A Feminist Foreign Policy for the United States: Prioritizing Evidence, Inclusion, and Accountability

May 21, 2020

Last August, I joined a group of researchers and advocates, many of whom previously served in US development and diplomatic posts, to contemplate what a “feminist foreign policy” might look like for the United States government. At that time, Sweden, Canada, Luxembourg, and France had already announced their own feminist foreign policies, and since then, Mexico has done the same. More recently, Hawaii even unveiled a COVID-19 feminist economic recovery plan.

The initial conversations of last summer led to a series of consultations with organizations and individuals from 40 countries, including one I led in partnership with Lyric Thompson of ICRW, examining how the accountability architecture for global gender equality might be strengthened. Consultations like these have culminated in today’s launch of a new report: Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States.

The paper is meant to be the start of a conversation, one very much aligned with the goal of building long-term, sustainable, and inclusive recovery systems in light of COVID-19. It presents a data-driven approach to foreign policy—one that uses research and evidence to ensure that US foreign policy decision-making more equitably impacts the countries, communities, and individuals it already affects.

Evidence tells us that gender-discriminatory policies lead to persistent gender gaps in the global economy, politics, and broader society. Thus, US policymakers and implementers will need to be intentional about reforming the discriminatory policies currently exacerbating gender gaps.

One path to reform is through increasingly inclusive processes that allow policy audiences to learn about and integrate the needs, constraints, and preferences of local civil society actors and those they represent in US foreign policy decisions. This call for inclusive processes is consistent with the one made by my colleagues Mark Plant and Sanjeev Gupta, in collaboration with Save the Children’s Andrew Wainer, in their proposal to ensure that civil society informs COVID-19 policy responses.

Beyond inclusive processes, the proposal reflects four key elements outlined below, all of which are aligned with past CGD proposals aimed at promoting global gender equality.

1. Taking a “beyond-aid” approach

As reflected in CGD’s Commitment to Development Index, the impact of donor governments like the United States on low- and middle-income countries extends far beyond the realm of the international development and humanitarian assistance they provide.

The United States’ approach to defense, diplomacy, trade, migration, and the environment, among other areas of foreign policy, have a significant impact on other countries and those who live within them. Charles Kenny and I have looked at how migration channels, trade policies, and defense efforts can also more effectively promote gender equality. The feminist foreign policy proposal applies the same “beyond-aid” logic and makes recommendations across all levers of foreign policy.

2. Emphasizing rigorous analysis

The proposal recommends that gender analysis become standard practice in policy design and program implementation throughout the US government, tailored to each agency, as is already done at the US Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Gender analysis allows policymakers and implementers to better understand how current and future policies either widen or narrow gender gaps.

For example, in the context of migration, gender analysis should be applied to current US policies to ascertain the extent to which, though “gender neutral” on their face, they may nonetheless present disproportionate barriers to women’s migration. In a recent blog with Rebekah Smith, I outline how restrictions tied to labor migrants’ sector, profession, or skill level prevent all women from migrating under equal conditions, and result in labor shortages in critical sectors (e.g., nursing, caregiving). This same type of analysis, applied to US migration policies, would reveal where these policies have gender differential effects that disadvantage women seeking to enter the United States, as well as the US economy.

3. Strengthening transparency and accountability

We still have limited evidence on the extent to which international conventions (e.g., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and other accountability mechanisms have played a role in successfully narrowing gender gaps and improving the lives of women and girls. To date, Sweden’s reporting process on its feminist foreign policy has been in the form of illustrative case studies rather than quantifiable data on outcomes across all levers of foreign policy. The United States should demonstrate leadership by adopting a more robust framework for identifying and monitoring progress on achieving core objectives. Drawing upon a CGD policy note, the proposal also recommends the adoption of a “SMART” framework, through which stated foreign policy objectives must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Working towards the institution of a SMART framework is critical from an accountability perspective. Civil society is better positioned to hold governments accountable for implementing well-defined, measurable objectives than for abstract aspirations or unrealistic goals.

4. Walking the talk

A feminist foreign policy will require gender parity and broader inclusion within government. Just as think tanks will benefit from the perspectives of a more diverse set of experts, government agencies will benefit from increased diversity and an internal culture of equity and inclusion.

In this vein, the United States should achieve gender balance among all US diplomatic personnel; mandate diversity, equity, and inclusion training; and ensure human resources policies reflect zero tolerance against harassment and support for work/life balance. 

Beyond the examples I’ve included here, the report presents a wide range of recommendations. Some of these recommendations apply across US government agencies, while others that are more specific. Some could be implemented immediately (e.g., a commitment by the US president-elect to appoint 50 percent women to cabinet posts, and ensuring critical support for women’s sexual and reproductive health through repeal of the expanded Mexico City Policy), and others that will take longer (e.g., setting and meeting targets for sourcing from women-owned firms in public procurement channels). All recommendations aim to make foreign policy a more equitable pursuit. For more details on specific recommendations, you can find the paper here, as well as details for the launch event here.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain