Image source: United States Institute of Peace
Over the first two years of the Biden administration, multiple geopolitical flashpoints—including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the protests of “Russian mothers” against the invasion of Ukraine, and the recent women-led demonstrations in Iran—have continued to reinforce the agency of women as a catalyst for geopolitical change. However, despite the Biden administration’s rhetoric to support women and girls around the world, it has largely failed to view national security issues through a feminist lens or to craft a coherent foreign policy that advances women’s rights in tandem with national security interests. It is therefore time to breathe life into this rhetorical promise and establish a policy toolset for supporting and empowering women, thereby sustaining the democratic values and advancing the security interests that underpin the rules-based international order.
The past decade has witnessed the return of great-power competition and the resurgence of authoritarian rivals around the world. Since 2017, the Trump and Biden administrations have asserted that these are the greatest threats to the rules-based international order that has persisted since the end of World War II. These threats are so insidious because they not only challenge U.S. and allied security interests, but also the values that underpin these societies. Indeed, the Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance accurately assessed that “Anti-democratic forces use misinformation, disinformation, and weaponized corruption to exploit perceived weaknesses and sow division within and among free nations, erode existing international rules, and promote alternative models of authoritarian governance.” The long-term goal of China and Russia is to establish an alternative, multipolar order where great and medium powers can preside over their respective spheres of influence without concern for human rights or other supposed infringements on their sovereignty. While the Trump administration took tangible and important steps to compete more forcefully with China and other competitors, its rhetoric often undermined allies abroad and exacerbated political divisions at home, further exposing the vulnerabilities of the rules-based international order.
In this context, President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office with a clear and cogent foreign policy message: “America is back.” Not only would the United States compete with challengers, but it would also work with like-minded nations to articulate and defend democratic values like liberty and equality—for women, for minorities, for underrepresented classes, and for all. Accordingly, his administration would prioritize “Lead[ing] and sustain[ing] a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.” And in order to ensure the investment of all Americans in this world order, while preventing the sort of widespread disillusionment that reversed the trend toward globalization over the last decade, President Biden and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan articulated a “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class”—promising the advancement of key values and human rights like economic, racial, and gender equality and equity at home and abroad, in addition to the pursuit of traditional national security interests and imperatives.
While major foreign policy efforts like drafting the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, filling and diversifying key State Department positions, and pressuring allies and partners to recognize human rights have all stalled in the first two years of the administration, President Biden’s vow to support women around the world achieved some notable early successes. The administration was lauded for taking critical steps such as the March 2021 establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council to coordinate domestic and foreign gender policies, as well as the appointment of many women to key cabinet and other political positions—with some analysts and commentators going so far as to label these efforts as progress toward an eventual feminist foreign policy. President Biden himself has continued to emphasize the moral and strategic importance of these measures, asserting on International Women’s Day in March 2022 that ensuring “equity, dignity, and opportunity” for women and girls “isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also a strategic imperative that advances the prosperity, stability, and security of our nation and the world.” In a geostrategic landscape where autocratic adversaries are challenging democratic values as much as they threaten U.S. and allied interests, the logic of this foreign policy approach is sound, since gender equality is strongly correlated with greater peace and stability, and it is a core value upon which any rules-based order should be founded and maintained.
However, while this approach makes sense in theory, it has not been executed in practice. Over the last two years, the Biden administration has failed to sufficiently support women in critical moments when doing so might have resulted in better outcomes for women’s rights and for U.S. security. This is particularly apparent in three salient cases: 1) the failure to protect Afghan women from the Taliban after the NATO withdrawal; 2) the inability to appeal to “Russian mothers” to help end the war in Ukraine; and 3) the evolving response to women-led protests in Iran. These cases reflect the reality that, despite the focus on gender as a rhetorical device, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus still does not perceive national security issues through a feminist lens—specifically, it does not appreciate the role of women as an independent variable and catalyst for global change, it does not understand the disproportionate effect of conflict and violence on women and girls, and it does not advance women’s rights as a means to ensure U.S. and allied national security.
After the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Afghan women were left to contend with the return of the Islamist Taliban without assistance or support. Following two decades of education, career advancement, and political participation, Afghan women and girls are now unable to work, study, or receive access to health services. Moreover, while numerous female leaders in Afghanistan were promised protection, the hasty mass evacuation effort and unwillingness to extend the withdrawal deadline sealed the fates of many potential targets of the new Taliban regime. While there was certainly a plausible justification for the U.S. withdrawal from an unpopular and seemingly endless war, it is undeniable that Afghan women were a major casualty of the withdrawal.
The second critical moment followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Once it became clear that Ukraine would not be overtaken quickly, and as Russian casualties mounted due to poor military planning, inferior logistics networks, and fierce Ukrainian resistance, there was a popular thesis that “Russian mothers,” grieving over their dead sons in Ukraine, would force Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war. Indeed, many of the anti-war protesters in Russia are women, and some analysts have therefore argued that the United States should use information operations to spread the message of these women and increase leverage against Russia. However, it is not apparent that the United States has acted upon this imperative. Of course, unlike the crisis in Afghanistan, this case does not inherently involve a U.S. responsibility to act, but supporting Russian women could be an effective option for indirectly intervening against the Russian aggressor (thereby complementing other indirect methods, like defense security assistance for Ukraine).
The international community is now witnessing another critical moment for women’s rights. After the death of a Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, many women and girls in Iran are protesting the Iranian government for its uneven enforcement of hijab laws and for its general repression of women. Fortunately, the Biden administration has rhetorically supported the protestors and advanced sanctions on Iranian officials who are repressing the demonstrations, but it is not yet clear if the United States is willing to take more robust action in support of these protestors. This is especially concerning because there may be a conflict of interest as the Biden administration pursues a new nuclear deal with Iran that would offer substantial sanctions relief as an incentive for compliance, thereby raising a thorny and heretofore unanswered question—will the administration prioritize advancing women’s rights or enhancing nuclear security?
What is the major underlying theme of these three cases? While only the first one is a true failure of U.S. policy, all of them represent missed or potentially missed opportunities to sustain the rules-based international order by supporting women around the world. In a logical extension of President Biden’s March 2022 speech, emphasizing women’s rights is not only a moral imperative, but it can also be a practical, strategic approach to enforcing international rules vis-à-vis revisionist actors. The rules-based order will only survive if transgressors are punished for their actions—in these cases, if the Taliban and Iranian government are compelled to uphold women’s and human rights, and if Russia is pressured to end its bloody violation of Ukrainian sovereignty—and these goals, among others, can be met through effective gender policy. In all three cases and beyond, women are catalysts for major change, and therefore undertaking a feminist approach as one of multiple pillars of U.S. foreign policy can help decision-makers advance critical values and interests, thereby reflecting the longstanding influence of idealist and realist tents in U.S. foreign policy. Recognizing the role of women as active agents for change can help the United States pursue numerous policy goals; combating violence and persecution of women and girls will make the world a more stable place; and advancing women’s rights will undermine authoritarian adversaries that thrive upon their unjust repression. Therefore, it is now essential to breathe life into what has been a relatively empty foreign policy promise by the Biden administration, and to support women’s rights and struggles for justice through the following recommendations.
First, U.S. policymakers must be willing to exert pressure to effect change and advance women’s rights. For nonnuclear rivals like Iran and the Taliban, there are multiple tools at policymakers’ disposal, including unilateral sanctions, multilateral punishments through the United Nations and other international organizations, and, in the case of Taliban, nonrecognition of the regime. Unfortunately, since the advent of the War on Terror, the United States is often prone to unilateral action in general, and in the case of Iran and Afghanistan in particular, it has failed to act in accordance with European allies and partners. However, while many allies are still divided about how to engage Iran in the wake of the United States withdrawing from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, recent protests could serve as an opportunity to increase pressure on behalf of women’s rights, while the continuing persecution of women in Afghanistan presents a similar opportunity.
Second, in a globalized world, the United States must be willing to work with nongovernmental organizations and other nonstate actors, who can more directly solve or serve as an intermediary on critical women’s issues. For example, one woman leader from Afghanistan, Humaira Ameer Rasuli, has asserted that “We would like to see the U.S. help establish a platform to enable exiled women leaders to directly and safely address the Taliban on our concerns and proposals for the rule of law, access to justice, inclusive governance, fundamental human rights and freedoms, and full and equal participation of people in social, economic, and political life.” Given the Taliban’s history, this is a tall order—but when paired with other policies (for example, when offered as a way to alleviate sanctions), the Taliban might be compelled to acquiesce. There are also opportunities to support both elite and grassroots organizations within these countries—such groups may coalesce in Iran as the protesters continue to organize.
Lastly, given the importance of information in the modern world, U.S. policymakers should conduct information operations to advance favorable pro-women narratives and dispel the disinformation of adversaries. Chinese, Russian, and other officials are quick to paint the United States as hypocritical, so it would be imprudent for U.S. policymakers to participate in their own form of disinformation—not to mention that it would be against the United States’ democratic values. But it is imperative to advance and disseminate the truth in order to combat the rampant censorship of autocratic rivals. The United States and its allies possess the technology to do so, and therefore, in cases like the Russian and Iranian protests, there are opportunities to help fan the protests without directly intervening against these adversarial governments.
Viewing global affairs through a feminist lens and establishing a toolset for promoting women’s rights are essential to the advancement of both values and interests in the modern world. The Biden administration has the opportunity to undertake a revolutionary approach, but it must seize the moment.