Getachew et al: A Movement-Driven Feminist Foreign Policy


A coalition of veterans, anti-war activists, Indigenous and community organizers build a new framework for US foreign policy.

Over the last three decades, the United States has doubled down on its commitment to global dominance at the expense of multilateral institutions, engaged in endless wars in the Middle East, and expanded the use of sanctions and other coercive practices beyond war. The result has been a soaring budget for its Pentagon defense budget: $738 billion for the fiscal year 2020, compared to just $7 for the US Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, US economic sanctions against Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, and Venezuela amount to war by another name, cutting off millions from access to basic necessities—including medical supplies during a global pandemic.

Within the US, challenges to the sacred shibboleths of the foreign policy establishment are moving out from the margins of the political debate. The years-long efforts of anti-war activists and organizers have compelled Senators and members of Congress to consider cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. Just recently, Representative Barbara Lee of California introduced a resolution in the House that would cut $350 billion from the Pentagon. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont along with 23 Democratic Senators proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to cut the Pentagon budget by a more modest ten percent.

Recognizing this opening to rethink US foreign policy, and seeking to ground the debate in movements rooted in an intersectional feminist politics, three organizations— MADRE, Women Cross DMZ, and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance — convened a group of 23 women and gender nonconforming people (majority BIPOC) from across the United States in February 2020. The multigenerational convening of scholars, veterans, anti-war activists, Indigenous and community organizers, migrant justice organizers, and political strategists sought to build a framework for “A Movement-Driven Feminist Foreign Policy for Peace.”

Two guiding commitments shaped this project. First, members of the convening rejected the disaggregation of foreign and domestic policy. When Indigenous organizing and the Movement for Black Lives are part of the conversation about foreign policy, it becomes clear that endless wars must be ended at home and abroad.

The logic of the war on terror has is precedent in Indigenous genocide and settler colonial violence—thus disrupting the conventional binary of the foreign and the domestic. For example, the legal architects of President George W. Bush’s war on terror redeployed the designation of “unlawful enemy combatant,” which has its roots in19th-century military precedents that framed Indigenous lives as disposable. Today, this legal category continues to be instrumental in stripping primarily Arab people suspected of terrorism of their rights as detainees, subjecting them to indefinite detention and torture. In addition to the over 800 US military bases around the world, weapons testing and bases within the US on or near Indigenous lands threaten the health and well-being of Indigenous communities while undermining their sovereignty. For instance, the Navajo nation continues to suffer from high cancer rates due to uranium mining and abandoned mines pollute their water supplies. In the state of Nevada, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone, Walker River Paiute and Yomba Shoshone peoples are struggling against the expansion of the Fallon Naval Air Station.

Militarism is not just directed beyond the US borders; it is a central feature of prisons and policing within the United States. This is most visible when, as in recent months, police in combat gear and often in conjunction with other armed forces have deployed across the country in response to the uprisings against racism and police violence. Domestic militarism is not limited to the Pentagon’s 1033 program through which local police units can secure military grade equipment. Instead, it has a long history dating back to police trainings and exchanges that emphasized counterinsurgency beginning in the Cold War. And activists are increasingly targeting these connections in their organizing. Deadly Exchanges, a recent campaign by Jewish Voices for Peace, endorsed by organizations in the Movement for Black Lives, has highlighted how this legacy lives on in the exchanges between Israeli defense forces and municipal police around the United States.

Second, the racialized state violence that links the wars at home and abroad require a revitalized and expanded peace movement. As the 2003 mass protests against the Iraq War illustrate, the traditional US peace movement has sounded the alarm against US wars. Yet, many have failed to address other coercive actions like sanctions or challenge the pervasive practices of militarism against Indigenous, Black, Arab and Muslim, migrant communities and communities of color in the United States. The predominant focus on US wars abroad misses an opportunity to link the continuum of US state violence domestically and around the world.

Addressing this continuum of violence requires building a wider coalition that connects anti-war activism to communities and organizations struggling against settler-colonialism, the criminal punishment system, the military recruitment system of youth without economic opportunities, the detention and deportation of migrant communities, the extractive economies that are destroying our planet, and gender oppression. But it is not just the anti-war movement that must rethink itself. Instead, feminist organization will have to abandon a carceral feminism. Domestically, carceral feminism has supported the expansion of policing and prisons as the primary solution to violence again women. The international corollary to this vision, which seeks to use humanitarian intervention in services of women’s liberation from patriarchal structures, erases feminists in the global South and reproduces a model of white saviors. At the same time, organizations with a focus on domestic militarism and the carceral state will have to develop a more internationalist analysis that links US foreign policy to domestic politics. An expansive peace movement of this kind can be the basis of sustained organizing around everyday US militarism from the testing of nuclear weapons on indigenous lands and police violence against black lives to endless war in the Middle East and war by another name through economic sanctions.

A broad-based peace movement that centers the experience of those most affected by US militarism will form the cornerstone of a political coalition that can mobilize toward transforming US foreign policy. Our work today must be building this movement around key principles of a feminist foreign policy. As a starting point, we propose:

  • Diplomacy over militarism and coercive intervention:

    War and other coercive actions, such as economic sanctions, should not be the first response to political and social crises around the world. Instead we should prioritize strengthening robust multilateral diplomatic channels as our primary mode of engagement with the world. We should only resort to armed intervention and economic sanctions when all diplomatic channels are exhausted, the intervention is in conformity with the UN Charter and international law, and a full accounting of the intended and unintended consequence of sanctions and interventions have taken place.

    The goal, in the long term, is to make war and sanctions obsolete. As a first step, this will require undoing decades of American abdication of international law and institutions. For instance, we can fight for the United States to sign, ratify and comply with international treaties and institutions from the Rome statute on the International Criminal Court to the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We can combine international accountability and oversight with a call for a dramatic scaling back of the defense budget. This can take the form of modeling our work on foreign policy on the divest/invest strategy articulated in the BREATHE Act put forward by the Movement for Black Lives.

  • An intersectional and transnational feminist approach to foreign and domestic policy:

    The strategy of divest/invest raises the question of where investments should be made. Rather than war-making, we can employ these resources in collective care provisions. As feminists have long argued, investments in universal access to housing, childcare, healthcare and education, and a clean environment are what’s needed to actually make us safer. A starting point for this project is the People’s Bailout that outlines a plan for short-term and long-term recovery in the United States centering communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and the current recession. This is a recovery that doesn’t simply return us to “normal” but that lays a foundation for a regenerative anti-racist feminist economy that prioritizes caring, sharing, sustainability and being in right relationship with nature.

    As we approach a global climate apartheid in which developing countries will are estimated to bear almost 75% of the burdens of the climate crisis, this model of investment must not reflect a nationalist approach to social democracy. Rather, it must be situated in and pursue an internationalist vision that goes beyond the Paris Agreement and acknowledges that the global North has contributed most to climate degradation even as communities in the global south are most affected by climate change. To do so will require an ambitious vision of global redistribution and international accountability on the scale conceived in the project for a New International Economic Order during the 1970s when postcolonial states demanded a fair share of the world’s wealth that they had helped to produce.

  • Center responsibility, repair, and accountability:

    A feminist foreign policy begins by acknowledging that the United States has contributed to and benefited from the historical and contemporary patterns of international hierarchy. We must acknowledge the ways America’s endless wars, sanctions, and global economic policy has disrupted and violently uprooted the lives of many people around the world. Though the United States has often framed itself as the benevolent global first responder to crises, the nation-state and its massive military apparatus is in fact the greatest agent of violence and harm around the world.

    US foreign policy must ultimately seek to repair, redress and undo relations of colonialism, settler-colonialism, and military intervention. This can take many forms and must be worked out in dialogue with communities that have suffered the greatest harms. Avenues forward might include robust protections and accelerated access for migrants fleeing areas where the United States has been militarily engaged or economically destructive. More expansively, it will entail viewing American power and wealth as generated by global exploitation, and supporting a global claim to redistribution.

Transforming US foreign policy in these directions will be an uphill battle. It won’t be only led by politicians, or conventional inside-the-beltway organizations. Instead, it will require building mass movements that can democratize what has often been siloed as an arena for experts and military men. As the uprisings of the spring and summer 2020 are showing us, the political debate moves when people are in motion in the street. Using the nexus of endless war at home and abroad, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect domestic struggles for justice and equality to a vision of internationalism predicated on genuine solidarity.

Adom Getachew is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. She is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire, and postcolonial political theory. Her work focuses on the intellectual and political histories of Africa and the Caribbean.

Christine Ahn is the Founder and Executive Director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families, and ensure women’s leadership in peace building.

Cindy Wiesner is a 25-year veteran of the social justice movement in the U.S. and internationally who currently serves as the executive director of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.

Yifat Susskind is executive Director of Madre, an international organisation that partners community-based women's groups to meet urgent needs and create lasting change.

Photo: Alisdare Hickson / Flickr

Available in
Adom Getachew, Christine Ahn, Cindy Wiesner and Yifat Susskind
Privacy PolicyManage CookiesContribution Settings
Site and identity: Common Knowledge & Robbie Blundell