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Feminist Foreign Policy – Employing a People-Centered Approach to Transatlantic Security and Peace

Author: Margherita Buso on behalf of The Cambridge Global Affair

Published: 15/08/2021

An event organised by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy in collaboration with 1014, held on the 30th of March 2021.

Speakers: Pam Campos Palma, political strategist, former military intelligence analyst, and Director of Peace and Security at the Working Families Party.

Verity Coyle, Senior Advisor and Nonresident Fellow with Stimson’s Conventional Defense program.

Chaired by Kristina Lunz, Executive Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.

We live in an interconnected world, where common goals and shared values among countries can help to promote global cooperation. Transatlantic relations, which refer to those relations between European countries and the US and Canada, play a role in strengthening security and peace. With the arrival of the new Biden administration in Washington D.C., transatlantic relations might need a recalibration to address problems such as social inequalities. In this context of social unrest, and new geopolitical and economic realities, a new transatlantic agenda needs to be drafted to foster cooperation, security, and peace. There are indeed different approaches that can be followed to promote these goals. However, in today’s conversation, a feminist lens will be used to understand security policy. But before moving on with the conversation, it is important to get to know what a feminist foreign security policy approach is.

Understanding the feminist approach

Kristina Lunz explains that the main difference between the realist approach, and the one suggested by feminism, is the understanding of security. Realist thinking believes the world is an anarchic state where every country needs to dominate the others. Assuring safety requires a clear focus on military security. The feminist approach to security policy stresses instead the importance of focusing on human security since what people want is to be free from all types of violence, including structural violence, racism, and inequalities. The focus is on people, especially on those that belong to marginalised groups such as women, LGBTQ+ individuals, people that are part of ethnic and or religious minorities etc. These people are subjected to discrimination because of their gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ethnic origins and so on. Sometimes, these discriminations can be the product of more than one element.

For instance, if we think about a black migrant woman, we see that she might be discriminated against for reasons related to gender, ethnicity and the ‘migrant status’. When there is more than one factor that discriminates against a person, we talk about intersectionality - Kristina Lunz -

Intersectionality is then a concept that feminism needs to keep in mind when thinking of security policy since the discrimination faced by people can come from different factors. Acknowledge these factors and address them can help to develop strategies that allow us to move forward as a global society. Intersectionality is also a relevant concept for today’s conversation that aims at bringing this feminist perspective into transatlantic relations.

Transatlantic relations and the detriment of trust

Pam Campos Palma believes it is very urgent to discuss, from a feminist perspective, what has happened and what has been destroyed in the last couple of years in terms of trust regarding transatlantic relations. She points out that a feminist foreign policy should be a civil society driven one. It should be a policy in which people are at the forefront, and they are the ones setting the agenda. However, she mentions in the last years we have faced more militarisation and austerity, and more corruption in government and democracy than ever before. All of this has determined a state of exclusivity when it comes to safety.

"how we understand threat and violence is now outdated and shaped by rich white men." - Pam Campos Palma -

Concerning transatlantic relations instead, she says that this period of pandemic made her understand how relevant these relations are and how important it is to share lessons with humbleness.

Regarding the current situation in Myanmar, Verity Coyle informs that at her workplace (Amnesty International) they are trying to think of a solution. She draws attention to the fact that international transatlantic relations are expressing a deafening silence when the issue in Myanmar is brought to the table for discussion. A silence comes especially from states within the UN that claim to be at the forefront of human rights protection and that are considered international gender champions. Although countries like Germany and the US did issue a statement, this is not a response that is strong enough.

"In Europe security matters are becoming more intertwined with trade and business relationships." - Verity Coyle -

How decisions do not seem to be based on human rights principles anymore. As for Pam Campos Palma, Ms Coyle also believes in the ‘power of people’ when it comes to finding a solution. In the case of Myanmar, she claims that some people from within have been reporting new forms of gender-based violence, which were not present before the conflict. Thus, she thinks the adoption of a feminist approach to the problems is the way to go. A feminist approach is very much people-centred and seeks to include the voices and perspectives of people, especially of marginalised ones. This approach can be useful because it works with the community by grasping the issues from the bottom, and then from there, it moves upwards. The idea is that no one should be left behind.

Furthermore, Ms Coyle says that back in 2010, when there was the ‘first democratic election’ in Myanmar after a long time, she worked with charities supporting women from minority ethnic groups. Since then, these charities have observed that their hopes for change over the past decade did not occur. On the contrary, the situation right now is complicated, and several activists have been arrested. Even though the women working in these organisations are strong, the lack of resources and the constant military presence have a considerable impact on them.

Can the military ever be feminist?

Pam Campos Palma says it is very difficult to provide an answer. Nevertheless, she believes that before thinking about such a question, there is another more urgent one.

When are we going to deal with the fact that foreign policy, as it is now, is an intrinsically white supremacist one? - Pam Campos Palma -

Additionally, we should also wonder what the purpose of a military is. It is extremely important to address these matters, especially considering the rise of ethnonationalism, corruption in governments and a halt in human rights.

Looking at the situation in Myanmar, Ms Campos Palma reiterates the idea already expressed before by Ms Coyle that we are witnessing silence from people with power. From people who claim to be ‘leaders of the world’. She says that there is a need for reaction.

The nuclear question

Concerning a potential improvement of nuclear disarmament and disarmament in general, Verity Coyle mentions the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), saying that it has been developed to protect human rights and alleviate human suffering. She also claims that there is another element contained within the Treaty that is quite unique. The ATT is the first international agreement including an article that states the need for gender-based violence to be considered when talking about whether arms or the transfer of them facilitate a violation. Ms Coyle affirms this is a very innovative idea and wishes more states will understand this. Although on a different note, she worries about the UK’s desire to reinvest and increase its nuclear deterrent. A desire that has grown stronger since it departed from the EU.

The United States

In the case of the US and the recent settlement of the Biden administration, Pam Campos Palma affirms that, on one hand, this administration has inherited a plight at different levels; but on the other hand, it has a great opportunity to get things moving. However, this does not mean that we should not wonder whether we are going to revise how we do things and what our understanding of transatlantic relations and human rights is. According to Ms Campos Palma, we live in a specific moment in history, in which it is our responsibility to reallocate resources and to discuss who is ‘sitting at the table’. Nonetheless, she has encouraging words for this new administration. She feels especially hopeful towards the leadership of the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She thinks she can recalibrate the US position from a state focused on over militarisation and ultranationalism to one that focuses on cooperation and development. This being said, there is still a lot of room for improvement and there is a need to keep building a team with the right people. She believes that civil society can help to do this.

Will we see the US adopting a feminist foreign policy?

Pam Campos Palma answers that this is her biggest hope. She believes intersectionality is the answer. However, she mentions that to build an effective security policy we need to concentrate on those people who are the most harmed. For instance, people who belong to the black community or LGBTQ+ individuals should be the ones we are paying attention to.

Verity Coyle affirms that in a situation like the one we are experiencing, where there is the rise of new arms and artificial intelligence, a Biden-Harris leadership could make the difference. It could promote a people-centred policy by acknowledging that the vulnerable groups in society are the most harmed.

Someone from the audience raised the issue that in the 2016 US elections most white women supported Trump. They wonder then how we can now develop a foreign policy that takes the gender dimension into account and how we can argue its relevance. In this regard, Pam Campos Palma states that the rise of conservative nationalism has always been dependent on misogyny. Misogyny and white supremacy can be indeed very seductive, and their influence can affect everyone regardless of gender or ethnic background. There is a lot of work to do to change this.

Before concluding this talk, both Ms Coyle and Ms Campos Palma were asked to carry out a utopian exercise. They had to imagine a situation in which their defence security policy has been enabled and sustainable peace has been achieved. Taking this into account, they needed to identify what their three main areas of focus would be.

Ms Coyle’s answer includes completely turning away from arms, investing in society, and raising the floor for everybody. Ms Campos Palma instead talks about investing in the community, in jobs and care.

On a personal note, this conference has been very interesting to follow for several reasons. The aspect that struck me the most is the idea of recalibrating the lens through which we understand foreign policy and the problems related to it. The idea that to focus all the attention on the bigger players and stakeholders might not lead to the best solutions. On the contrary, deciding to invest time and resources in people and to include them can be more effective. As both speakers pointed out, there is a lot of expertise that can be learned from the community. Especially expertise that comes from people who are marginalised. I think that if we want things to change, we need to take these perspectives into account. We need to grasp the potential behind intersectionality. Now more than ever, we are facing an international condition of instability in the world that is affecting different levels, and it is by including and not excluding people that we can move forward.

The Cambridge Global Affairs

Founded in 2019, The Cambridge Global Affair is a small team of postgraduate researchers offering insight and understanding into international affairs.

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Author: Margherita Buso

Ciao! Hi I’m Margherita and I come from Italy.

Apart from my MA in International Relations I also hold a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages. I am expected to move to Paris soon to start a master’s in international human resources management. Additionally, I am going to work on talent management, learning and employee cultural experience. I am interested in exploring topics such as gender, human rights, responsibility to protect and peace building.

I would describe myself as curious, diligent and passionate.


Blockmans, Steven. "EU-US Relations: Reinventing the Transatlantic Agenda." Intereconomics 56, no. 1 (2021): 5-7.

Tickner, J. Ann. "Feminist responses to international security studies." Peace review 16, no. 1 (2004): 43-48.

Runyan, A. "What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important?." Academe 104, no. 6 (2018): 10-14.

More information:

Aggestam, Karin, Annika Bergman Rosamond, and Annica Kronsell. "Theorising feminist foreign policy." International Relations 33, no. 1 (2019): 23-39.

Knudsen, Edward. "A kinder, gentler “America First?” Taking stock of transatlantic relations under Biden." (2021).


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