Post-Feminist Foreign Policy: Liberal Internationalism In Action

by Tommy Brown

From a really bizarre article in the online version of Newsweek by Anna Quindlen, titled “The End of Swagger:”

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton begin to use their uncommon authority and intelligence to implement a new American international agenda, it might behoove them to read a speech given some years ago in Beijing. It read in part: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights for one and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure.”

Secretary Clinton was first lady when she spoke those words at a United Nations conference on women in 1995. Some of the participants wept to hear an influential American commit to a view of the world so many of them shared: that the way for nations to prosper was to pay attention to women’s rights, women’s welfare and women’s concerns.

A noble cause, to be sure, but one that immediately runs up against the brick wall of reality, in that the only belief in women’s rights that most countries where the Western Enlightenment never penetrated have is that a woman has a right to bear children and serve her husband. While of course it is a noble cause to push for women’s rights worldwide, Your Humble Author seems to recall that this particular message was a key one in both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and in the end, turned out to be so much horse manure. And this is in a situation where we invaded, broke down their old society, and re-wrote their laws. Accomplishing it through less direct means like diplomacy may be a tad more difficult.

Now, I’m sure this will offend some (if not most) people, but foreign policy is not missionary work, and our relationships with unpleasant regimes shouldn’t hinge on whether women have to wear the burqa or not. I’m all for soft diplomatic power to encourage women’s rights, and using the UN to push for it, in the same manner that we led the fight against human rights violations (until recently). But in matters where important national security interests are at stake, this is the definition of a non-issue.

A story most don’t know is that the main roadblock towards America extending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government, and thus being able to negotiate with them in the years before 9/11, was that a group led by Mavis Leno (wife of Tonight Show host Jay) lobbied and convinced then-President Clinton that recognition should be denied until the Taliban gave their women Western-style civil rights. The fact that everyone in Afghanistan lacked any sort of Enlightenment-style human rights seems to have escaped everyone involved.

But here’s where the article gets a bit bizarre:

Those are the kinds of conclusions that put people’s backs up, particularly if those people happen to be male. Isn’t it just another form of sexism, they argue, to suggest that women are better, or different? Hasn’t Secretary Clinton shown herself to possess a killer instinct as finally honed as that of any male counterpart? Yes, she has, and perhaps now that everyone knows she can be the toughest person in the room, she is uniquely positioned to go the other way. “Soft diplomacy could be her greatest strength,” says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women. “This is the time to get rid of militarism as a dominant theme, not only because it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t work.”

It truly makes one wonder about the premise for this entire article, considering that the former Secretary of State passing the torch to Hillary Clinton is also a woman (though perhaps because she is a Republican it does not count).  So what does Madam Clinton being a woman have to do with getting ridding of “militarism as a dominant theme” and moving towards soft diplomacy? Obviously a woman can be just as hawkish as a man, in the case of both Condi and Hillary, and the author points that out the latter before making a totally contradictory point.

In the end, this is a difference of ideology, not yet another skirmish in the Battle of the Sexes. The Bush administration was composed of neoconservative hawks; the Obama administration is composed mostly of neoliberal hawks with the occasional internationalist thrown in.  This makes it pretty likely that negotiation is going to take a dominant position over militarism and saber-rattling, but I am at a loss as to why the SecState being a woman has anything to do with it.

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