USA: National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security: Implementation and De Tocqueville

Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations
North America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

UN Women Executive Director Bachelet arrives at the headquarters for the Children Hope project, also known as "Crianca Esperanca," in Rio de Janeiro on December 16, 2011

Yesterday, the White House released the first-ever National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security, complete with an accompanying fact sheet and Executive Order. The NAP is the outcome of a process that began over a decade ago with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which encouraged the UN and its member states to integrate a gender perspective in all aspects of peace and security. In October 2004, a subsequent Security Council Presidential Statement called on the “development of national action plans” to further implement Resolution 1325. Before yesterday, thirty-two other countries had already released their own NAPs.

The Obama administration should be congratulated for recognizing the essential role that women play across the broad spectrum of peace and security issues, and for producing a long overdue NAP that clearly articulates a strategy for translating this rhetorical vision into practice. Four quick thoughts:

The NAP summarizes decades of research of the “why” and “how” behind integrating a gender-based perspective into humanitarian assistance, conflict prevention, and peacemaking. It makes the case for why “women and girls have distinct needs and vulnerabilities” in conflict situations, as they are much more likely to be the victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, women should play a more substantial role in mediating and resolving conflicts because they “include a broader set of critical societal priorities” than men sitting alone around a table. (As an example of the evidentiary basis for the NAP, see Secretary Clinton's speech yesterday on women, peace, and security, which included an unprecedented twenty-seven footnotes to academic research.)

The document makes the compelling case for why it is in U.S. national interest to integrate a gender-based perspective in foreign policy decisionmaking. In countries where women and girls have equal rights and opportunities, there is a strong correlation with economic prosperity and peace. Rather than leaning on the national interest argumentation, however, I actually wish that the NAP explicitly stated, “This is the right thing to do.” Indeed, if you search for the words, “values,” “ethics,” or “morals,” you won't find them in this document.

The NAP includes a workplan for all relevant U.S. government agencies, as well as the creation of an interagency review mechanism to track progress through 2015. The NAP will only have an enduring impact if senior policymakers and Congressional members and staff make its implementation a priority among the many other competing and more immediate foreign policy concerns. For example, there are over twenty comparable Obama administration strategies that each deal with various issues such as intelligence, counterintelligence, biological threats, space, cyberspace, and violent extremism.

The plan is somewhat disappointing in that it seeks “to advance gender equality and women's empowerment” in other countries, but not within the U.S. government itself. As I and others have pointed out, women are disproportionally underrepresented in senior foreign policy and national security positions in the U.S. government, academy, and think tanks. This underrepresentation implies the loss of talented women in high-level positions, as well as the absence of their unique perspective, which is two-fold: “Women are more likely to see the other side´s point of view,” and “Women see less of a zero-sum game.”

It should be noted that this underrepresentation exists—and is even worse—in other fields. In 1986, President Reagan proclaimed the inaugural American Business Women's Day. At that time, approximately 3 percent of senior corporate managers were women, and there was only one female CEO of a Fortunate 500 company (Katherine Graham at the Washington Post). A quarter century later, the appointment of women in boardrooms has only marginally improved, as women currently comprise 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs (a record high) and only 16 percent of the top corporate jobs.

In closing, I include a passage from Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which includes a chapter that purported to explain and defend the inequality that he witnessed between men and women at all levels of society. This passage is worth remembering as an extreme example of the United States in the nineteenth century, when it was widely believed that the biological distinctions between men and women were a sufficient rationale to deny the latter the right to participate in the affairs of the state, either at home or abroad. The NAP—if fully implemented—is another step towards a world that facilitates the equitable inclusion of women in decisionmaking.

It is not thus that the Americans understand that species of democratic equality which may be established between the sexes. They admit that as nature has appointed such wide differences between the physical and moral constitution of man and woman, her manifest design was to give a distinct employment to their various faculties; and they hold that improvement does not consist in making beings so dissimilar do pretty nearly the same things, but in causing each of them to fulfill their respective tasks in the best possible manner. The Americans have applied to the sexes the great principle of political economy which governs the manufacturers of our age, by carefully dividing the duties of man from those of woman in order that the great work of society may be the better carried on.

In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different. American women never manage the outward concerns of the family or conduct a business or take a part in political life; nor are they, on the other hand, ever compelled to perform the rough labor of the fields or to make any of those laborious efforts which demand the exertion of physical strength.