets relegated as a “women’s issue,” often at a great disservice to the topic of women’s rights and gender equality. Second, it should be noted women’s empowerment, in economic and other spheres, has been proven to benefit both the family and society at large. The current G20 system, for example, addresses the “women” issue within the W20 track and the Empower track; however, a conversation on financial inclusion, climate, energy, or urban transformation needs cannot be disconnected from the former. Therefore, there must be provisions to integrate gender horizontally into multilateral systems. In this way, gender is taken as a consideration at every step of policy ideation, formation, and implementation, ensuring that the gender agenda is always on the table.

Context specific feminist foreign policy perspectives

FFP does not have an exact definition: each country has adapted Sweden’s original thinking on the 3 Rs—rights, representation, and resources—to its specific context. We see this as an advantage and not a liability. It widens the scope of discussion to incorporate perspectives from a wider spectrum of stakeholders and actors. Additionally, this means we can consider inputs from countries that do not have a formal FFP but have exhibited significant evidence of gender mainstreaming in foreign policy, such as India.[21] Such an approach also ensures that the foreign policy of a country that aims to go beyond traditional ideas embodies core principles of inclusivity and value-based partnerships. Depending on the context, varying dimensions of a FFP approach can be identified and implemented. The G20, for example, is a good platform for states to develop a decolonial view of the Global South, particularly since the G20 presidency will have passed through four Global South countries consecutively—Indonesia, India, Brazil, and South Africa—by the end of 2025. While we recognize that the G20 was primarily meant to confront economic challenges, these can no longer be separated from other global challenges, namely climate change, an ongoing war in Ukraine, and rising food and energy insecurity, all of which India will be forced to contend with as G20 president in 2023. Perhaps a change in thinking as to what the G20 can address is needed, where a new approach using FFP tools can prompt the how.


The global FFP discourse, though growing rapidly, is still at a nascent stage, especially within the multilateralism agenda. The way we approach the importance of gender and equity are viewed differently at the local, regional, national, and multilateral levels. Even when countries with FFPs interface with each other, this does not automatically guarantee that the ensuing policy will be feminist or inclusive in nature. This is particularly true in the case of the G7, where 3 of the 7 members, specifically Canada, France, and Germany, as well as several other EU countries, have feminist foreign policies in place, but the FFP agenda does not often find its way into G7 outcomes. The Women 7 or W7, the gender equality group within the G7, has called on G7 leaders to “champion feminist foreign policies in all multilateral spaces, including but not limited to fora such as the United Nations, G20, WHO, WTO, IFIs, ITU, WIPO, OECD, and the Global Partnership for Education.”[22] It remains to be seen whether the G7 will formally include a FFP lens in its actions. Admittedly, this will be challenging to coordinate, since each G7 country is entitled to its own understanding of what it means to have a “feminist” foreign policy. Moreover, the recent overturning of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has created a vacuum, with many questioning the need for such a policy and whether feminist work can be continued without the FFP label.[23]

The question to ask now is not if we need more diversity in perspectives in decision-making but how we can bring that to bear. There is no longer any question that more women in all levels of policy-making, especially foreign policy, offers countries a better chance of success. Recent research shows a robust correlation between durable peace and peace negotiations with women signatories,[24] with those peace agreements being 64% less likely to fail.[25] Qualitatively, women in peacekeeping and security roles have access to marginalized populations and can aid in intelligence gathering and evidence building efforts.[26] The same can be said of small minilateral organizations and larger multilateral ones. However, while representation is needed, without overarching norms and a fundamental shift of power and agency, the benefits will remain lacking. The FFP approach—and the work to question, critique, and strengthen it by civil society—can offer the tools to begin to countries that might not have the ability, will, or inclination. Focusing on communicating and realizing the idea of inclusivity might just be what broken global systems need to begin a new, and better, era.

[1] Teresa Nogueira Pinto, “The failures of multilateralism,” GIS Reports Online, March 30, 2022, https:// www.gisreportsonline.com/r/multilateralism-crisis/.

[2] Gabriela Ramos, “Gender discrimination in social institutions and long-term growth,” OECD, March 08, 2016, https://www.oecd.org/dev/development-posts-gender-discrimination.htm.

[3] UN Women, Gender Analysis in Non-Traditional Sectors (New York: UN Women, 2022).

[4] Michael Kugelman, “What India’s Fence-Sitting on the Ukraine War Means for the Quad,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, April 15, 2022, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/what-indias-fence-sitting-on-the-ukraine-war-means-for-the-quad.

[5] Tatiana Valovaya, “Women’s Imprint in Multilateralism,” Geneva Global Policy Briefs 3 (2021).

[6] UNESCO, “International Day of Women in Multilateralism,” January 25, 2022, https://en.unesco. org/women-in-multilateralism.

[7] Hannah Neumann and Sofiia Shevchuk, “The #Shecurity Index 2022,” #shecurity, https://shecurity. info/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Report_Shecurity_2022_FiNAL.pdf.

[8] Elizabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “Focus: Women, Gender, and Armed Conflict,” OECD, October 2009, https://www.oecd.org/dac/gender-development/44896284.pdf.

[9] Women Political Leaders, “The missing link: to restore trust in multilateralism, the global community needs to see an increase in women’s leadership,” April 23, 2020, https://www.womenpoliticalleaders. org/the-missing-link-to-restore-trust-in-multilateralism-the-global-community-needs-to-see-an-increasein-womens-leadership/.

[10] Lyric Thompson, Spogmay Ahmed, and Tanya Khokhar, “Defining Feminist Foreign Policy: a 2021 Update,” ICRW, September 2021, https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Defining-FeministForeign-Policy-2021-Update.pdf.

[11] Lyric Thompson, Gayatri Patel, Gawain Kripke, and Megan O’Donnell, Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States (Washington DC: ICRW, 2020).

[12] Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Explaining the Rise of Minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific,” Observer Research Foundation, September 16, 2021, https://www.orfonline.org/research/explaining-the-rise-ofminilaterals-in-the-indo-pacific/.

[13] Priyanka Bhide and Aditi Mukund, “Gendering the Indo-Pacific Dialogue: Opportunities for India and Australia,” South Asian Voices, November 1, 2022, https://southasianvoices.org/gendering-the-indopacific-dialogue-opportunities-for-india-and-australia/.

[14] Kubernein Initiative, “India and the G20: Moving Towards and Inclusive Agenda,” Konrad-AdenauerStiftung-India, 2022.

[15] Rekha Pande, “The History of Feminism and Doing Gender in India,” Revista Estudos Feministas 26, no. 3 (2018).

[16] Anne Marie Goetz, “The New Competition in Multilateral Norm-Setting: Transnational Feminists & the Illiberal Backlash,” Daedalus 149, no 1 (2020): 160-179.

[17] Myra Marx Ferree, “Globalization and Feminism: Opportunities and Obstacles for Activism in the Global Arena,” in Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006), 3-23.

[18] Annalena Baerbock, “Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Conference on Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy,” September 12, 2022, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/ feminist-foreign-policy/2551610.

[19] Amrita Narlikar, “The malaise of multilateralism and how to manage it,” Observer Research Foundation, January 23, 2020. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-malaise-of-multilateralismand-how-to-manage-it/.

[20] Farkondeh Akbari and Jacqui True, “WPS in Afghanistan: Betrayal and Renewal,” AFFPC Issue Paper Series 4 (2022).

[21] Kubernein Initiative, “Opportunities for a More Inclusive Indian Foreign Policy,” Konrad-AdenauerStiftung-India, 2022.

[22] W7 Germany, “W7 Implementation Plan,” May 2022, https://women7.org/wp-content/ uploads/2022/05/W7_implementation_digital.pdf.

[23] Hanna Walfridsson, “Sweden’s New Government Abandons Feminist Foreign Policy,” Human Rights Watch, October 31, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/31/swedens-new-government-abandonsfeminist-foreign-policy.

[24] Jana Krause, Werner Krause, and Piia Bränfors, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and the Durability of Peace,” Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations 44, no 6 (2018): 985-1016.

[25] Desiree Nilsson, “Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace,” International Interactions 38, no. 2 (2012): 243-266.

[26] Karuna Kumar, “Women and War: Gender Mainstreaming Security Multilateralism,” Observer Research Foundation,” April 27, 2022, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/women-and-war/.