Realizing a Feminist Foreign Policy Means Taking Internal (In)Security Seriously

49security Fennet photo cropped
Source: Sheggeor laker/​Unsplash
20 Dec 2022, 
published in

The German government has committed itself to adopting a feminist foreign policy (FFP). A feminist foreign policy would, at least in theory, aspire to combat marginalization and discrimination, transform oppressive power relations and make human security a core value. Germany’s National Security Strategy could be a tool to move Germany closer to this ideal. The concept of human security – which, in contrast to classical concepts of security, prioritizes the protection of individuals and groups – has enjoyed steady popularity in foreign policy circles since the 1990s. However, the concept is equally applicable to the analysis of insecurity experienced by individuals in Germany. The protection of one’s livelihood and personal rights, as well as safety against threats and state violence, is not guaranteed for Black people, people of color, queer people, and poor, unhoused or otherwise marginalized people in Germany. What is more: cases of right-wing, racist and queer-phobic violence are far too frequent to be considered isolated incidents. These violent experiences within Germany’s borders undermine the credibility of its efforts toward a feminist foreign policy. To tackle this issue, Germany’s upcoming National Security Strategy must incorporate a concept of security that recognizes the pervasive lack of security within Germany’s borders. In doing so, the security strategy can take the necessary first step toward preventing these very experiences of violence.

Pay Attention to Domestic Grievances

Taking feminist foreign policy and human security seriously also means acknowledging domestic insecurities, structural violence and anti-feminist realities. A country in which femicides and violence against women, queer persons, Black people, and people of color are daily realities cannot in good conscience and without accusations of hypocrisy pursue a feminist foreign policy elsewhere. Adopting a feminist foreign policy should not deflect attention from domestic conditions – on the contrary, feminist foreign policies should encourage addressing problems at home. The fact that Article 1 of the German Constitution is evidently not sufficient to impose consequences for these grievances, and that a feminist foreign policy is needed as an impetus, is an indictment of Germany’s domestic politics. But it also presents a window of opportunity to think about domestic and foreign policy as intertwined. 

Domestically, policymakers need to grapple with the consequences of a feminist foreign policy when it comes to internal shortcomings. Doing so can contribute to more consistent, credible and meaningful action toward a reality where marginalized people in Germany are just as safe from violence as white and otherwise privileged people. Condemning discriminatory and patriarchal power relations in foreign policy while leaving them unchallenged within Germany not only leads to cognitive dissonance, but also to less credibility for Germany’s own foreign policy efforts. 

In this way, feminist foreign policy means domestic policy work. But where to begin? Where is human security currently under threat and where is there an acute feminist need to catch up? The following examples should help Germany find a starting point in the almost endless list of potential answers for making feminist foreign policy more credible. 

Put an End to Inaction

In October 2022, ZDF Magazin Royale and FragDenStaat (a popular German late night show and a well-known freedom of information initiative) published parts of the so-called NSU-Akten. The leak has forced Germany to reckon with public security failures that had long been forgotten within mainstream society. The files – which were initially meant to remain sealed for 120, and later 30, years – showcase over one hundred pages of state failure in the prosecution and investigation of the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund” (NSU), a far-right German neo-Nazi terrorist group responsible for a number of murders and bombings in the 2000s. The incomplete and largely botched investigation of the NSU as well as German law enforcement and domestic intelligence services’ involvement in the case are only two examples in a long series of events of right-wing violence against Black people and people of color – and state failure in the face of it. The right-wing attack in Hanau, the murder of German politician Walter Lübcke, anti-semitic violence in Halle, numerous cases of deaths in police custody, and the lack of investigations into the negligence of the German security apparatuses surrounding these events: all of these failings require serious domestic policy action to even begin the process of inching toward feminist ambitions. 

Taking human security seriously in Germany means protecting the lives of non-white, migrant and otherwise marginalized people. However, the consequence should not be to provide more funds for the expansion of police and armed forces without putting the corresponding financial and human capital into uncovering and dismantling right-wing networks and cover-ups in Germany’s army, police and intelligence services. For a long time, activists, scholars and abolitionist theorists have pointed out that investing more resources in police and other security mechanisms does not make a state more secure – especially not for marginalized people who are already marked as targets of state violence or neglect. 

As many German activist initiatives have been pointing out for years, racism in Germany is not just an interpersonal experience of thousands of individuals. Racism in Germany is systematic and structural. Therefore, systematic and structural answers to these numerous internal security fiascos are necessary. Germany’s National Security Strategy should help Berlin to ask self-critical questions, establish control mechanisms and dole out the appropriate consequences.

To examine the inconsistency problem with another concrete example: The German National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security” agenda is an important starting point for developing a feminist foreign policy. This is evident from the experience of other countries with feminist foreign policies, such as Canada or (formerly) Sweden. The NAP also states that, while the plan is foreign-policy oriented, it contains domestic elements.” According to its National Action Plan for 2021 – 2024, Germany aims to contribute to the long-term, holistic and trauma-sensitive support for survivors of sexualized and gender-based violence.” The focus is on access to reproductive health services, medical counseling and psychosocial support, as well as the establishment of protection and care structures for people who have fled due to these experiences of violence or who are particularly vulnerable as conflict-affected persons or refugees.

However, once we shift our gaze from Germany’s foreign policy aspirations to its domestic political realities, this protection and sensitivity to vulnerabilities suddenly no longer applies. This is particularly evident in the example of the so-called Ankerzentren (or anchor centers”), a name that refers to refugee housing and is based on the acronym for An(kunft)(arrival), k(ommunale Verteilung)” (municipal distribution), E(ntscheidung)” (decision) and R(ückführung)” (return) of refugees. Refugees living in these centers regularly report violent assaults and a lack of gender-sensitive and adequate care and accommodation. Another example is the lack of protection in Germany for refugee housing: to this day, from Rostock-Lichtenhagen to Solingen, accommodations for refugees are regularly set on fire by far-right groups. Yet the NAP explicitly mentions improving the protection of refugee women and children, LGBTI people, people with disabilities, people affected by human trafficking and other particularly vulnerable groups in Germany.” The German government’s failure to think ahead and translate a feminist foreign policy into domestic policy – including by offering guidance on how these principles should inform Germany’s internal actions – is too short-sighted. It must credibly center the protection of those who are particularly vulnerable in Germany and not just see this as a project of feminist foreign policy outside of its borders. The required shift in the prevailing concept of security – from securing state borders against refugees to securing the well-being of vulnerable persons – should also find its way into Germany’s National Security Strategy.

Do Not Tolerate Every Contradiction

A feminist foreign policy like the one Germany is striving for under Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is an ambitious undertaking and, like many value-driven endeavors, full of contradictions and opportunities. Some contradictions are to be expected when translating and implementing theoretical feminist concepts for a nation state – but certainly not all of them. The transformative potential of a feminist foreign policy must not, on the one hand, lead Germany to completely disregard the implications for its own domestic affairs; or on the other hand, be completely thrown out in the face of pragmatism. 

Cross-cutting feminist approaches across different German ministries could additionally contribute to institutionalization beyond a set legislative period and thus harness a feminist foreign policy’s full transformative potential. Certainly, the process of developing such a policy can produce important synergies. After all, reflections on how a ministry can make its work more feminist are in of themselves an invitation to engage in exchange. It is important that Germany’s feminist foreign policy is not seen as the second-rate project of a stand-alone foreign ministry without any contact to other institutions.

And lastly, a clarification: Criticisms of Germany’s domestic realities do not bar Berlin from simultaneously pursuing a better foreign policy. This contradiction must be borne. A genuinely implemented feminist foreign policy will certainly be more inclusive and farsighted than the present situation. However, Germany’s security strategy must aim not to ignore every contradiction but to fulfill feminist demands within Germany as well. Criticism should not paralyze and lead to no change at all. Instead, it should animate and activate Germany to at least make incremental changes possible, even within its existing structures – changes which noticeably improve people’s lives. Criticism shows where we want to go, which is far away from where we are at the moment. The upcoming National Security Strategy can be an important tool for setting a more self-critical standard for German internal security and for Germany to address its own complicity in conditions of insecurity. Remembering all of the incidents of insecurity for marginalized people in Germany means drawing from them lessons for the future – because commemorating means making changes.

A German version of this commentary was first published on 49security on November 302022.