A quiet revolution for women in US foreign and security policy?
The Departments of Defense, State, USAID and Homeland Security recently launched plans regarding women in U.S. foreign and security policy. The joint rollout unveiled the Trump administration’s roadmap for changing the way America and its allies and partners integrate women and their concerns into foreign aid, diplomacy and military operations.
The long-awaited plans flesh out the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, established at the United Nations Security Council 20 years ago, enacted into law in 2017, and enshrined as a national security strategy last year. Their purpose is to get more women to the table in peace processes to avert and reconcile conflict, fairly distribute aid to women in post-conflict settings, and protect women and girls in wars and disasters.
The National Security Council (NSC) did an outstanding job adjudicating the plans, to be in accord with hard security imperatives. The achievement proves the wisdom of the agenda’s goal of retaining women leaders in foreign and security institutions. The Trump administration has the highest proportion of women senior leaders in the National Security Council of any in history.
The next steps will be putting meat on the bones of how women’s equality at home and abroad will help the U.S. raise a more lethal force, defeat terrorism and, chiefly, deter China. While more than 80 countries have national action plans enacting the agenda, the four new documents from Defense, State, USAID, and Homeland Security show how a superpower will wield the agenda.
It’s a dog-catches-car moment. Advocates for the agenda — mostly women’s advocates from organizations such as mine — have labored in a niche field. Under President Trump’s leadership, they now have a law, national strategy, four implementation plans and, from the Pentagon, $7 million. By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office assured lawmakers that the entire agenda could be enacted, through the year 2022, on less than $500,000.
The Pentagon’s investment raises hopes that the agenda can meet the ambitious goals codified in the National Defense Strategy. If it can do that in the next few years, the agenda will truly be transformative.
The question is, how will the Pentagon thread the needle with President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy? At West Point recently, he told graduating cadets, the Army’s newest officers: “We are restoring the fundamental principle that the job of the American soldier is not to rebuild foreign nations but to defend and defend strongly our nation from foreign enemies.”
The answer lies in exploiting the Defense Department’s security cooperation commands, which will be central to the plan’s goal of putting women front and center in making the United States the “partner of choice.” This is not a rhetorical goal, considering the aggressive way China is buying off African and other nations with infrastructure and financial investments.
The agenda posits, and the Pentagon’s plan endorses, the idea that in a globalized, information-inundated world, a focus on values will change hearts and minds toward the United States, even as it secures equal rights and protections for women. The hope is for pervasive, even subversive, change that shores up support for a rules-based, liberal international order, and U.S. and allied leadership. This is Women, Peace and Security with American characteristics.
A manifesto for feminist foreign policy these plans are not. Thanks to the NSC’s diligence, the plans do not contain divisive content that would have generated public controversy, that have been rejected by the U.N. Security Council, or that are not accepted in nations the United States is courting as security partners. Women leaders from across the political spectrum worked behind the scenes for three years with the administration to keep the law, strategy and implementation plans focused on bedrock principles and away from tangential, contentious ones.
But a substantive, strategy-focused plan is just the start. To have effect, the agenda needs champions in the national security community. By proving its relevance in hard security for the great power competitions ahead, implementation will have to ensure that women peace and security advisors move beyond, or steer clear of, social engineering and stay focused on security priorities.
The Pentagon’s pledge to “build a more lethal force” by recruiting and leveraging a “diverse and innovative fighting force” is not new. This despite the fact, as recent events show, that the armed services have a long way to go. What may be new is a clear roadmap for using the U.S. military to change values and force structures abroad, specifically, women’s protection and their service in all ranks of partner militaries.
The Pentagon plan says that the United States will protect women and girls by helping other nations apply international human rights and international humanitarian law. This will be difficult, considering that perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict are not just state-sanctioned armies that are bound by those laws. Many are non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, which are not. The devil will be in the details.
Unless and until the Pentagon gets buy-in on this agenda from its own uniformed and civilian staff, it cannot convince other countries to apply it overseas. That means a continued focus on women’s integration in U.S. forces and better understanding and support for the agenda throughout the armed forces.
At West Point, President Trump said: “We are ending the era of endless wars. In its place is a new clear-eyed focus on defending America’s vital interests.” A focus on averting war, reconciling conflict and making peace agreements stick is central to that goal. And that is the Women, Peace and Security agenda’s sweet spot. The agenda — if it adheres to the Trump administration’s vision and obtains high-level support within the Pentagon — can become a catalyzing force advancing America’s foreign policy aims in an era of great power competition.
Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is the president of the American Council on Women, Peace and Security and author of “Waging War to Make Peace: U.S. Intervention in Global Conflicts.” Follow her on Twitter at @susan_yoshihara.