The Hillary Doctrine: untangling sex and American foreign policy

Twenty years ago Hillary Clinton declared that "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights." What would Clinton as US president mean for women and security?   

Christina Asquith
17 November 2015

Freshly planted flowers surrounded the Baghdad Women’s centre, one of nine US-funded centers built across the city in 2004 that aimed to promote women’s rights in Iraq’s nascent democracy. I was there researching my book on women in Iraq, and to see how well US feminism was being received in this Muslim country. Western aid workers in dusty boots with multi-million contracts hovered around, anxious to teach Iraqi women everything from computer skills to political strategies in the hope of promoting women’s rights in the new Iraq. 

However, a week later, the centre was closed, and two aid workers in similar centres in Southern Iraq were gunned down.  Iraqi women stayed away, frightened by rumours that the US-run centres were showing pornography and conducting abortions.

Today, much like the centres, Iraqi women’s rights have been shuttered. As a result of civil war and chaos begun with the US-led invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein, women have been driven into prostitution, are living under ISIS and there are hundreds of thousands of widows - the clock has been turned back 100 years for women.

Improving women’s rights and ending subjugation around the world is slowly gaining some recognition as an important part of US foreign policy, both for moral reasons and to promote stability and peace. Yet examples like that I saw in Baghdad demonstrate not only that change is slow, but also that it’s incredibly hard. 

Now, the global champion for improving women’s rights, Hillary Clinton, is coming incredibly close to becoming the leader of the free world. Yet many international feminists who you might expect to embrace her are hesitating. They cite her support of military action in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere as so devastating for women it cancels out all her other advocacy.

Are they overlooking a chance to make the planet’s most powerful person a self-declared feminist, or are they right?  

A new book, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (Columbia 2015), seeks to untangle this question. Written by Professor Valerie Hudson of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and journalist Patricia Leidl, it gives an even-handed, deeply researched analysis of the foreign policies of the (Bill) Clinton, Bush, Obama administrations and that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - tallying their efforts on behalf of women. It also traces the international women’s rights movement and connection between women and national security.

The result is a highly readable, fast moving history that covers a critical topic that most foreign policy journalists and campaign reporters typically overlook - what Clinton as president would mean to women around the world.   

First, Hudson and Leidl give us the research showing that the status of women and girls does really matter to national security.  For example, one study of all armed conflicts between 1954 and 1994 found that the lower the percentage of women in power, the higher the rate of violence. Several other studies show that governments with stronger laws for women were much less likely to use force first, and were much less violent once in a conflict. 

In yet another study 186 Harvard Business School students were given computer games in which they pretended to be national leaders in a conflict over a diamond mine. The results showed that women were much less likely to use force, and much better at resolving conflict once it starts. “Overwhelmingly”, all-female pairs proved “significantly less likely than all-male pairs, to spend money on weapons procurement or go to war when confronted with a crisis.”

Most of this research falls on deaf ears. Women hold on average fewer than 20% of Parliamentary seats in government worldwide. In the last twenty years, they have represented less than 10 % of participants in peace negotiations and less than 5% of signatories. Security forces are overwhelming dominated by men, even at places like the UN, where 97 per cent of UN peacekeepers and 90 per cent of UN police forces are still men. Even in the US, there may be “binders full of women” but they rarely appear on foreign policy panels, at the Pentagon or in the Oval Office. 

But there has been a paradigm shift in thinking about women’s rights globally, which started in the 1970s, as women’s groups called attention to gender-specific atrocities worldwide.  Hillary Clinton’s work as an activist First Lady certainly helped usher in that awareness.

The Office of International Women’s Issues was established by Clinton in 1994, and USAID integrated gender into its programming for the first time. Funding of girls’ education overseas began in earnest. Then, media coverage of Clinton’s Beijing speech of 1995 raised further awareness when she declared famously, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”, followed by the appointment of Madeleine Albright as the first female US Secretary of State, and the indictment of Serbian soldiers on charges of rape in 1996, “the first time that sexual violence against women was viewed as anything other than a natural consequence and entitlement of soldiers who encountered civilians”,  Hudson and Leidl state. 

The establishment in 1997 of Vital Voices, one of the earliest organizations to push the advancement of women in foreign policy. This all helped usher in anti-trafficking legislation , and the passing of UN Resolution 1325 in 2000, which called for states to ensure women were represented in conflict resolution as well as in security and in pushing for the prosecution of sex crimes, among many other things.  

The Bush administration, which came into power in 2001, also made some strides for women, including strengthening laws against trafficking of women and violence against women, appointing a female secretary of state, and supporting the eventual creation of UN Women. Over the next 8 years, Bush would more than double foreign aid programs to increase girls’ education, particularly in Afghanistan.

But – as with the Baghdad women’s centres, the aid to Afghanistan was delivered in such an insensitive and ham-fisted way, much of it was wasted. Other books and articles have made similar criticisms, including “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.  As Secretary of State, Clinton would take various steps as to improve aid delivery - namely by institutionalising “gender training programs” but whether US-led development overseas stands any chance to be an effective tool for changing women’s lives remains in question.

9th November, Concord, New Hampshire. photo: Hillary for America 

Hudson and Leidl conclude that Clinton is not only deeply sincere on women’s issues, but that she would do great things for them with the muscle of the Oval Office behind her. As Secretary of State, she pushed through the U.S. National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, which prompted countries to create specific goals for women’s advancement; funded clean cook stoves as a way to improve global health, and actively promoted participation of women in the countries she visited.  All this and more despite having a boss (President Obama) who showed at best a lukewarm response to women’s rights, according to the authors who cite, in one instance, a top aide describing efforts to promote women in Afghanistan as a “pet rock” weighing down their rucksacks. His inner circle also failed to include many women. 

To her critics, though, Clinton is an American imperialist in a skirt, and women are much worse off.  “All of the things Hillary Clinton has done for women gets undone by war,” said Medea Benjamin, head of a San Francisco women’s anti-war group, in a phone interview recently from the Syrian border where she was meeting with women.  “And she has never met a war she didn’t like.”  

Hudson and Leidl vigorously disagree, and make a convincing case that a female president like Clinton would bring great things for women around the world. "When women are held back, our country is held back. When women get ahead, everyone gets ahead," she declared in her first speech to kick of her campaign this past Spring. There are certainly many women who would like to see her try.

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