Feminist Foreign Policy and the United States: Is it a match?

by Eva Rieger

American Exceptionalism entails the belief in the United States’ outstanding characteristics and is rooted in classical liberal values and their propagation. Consequently, U.S. foreign policy behavior has often been justified with the promotion of freedom, human rights and democracy. According to most contemporary liberal interpretations – starting as early as John Stuart Mill’s work and spanning today’s democracy indices’ definitions of liberal democracy – as well as feminist thought, this includes supporting women’s rights (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2022; Code 2000: 303; Freedom House 2023; Varieties of Democracy 2023). So, on the one hand, U.S. administrations often argued that developmental aid (e.g., programs for female literacy) further women’s rights. Some administrations (e.g., under President Clinton) even had foreign policy agendas specifically inspired by feminism and President Biden started the ‘National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality’ aimed at domestic and foreign policy (Garner 2013; The White House 2021). On the other hand, feminists and feminist theories have criticized  U.S. foreign policy, beginning with, but not limited to, the overall ‘masculinized’ security policies including the immense defense budget, cooperation with countries known for their lack of human (and especially women’s) rights (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and restricting U.S. aid payments to NGOs offering abortion-related activities (i.e., Mexico City Policy) (Thompson et al. 2020: 9, 11–14). Especially the latter has been a contentious subject since its inception in 1984 and contestations within Congress have only increased in the last years (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 10–15; Reingold and Gautam 2017). This raises the question of whether U.S. foreign policy and feminist thought (in the form of feminist foreign policy goals) are compatible. This blog contribution will evaluate recent iterations of the Mexico City Policy from a feminist foreign policy perspective, asking if and how they are compatible.

There are many studies dedicated to the effects of the Mexico City Policy.

The Mexico City Policy explained

The Mexico City Policy (short: MCP, named after the location where it was first announced by President Reagan) is better known under the informal name of ‘global gag rule’. It regulates whether programs receive contributions by the U.S. government for family planning and health assistance, based on the condition they will neither perform nor promote abortion, even if said activities are paid for by funds from other sources (KFF 2021). This means that U.S. population assistance funds going to legal-abortion-countries are prevented from contributing to abortion services. Similarly, foreign NGOs cannot “perform or actively promote abortion as a method for family planning” (The White House Office of Policy Development 1984: 575) to further receive U.S. global health assistance. It also affects United Nations’ programs, by making U.S. contributions to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNPFA) conditional on it not supporting abortion services (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 13). In case of non-compliance, health assistance funds will be terminated for the concerned organization (Human Rights Watch 2018).

Since the policy was put in place, it has been contested in the sense that every Democratic administration rescinded it, while Republican ones reinstated it and President Trump even expanded its provisions in his Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy (The White House 2017). These new restrictions not only required NGOs receiving funding from the U.S. to adhere to those rules, but also prohibits them from cooperating with other organizations that have not accepted them (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 13–14). There have been several reported implications from the overall application of the Mexico City Policy and its expansion. It went so far that the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality even requested the study Evaluating the EU’s Response to the US Global Gag Rule (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020) to be conducted, where they wanted to find out how they could best counter the effects of the MCP. According to Human Rights Watch (2018), “the policy has triggered reductions in key sexual and reproductive health services from well-established organizations that cannot easily be replaced” in countries like Kenya and Uganda. Among the affected NGOs losing U.S. funding count well-established and far-reaching organizations like International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Marie Stopes International (MSI), Global Fund for Women and Open Society Foundations (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 15; Shaffner 2017). Studies have also found that countries affected when the ‘global gag rule’ was in place (especially in sub-Saharan Africa) show higher pregnancy and abortion rates. This is due to the fact that the access to and use of modern forms of contraception increase in times the policy is not in place and funding to NGOs concerned with female (reproductive) health care is not restricted (Bendavid et al. 2011; Brooks et al. 2019). This goes to show that not only is the policy contested in the United States, but that it actually influences the work of foreign NGOs and lives of women in affected countries. Thus, it concerns feminism and feminist foreign policy (FFP).

What is feminist foreign policy?

There are several efforts and international agreements regarding women’s rights that inform FFP.

There is no one definition of FFP, but rather various approaches based on different feminist theories. This goes for academia as well as policy practice, i.e. there are many diverse concepts employed by countries with feminist foreign policies. Differences can be found in the general understanding of feminism, the goals set by the policies, their application, scope, framing and reporting measures put in place. What is agreed upon is that at the basis of FFP stands the protection of human rights (especially women’s rights) and civilians, with the overall goal of achieving gender equality. We can also see direct references to international agreements in many countries’ FFP, such as the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (based on the UN resolution 1325). Further, most FFP concepts specifically contain the promotion and protection of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (Auswärtiges Amt 2023: 16; French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs 2018: 17–18; Government of the Netherlands 2022; Government Offices of Sweden 2019: 28–29; Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Unión Europea y cooperación 2021: 25). Usually, the most notable theoretical influences here come from liberal and postmodern feminist currents. Since Sweden was the first country to officially adopt a feminist foreign policy in 2014, their approach has informed many other countries’ policies. There are currently 18 countries in the Feminist Foreign Policy Plus (FFP+) Group, showing their interest in the idea, even if not all of them have fully formulated policies in place (Doherty 2022; Government of the Netherlands 2023).

The Three Rs

Sweden has coined the so-called ‘Three Rs’, which form the basis of their FFP and have been adopted into a range of other countries’ policy manuals (e.g., the Netherlands and Germany). The ‘Three Rs’ stand for Rights, Representation and Resources. As put by several European governments’ handbooks, Rights means the global promotion of women’s rights as universal human rights and protecting them from violence and discrimination which restrict their freedom. Representation is concerned with women’s participation in decision-making processes. Foreign policy should be aimed at promoting women’s participation in all branches of politics and society including enhancing dialogue with female representatives from civil society. Lastly, Resources speaks to allocating funds and personnel to sufficiently promote gender equality and achieve the set goals. Countries should put enough resources forward, to be able to promote gender equality in its own ranks as well as allocating a certain amount of foreign aid towards women’s rights and gender equality (Auswärtiges Amt 2023; Government of the Netherlands 2022; Government Offices of Sweden 2019).

U.S. Foreign Policy and Feminism

While the United States has never explicitly stated having a feminist foreign policy, the liberal guiding principles the nation is built on, call for promoting human rights and equality. Not only did Hillary Clinton declare “that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” (Clinton presidential Library 1995), but the ‘Hillary Doctrine’, named after the former Secretary of State, even stated that “the subjugation of women is […] a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country” (Clinton 2010). This corresponds with the intentions of liberal feminist thought found in FFP concepts containing the ‘Three Rs’. Further, all administrations (Republican and Democrat) since Reagan have claimed to be committed to promoting women’s rights and gender equality – albeit with differing definitions of and commitment to said goal. Thus, assessing U.S. foreign policy in the form of the ‘global gag rule’ along the ‘Three Rs’ of FFP seems fitting and fruitful.

Is the ‘global gag rule’ compatible with FFP?

The important question now is: to what extent does the MCP fulfill the ‘Three Rs’, that form the basis of many FFP understandings?

Rights: Restrictions on funding for NGOs do not have to be aimed at infringing on human rights, but can still have that consequence. For example, cutting U.S. aid for global health programs “including the President’s Plan for Emergency Relief for AIDS (PEPFAR) [note: a federal program that had been excluded from the MCP’s application before Trump], prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, malaria (including the President’s Malaria Initiative), infectious diseases, neglected tropical diseases, and even to water, sanitation, and hygiene programs” (Human Rights Watch 2018) can certainly not be counted as the promotion of human rights. If we take into account the restricted access to health care in affected areas, because NGOs had to close offices and cut outreach programs, general and especially female (reproductive) health care has worsened because of the policy. This means the ‘global gag rule’ not only fails to promote women’s rights, but it even furthers discrimination based on gender in countries receiving U.S. aid.

Representation: Even if all U.S. Presidents (who decide whether to apply the MCP via executive orders) have been male, women have not been specifically excluded from the decision-making process. Several administrations only had few female leadership positions in general and even less women who might have been able to influence the policy in question (e.g., Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as the United States’ Representative to the UN under Reagan,1981-1985). It is notable, though, that women headed the State Department not only in the Clinton and Obama administrations, but also during G.W. Bush’s presidency, during which the MCP was put back in place. Looking into the recent administrations of Trump and Biden, the latter certainly has more female leadership positions, but women also held positions of influence in the Trump administration. Thus, overall, women did have some possibility to participate in the process. It is, however, unclear if and how much those in charge consulted with female representatives in the administration (and possibly also from Congress and civil society) before making decisions. This is true for (re-)instating and rescinding the ‘global gag rule’. However, after Trump’s new policy, Senator Shaheen (as the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal the policy forever (Shaheen 2017), suggesting women were not consulted enough before the renewed introduction. Further, none of the different iterations of the Mexico City Policy are trying to promote women’s representation in global health programs and NGOs. Therefore, the requirement of representation is only somewhat met and not specially promoted by the MCP.

The ‘global gag rule’ has always been a contentious subject, but contestation has only increased with growing political polarization in the U.S.

Resources: Through the restrictions put up by the ‘global gag rule’, the resources allocated towards programs concerned with women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health decrease. This has especially been the case under Trump’s expansion of the policy, where it is estimated that $8.8 billion in U.S. global health assistance fell under the MCP’s provisions, compared to $575 million previously (Human Rights Watch 2018). This means that to be eligible for financial assistance by the United States, organizations need to accept the restrictions and adjust their activities accordingly, as well as make sure all their partners and sub-awardees comply with these rules. If applicants fail to do so, their requested resources are allocated towards other organizations, which was the case for eight primary and 47 secondary potential recipients from 2017 to 2018 (United States Department of State 2020: 1–2). With the Mexico City Policy aimed at abortion-related activities, it does not directly interfere with U.S. aid resources intended to promote gender equality in the form of educational and workforce-related programs or even programs against discrimination, sexual abuse and domestic violence. There are, however, indications that “faced with a loss of funding, NGOs are obliged to divert funding originally planned to different programmes to fill in the financial gap. The diversion of funding means that there is a cut in the programmes and services delivered [in general]” (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 15). Therefore, the MCP affects a wide range of programs concerned with global health assistance, water and sanitation as well as gender equality (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 16). As such, by implementing the policy, resources aimed at gender equality and women’s rights were cut by U.S. administrations instead of sufficiently funded.

Having looked at all ‘Three Rs’, we can now conclude that the ‘global gag rule’ is not compatible with a feminist foreign policy. While Representation is simply not actively promoted, Rights and Resources are not only not met but even actively undermined by the Mexico City Policy.

What does this mean for FFP and U.S. foreign policy?

The changes of implementation vs. retraction of the policy show the political differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. It mirrors not only the ideological wars fought over domestic regulations regarding abortion, but also the wider subject of women’s rights and gender equality. In fact, this domestic political conflict has real consequences for many men and women around the globe. At the very least, the recurring changes from one administration to the other, bring about unpredictability and confusion. There are reports of it leading to “a climate of ‘pervasive fear and confusion’” (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 15–16) and reducing network cooperation for NGOs. Further, because of the reduced funds and cutting of several health services (due to the policy’s restrictions), the implementation of the ‘global gag rule’ leads to an overall decrease in resources for global health services, not just for women’s sexual and reproductive health. It was found that this has a negative impact on “progress towards the SDGs, namely Goal 3 on Global health and wellbeing, Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation” (Cotroneo and Jeney 2020: 17). Thus, one can say that the MCP is an element of U.S. foreign policy that is incompatible with a feminist foreign policy. While this constitutes only one example of a policy not promoting women’s rights, it can be seen as emblematic for the overall U.S. foreign policy not meeting FFP standards. As mentioned in the beginning, there are several behaviors by the United States that can be and are criticized from a feminist perspective, such as focusing on military over humanitarian aid budgets, cooperation and arms deals with countries undermining women’s rights. This goes to show that (so far) the United States’ foreign policy and feminist foreign policy are not a match and possible renewed implementations of the ‘global gag rule’ can serve as an indicator for future general developments in this area.

About the Author

Eva Rieger is a Ph.D. student and works as a research associate for the Chair of International Politics at the University of Passau. Her dissertation project deals with discourse analysis in U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Republican Party. She holds an M.A. in Democracy Studies from the University of Regensburg and a B.A. in Governance and Public Policy from the University of Passau. You can contact her via email: Eva.Rieger@uni-passau.de.


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Header / Flyer “Early Impacts of the global gag rule”: picture by International Women’s Health Coalition on flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Signing the “Joint Statement on Advancing Women’s Political Participation”: picture by UN Women on flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Women protetsing the ‘global gag rule’ behind Donald Trump: picture by Gage Skidmore on reifinery; CC BY-SA 2.0

Cite this blog post
The Editors (2024, January 31). Feminist Foreign Policy and the United States: Is it a match? HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vpzw

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