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A feminist foreign policy: What would it mean for the UK?

Article by Marissa Conway

March 3, 2020

A feminist foreign policy: What would it mean for the UK?

Fresh on the heels of Brexit, the landscape of British foreign policy is infused with uncertainty. We are entering a new chapter of British politics and culture, and in the face of overwhelming change and unfamiliarity, the pull to revert to the known is strong. Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, our ‘known’ includes a violent history of colonisation and domination through foreign policy. Politicians like Prime Minister Boris Johnson have cited the opportunity for a ‘Global Britain’ now that we are outside of the European Union.[1] This ‘Global Britain’, so it goes, gives the UK the chance to restore ourselves to our historical place at the top of the global hierarchy. But what goes unsaid in these sound bites is that this position of power came and continues to come at the expense of the quality of life and the actual lives of those both at home and abroad who do not fit a patriarchal mould of the status quo; in other words, for those who were not English-born white men. For example, the Windrush scandal cast a harsh spotlight on the way in which formerly colonised people of colour who are legally entitled to reside in the UK were forced to leave or were detained. Many also lost their jobs and homes or were refused healthcare and social assistance they legally should have been able to access.[2]

Brexit, with all its upheavals, does present a chance to hit reset and break such a historical pattern of trauma and violence both abroad and at home. We now have an opportunity to re-envision foreign policy in a way we have never conceived of it before, and it is going to take more than reappointing positions when politicians fall short. Now that we are outside of the political structures of the EU, how will we craft our legacy? I believe the UK can be a leader in building peace through its foreign policy not by means of claiming power over others, but by adopting a strong ethical framework to guide its decision-making in order to set a new international standard for placing human rights at the centre of policy. And there is no better way to do so than by adopting a feminist foreign policy.

What is a feminist foreign policy?

A feminist foreign policy (FFP) is a relatively new political framework, first introduced and adopted by Sweden in 2014.[3] Theirs focuses on three Rs: Rights, Representation, and Resources for women and girls. Though initially a state-generated approach to foreign policy, civil society has since taken the idea and run with it, working to fill out its theoretical foundation and offering a more radical interpretation of what FFP can mean for any given country.[4] The general consensus is that FFP is most concerned with the human impact of foreign policy and actively works to create policies that are helpful and not hurtful. It does this by building out political systems which are oriented towards achieving equality, justice and solidarity and rejects patriarchal values like racism, capitalism and imperialism. The ‘feminist’ part of FFP calls in intersectional, decolonial and anti-racist principles to this work, which are built on an extensive history of activism and campaigning for women’s rights. Setting feminist values as the filter through which decisions are made means that FFP centres the needs of vulnerable people (who are often the most impacted by foreign policy) as the most important aspect of all policymaking processes. For example, under an FFP framework, immigration policymakers would work directly with asylum seekers to create the most supportive systems for those in need of a new home.

It is important to note that though FFP originated in Sweden as a means to fortify women’s rights, it has already evolved to be understood as a framework that works for everyone. It is primarily concerned with the rights and needs of people who are marginalised for a wide variety of reasons beyond their gender identity. This includes race, class and ability, to name a few. In order to do this, FFP investigates power dynamics and seeks to address how foreign policy fashions power as hierarchical between both people and states. This hierarchy is sustained by patriarchal values and functions best when an elite few sit alone at the top. Between people, this commonly looks like Eton- and Oxbridge-educated white men making decisions that impact the rest of the population, even though these men are unlikely to ever experience the impacts of their decisions themselves. Between states, it looks like Permanent Members (P5) of the Security Council, who are also nuclear weapon-possessing nations, holding the ultimate veto power over anything they might not like.

This is not to say that it is written in the stars that all P5 states are doomed to cause violence to others, or that all Oxbridge-educated white men can only ever be bad policymakers. Rather, it means recognising we all participate in a system in which power is skewed dramatically in a specific direction and taking the responsibility to address this in a meaningful way. All of us most likely occupy some position of power, and so have a duty to constantly reflect on how we can better wield it to help, not harm, our world. Through an FFP framework, the questioning of these power imbalances becomes institutionalised in policy practices, and by focusing on fulfilling the needs of the most vulnerable first we begin to flip this hierarchy on its head and make equality a reality.

A UK feminist foreign policy

Foreign policy has the potential to be a mechanism by which we create a world free from violence. Britain sits as a Permanent Member on the Security Council and is a nuclear weapon-possessing nation, and so operates its foreign policy from a place of considerable influence.[5] Wielding this power wisely means ensuring that those who historically have been othered, ignored or exploited are meaningfully included in policymaking. We are seeing interest and steps in the right direction by the UK Government through its National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, and its Preventing Sexualised Violence Initiative, for example. Though it is arguable that both of these are struggling to be meaningful and sustainable as political attention frequently wanders, it is clear that there is already momentum within the Government to make the principles behind FFP more prominent in policy work. In fact, the Labour Party and Women’s Equality Party have also both expressed interest in FFP.[6] While promising, it is important that any work in this field seeks systemic change, rather than just addressing the symptoms of inequality. Ultimately, FFP means that the thoughts and opinions of an elite few who will not experience the consequences of their own decisions should never be the driver behind decisions around issues like economic sanctions, arms sales or immigrant detention time.

FFP is more than throwing a few women or people of colour into political leadership and calling it a day. It is oriented towards a complete systemic overhaul of politics as we know it. It is not necessarily easy work and requires introspection and self-reflection about the way in which UK foreign policy is paradoxical as, for example, it funds peacekeeping initiatives to resolve conflict while selling arms which fuel that very conflict in the first place. Colonial legacies in particular are held front and centre under the microscope of FFP as something that has been deeply harmful on a large scale and is in need of reparations.

So what can we do today to set the UK on a path towards a more sustainably peaceful world? The first step to thinking about UK policy under an FFP framework involves a feminist analysis of power and asking for any given issue area, ‘Who has power?’ ‘Who does not?’ ‘Why do these dynamics exist?’ This analytical exercise begins to peel back the surface layers of political agendas and exposes vulnerability, sites of exploitation and patriarchal patterns. Once this information is gathered, the second step involves reimagining the goal of all current policy as achieving solidarity, justice and equality. How would trade policy change if it was less concerned with capital and more concerned with protecting exploited workers’ rights? How do ideas about security and the arms trade change if we seek to stand in true solidarity with victims of conflict?

Though originating from decades of feminist activism and academia, FFP as a state-implemented political framework is still remarkably new and many of the questions framed in this article have yet to be addressed. However, today’s feminists are continuing to push the envelope. Both globally and in the UK, we are on the cusp of a new wave of foreign policy thinking and action, and what this means for any given context requires a great deal more research and discussion. What is clear is that an FFP framework would dramatically change the landscape of UK politics for the better and make sustainable peace a real possibility.


Marissa Conway is the Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and a current doctoral candidate earning her PhD in Politics at the University of Bristol. She is on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Follow her on Twitter: @marissakconway

[1] BBC News, Boris Johnson: First speech as PM in full, July 2019,

[2] Steve Valdez-Symonds, Seventy Years After Windrush, Amnesty International UK, April 2018,

[3] Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Feminist Foreign Policy, Government Offices of Sweden,

[4] For a complete list of current writing and research on feminist foreign policy, see the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy’s Feminist Foreign Policy Reading List:

[5] United Nations Security Council Members, United Nations,; Nuclear Threat Initiative: United Kingdom, (updated October 2016),

[6] Preet Gill MP, Preet Gill: Labour’s feminist foreign policy would take on gender-based violence in all its forms, The House, Politics Home, January 2019,; Women’s Equality Party UK, Twitter post, September 2018,

Photo: Women’s March participants in Liverpool in January 2017. Photo credit: Samwalton9.

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