Books | Feminist foreign policy

Who deserves a seat at the negotiating table?

The future of foreign policy is feminist, says activist and author Kristina Lunz in her new book. But what is she actually talking about?

A gorilla sits at the negotiating table in a conference room

Feminist foreign policy: as rare as a gorilla at the negotiating table?


Would there be a war in Ukraine now if we had only listened to the pioneers of what is known as “feminist foreign policy”? In fact, what would be different if our foreign policy had always been feminist?

These are the kinds of questions posed in Kristina Lunz’ new book, Die Zukunft der Aussenpolitik ist Feministisch (in English, “the future of foreign policy is feminist”), published the same week that Vladmir Putin's Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

It's a terrible war that has no apparent reason, other than the narcissistic, imperialistic wishes of one man, who wants only to demonstrate his power and show that he is the strongest among the strongmen. There's a lot of talk about Putin's “toxic masculinity”, about his irrationality and about the need to arm in order to push him back and defend the Europe's peace.

But what about the people in Ukraine? Are we forgetting about them as we play this geopolitical chess game? What would policies look like if the victims of violence were the first priority?

This question – whether a feminist foreign policy could prevent war – was in my mind throughout my reading of Lunz' book. The week before the book was published I had actually presented a study about feminist environmental policy. Patriarchal structures and toxic masculinity – otherwise known as destructive behaviour by men – are not just an issue in foreign policy but in environmental action too.

“Her book succeeds where politics often fails: It offers genuine representation.”

Instead of ensuring stability and security, this destructive behaviour often prevents these conditions. Lunz emphasises that humankind's deepest wish for peace won't be achieved through deterrence or weaponry. It isn’t just about security in case there's some kind of conflict. It's also about general human needs, such as food, shelter, energy and overall well-being.

Lunz' holistic approach to these questions is evident in her discussion of how patriarchal systems only protect certain groups' interests. These groups defend their own position while others, and in particular, more vulnerable groups, pay a high price so that they may maintain their power and place.

Lunz explains the idea of a feminist foreign policy on the basis of years of extensive analysis within global and societal contexts. Using many examples, from the international to local grassroots efforts, she manages to make the complex and often elitist field of foreign policy more comprehensible.

Her approach is also intersectional – that is, she is able to bring different aspects of inequality into the discussion.

Lunz allows the individuals in her book to speak directly  to the reader, the kind of people who should be able to play a part in addressing any global crisis – such as women, people of colour, Indigenous people, disabled people, refugees and many, many others. Her book succeeds where politics often fails: It offers genuine representation.

For example, in her chapter on climate justice, she offers approaches by Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a prominent environmental activist from the Philippines, a nation severely impacted by climate change, alongside those from Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, who has a different perspective on the consequences of post-colonial exploitation of people and nature.

The tables around which mainly men have been sitting for centuries to negotiate are not only bigger in Lunz' book, they're also populated by a more colourful group. There are not just heads of state, diplomats, analysts, military officers and consultants at her table.

“Lunz shows how a feminist perspective can help change one's thinking about different aspects of foreign policy and how that contributes to new ways of working.”

Instead of the standard 70% white males, she includes Afghan women, for whom security includes the right to education and political stability. She also includes environmental activists who focus not only on the planet but also on exploitation. Also at Lunz' table are single mothers who cannot afford either a car or the rising cost of heating. All of these individuals discuss potential solutions, alongside the pensioner from Ukraine who lost everything in the space of just one day.

Lunz also describes the shift away from foreign policy based on so-called realpolitik toward what she considers the integral elements of a feminist foreign policy: demilitarization, diplomacy and mediation rather than militarization, confrontation and violence.

Certainly her book makes you angry, about violence against women and anti-gender movements as well as the unequal impact of a global pandemic or the climate crisis on marginalized groups. Lunz underlines, painfully and forcefully, the fact that crises exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and that the fight for genuine equality has suffered major setbacks in the past few years.

Despite all this, the author doesn’t leave the reader feeling powerless. Lunz shows how a feminist perspective can help change one's thinking about different aspects of foreign policy and how that contributes to new ways of working. It's about questioning the status quo and breaking down existing power structures.

The author begins with herself. “The personal is political,” Lunz quotes feminist Carol Hanisch, and then talks about how she grew up in a rural area and became a feminist, then how she made her way into the world of diplomacy and foreign policy, having been stationed at the United Nations and at the German Federal Foreign Office and then finally the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), which she founded.

In all of the places she has worked, she focused on with doing away with old-fashioned, patriarchal systems. Only those who demand utopia, can effect urgent change, she argues.

Lunz also enthusiastically presents the pioneers of feminist foreign policy in her book, including former Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström and Chandra Mohanty, the American professor of gender studies in the USA. Lunz herself can be counted among those pioneers – she certainly opened a door to the idea of a feminist foreign policy and not just with this book.

Critics of this book, or of feminist foreign policy in general, like to call it naive or not tough enough for times like these. But isn’t it exactly at times like these when people – and not geo-political power plays – need to be at the centre of our thoughts and actions? Imagine if we had paid attention to the calls of experts in feminist foreign policy, about de-escalation and disarmament, much earlier.