Monday, 17 November 2008

A Short Essay on Feminism, War and International Relations


It is undisputed that the current international political system is largely patriarchal and far from gynenocracy. Even the products of political processes, such as the Law, inherits the composition of its institutional parent. For instance, the law criminalising rape is drafted, in England and Wales, from a male standpoint, arguably suggesting, inter alia, a predisposed male propensity to violence.

In an increasingly interdependent world, the understanding of conflict is not only a core function of IR scholarship but also a fundamental necessity for the prosperity of humankind. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the patriarchal - international - system has been heavily criticised by feminists. Furthermore, until relatively recently, the field of International Relations studied the causes of war and conflict with no particular reference to people (Burchill et al, 2001). However, gender analysis can reveal many answers to IR questions. For instance, gender analysis reveals that men and states, domestic and international violence, to be inextricably related (Burchill et al, 2001). In the same vein, Fukuyama (1998) argues that men are more prone to violence and more competitive than women. As violence, aggression and competition are manifestations of conflict – whether physical, political or economic -, evidence of the former implies the propensity of the latter. Indeed, a brief consideration of crime statistics reveals that the criminal population is heavily dominated by the male gene (see Global Report on Crime and Justice, UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention). Thus, it is arguable that ‘a truly matriarchal world would be less prone to conflict and more conciliatory and cooperative than the one we inhabit now.’ This essay will discuss whether the latter assertion is unfounded and consider the prospect of such a matriarchal world.


The study of international relations focuses principally on how states – not people - interact. However, states are constituted by people and it is only logical to analyse the world today in terms of the individuals that constitute it. Gender analysis can therefore shed light in the shadows of understanding the origin of conflict in our civilisation. Thus, ‘feminism is the research posture of many locations, illuminating important relations and practices darkened by the long shadows of official IR (Sylvester, 2002, at p.269).

Fukuyama argues that violence and the coalition building is primarily the work of males. He gives examples of Bosina and the Holocaust, arguing that these were, and quite rightly, largely perpetrated by men. ‘It would seem, then, that there is something to the contention of many feminists that phenomena like aggression, violence, war and of intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women’ (Fukuyama, 1998). A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all postindustrial or Western societies are moving.

However, he continues, ‘the problem with the feminist view is that it sees these attitudes toward violence, power, and status as wholly the products of a patriarchal culture, whereas in fact it appears they are rooted in biology.’ By comparing the human race to Chimpanzees, Fukuyama makes contention that violence is innate to males - it is in effect, genetic. Thus ‘what is bred in the bone cannot be altered easily by changes in culture and ideology’ (Fukuyama, 1998).

The argument then takes a prospective look and considers whether a truly matriarchal world could ever exist and whether it could in effect doctor the conflict propensity in the world. ‘Despite the rise of women, men will continue to play a major, if not dominant part in the governance of postindustrial countries, not to mention less-developed ones (Fukuyama, 1998). Feminists, however, argue that more women need to be brought into the domain of international politics as leaders, officials, soldiers and voters. Indeed, only by participating fully in global politics can women both defend their own interests and shift the underlying male agenda. Furthermore, Fukuyama contends that women are less likely than men to see force as a legitimate tool for resolving conflicts.

In the past 15 years, the US has participated – or assisted - in over 10 armed conflicts in the world. As the world military hegemon, it is essential to consider the US in our analysis. Thus, Fukuyama predicts that increasing female participation will probably make the US and other democracies less inclined to use power around the world as freely as they have in the past. However, if gender roles are not simply socially constructed but rooted in genetics, there will be limits to how much international politics can change. This in effect means that a feminized international world order may still have to use masculine policies though not necessarily through masculine leaders, as it will still have to deal with those parts of the world run by young, ambitious, unconstrained men. Fukuyama does, however end on an optimist note, arguing that ‘by accepting the fact that people have natures that are often evil, political economic and social systems can be designed to mitigate the effects of man’s baser instincts.’

Despite Fukuyama’s argument’s attractiveness it has nonetheless been criticised. Firstly, Ehrenreich (1999) argues that ‘men hate war.’ Indeed, the male appetite for battle has always been far less voracious than either biologically inclined theorists of war (like Fukuyama) or army commanders might like (Ehrenreich, 1999). Indeed, modern armies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit men leading to the touting of its vocation fringe benefits. Secondly, there is evidence to suggest that there is no difference between the propensity of being violent by males or females: ‘In laboratory studies of human aggression, where the use of physical aggression is controlled and the possibility of escalation of violence is eliminated, there is little difference in the frequency of aggression in males and females (Ferguson, 1999).

Third, and more relevant to the issue at hand, it should not be assumed that the male monopoly on warfare has been as eternal and universal as Fukuyama imagines. For instance, archaeology suggests that ‘Russian’ women warriors were a common finding in the second millennium B.C (Ehrenreich, 1999). More recently, women in the past two centuries have more than sufficiently demonstrated their ability for collective violence such as eighteenth and nineteenth bread riots and revolutionary uprisings. This however, is not the same as to suggest that women perpetrated international conflict. However, women have served as terrorists and in an era where the latter is increasingly an international problem, it could be argued that women do participate in, and perpetrate, the international War on Terror. Furthermore, examples such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi demonstrate women’s capability to be involved at the top of the hierarchy of manufacturing warfare. Fukuyama, however, argues that these were exceptions. Indeed these women may have been forced into male posturing because there are so few female leaders. If there were a critical mass of women leaders or if nation-state sovereignty gave way to international law, the argument goes, international relations would include less interstate competition and more global cooperation (Jacquette, 1999).

However, it could be argued that even if women are innately less violent, they are plenty violent enough to call into question Fukuyama's claim that more female political power would mean more peace (Pollitt et al, 1999). Indeed, women abuse and kill children, mutilate the genitals of little girls, commit infanticide and cruelly tyrannize daughters, servants, and slaves.

When speaking of gender one is also speaking of biology. Thus the claim that a truly matriarchal world would be less prone to conflict calls for a biological contradistinction. However, as Kroeber (1999) argues, it is a large step from what may be biologically innate leanings toward individual aggression to ritualized, socially sanctioned, institutionalized group warfare. Arguably, wars start not in biology (instinctual male aggression), as Jacquette (1999) argues, but in realpolitik i.e. a state’s need to defend itself from outside threat (or to further their interests in foreign land). The argument therefore follows that women’s pacifism is relatively a modern phenomenon and cannot thus be biological, or genetic (Pollitt, 1999).

Wars are manufactured at the political level, and thus control of political power naturally monopolises control of warfare. In a democracy, political power should ideally lie in the hands of the electorate. Thus, Fukuyama argues that war and foreign policy are determined by voters, who will be disproportionately female and therefore antiwar. However, it is more than clear that wars are not decided at the ballot box (Pollitt, 1999). Indeed, American women have had the vote for nearly 80 years and this arguably has not precluded American foreign policy to be as militarily active as it has been.

A possible fatal blow to Fukuyama’s assertion that a matriarchal world would be less prone to conflict is there is no empirical evidence of large-scale, long-term social structures that have been created and maintained exclusively or even largely by females. Indeed, until very recently, and still in many states, women were prohibited from combat roles, which in turn made it impossible for them to rise to commanding levels in their state’s armed forces. The overworked myth of matriarchy notwithstanding, we do not have good examples of groups of women engaged over generations in creating and sustaining public organizations such as armies, religions, police forces, or even international businesses (Tiger, 1999).

Women are already, however, involved in cooperative mechanisms in the resolution of conflict or promotion of peace. For instance in the Phillipines women initiated peace zones to protect their children from recruitment by the militias and the army. Thus, the involvement of women in peace negotiations leads to ensuring a peace agreement that builds lasting peace at all levels (United Nations Development Fund for Women, “Women At The Peace Table, 2000).


Gender analysis provides a novel platform to understand international relations. It may be the case that women are less prone to violence because society has, over time, conditioned them to be so. A totally polarised dispersion of power in the world, such as truly patriarchal or truly matriarchal, is more likely, if anything, to generate more conflict as the struggle for power would be exacerbated. It is therefore safe to conclude that it is necessary to promote women to higher political, economic and military positions so as to provide a balance in the execution of international policies that will, eventually, affect international relations, and, hopefully, the prevention of conflict and promotion of interstate cooperation.

No comments: