The Women, Peace and Security Agenda Under the Trump Administration: Undercutting Advances with a Return to Masculine Militarism

by Barbara Frey and Lindsey Greising
September 28, 2017

President Trump’s bombastic first speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on September 19 is yet another signal that the current U.S. administration is much more focused on war than on peace.  Threats to “totally destroy North Korea” as well as the tossing aside of a nuanced Iran treaty like it was just a bad real estate deal are bad omens for stability, human rights, and respectful bilateral and multilateral negotiations.  Trump’s view of security is also a bad omen for women.

The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda focuses on women and armed conflict and is based on UN Security Resolution 1325 and the six related resolutions that stem from it.  The Agenda looks at impacts and special needs/protections for women, as well as the transformative power of including women in decision-making and conflict prevention, resolution, and post-conflict recovery.  

At the international level, the UN is mandated to include WPS considerations in its activities across the board, such as increasing the role of female peacekeepers and decision-makers, focusing on women in post-conflict negotiations, ending impunity regarding crimes against women during conflict, and including women’s protections/needs in emergency response. A central tenet of WPS is that women need to have a central seat at the table in all facets of domestic and international security policymaking.

The Obama Administration issued the U.S.’s first National Action Plan on WPS in 2011, fully eleven years after the Sec. Res. 1325’s adoption.  The goal of the plan claimed to be “as simple as it [was] profound: to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence and insecurity.”

The Obama Administration took some important steps toward embracing the more powerful aims of WPS, such as training the U.S.’s own foreign service staff on gender equality, and working multilaterally to strengthen peacekeepers’ capacity to protect civilians from gender-based violence.


Weapons, not women

The Trump Administration’s approach to the WPS Agenda seems to be one of neglect, characterized by indifference to women’s issues, incompetence in diplomacy, and an infatuation with all things military. President Trump’s shift away from diplomacy and toward militant rhetoric undoubtedly threatens the critical space for WPS. The lack of diplomatic personnel and policy direction on WPS has a withering effect. In Trump’s world, safeguarding women is the job of strong men.

Conscious of these regressive policies, many are pushing back against the (masculinized) militarization of global security, which could suggest that the “era of women,” of which the WPS agenda is part, has moved the agenda far enough to withstand this assault.  Women remain in key security positions in governments and international organizations, and finance-conscious leaders understand that human-centered security is far more sustainable than butting nuclear warheads.

The most immediate impacts on the U.S. commitment to the WPS agenda are likely to come from the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts in the aid budget and the Administration’s overall “we’re taking names” posture towards the UN.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for the Department of State and USAID— the main entities with a role in the WPS Agenda—not only directly targets programs that benefit WPS and women’s rights, but they make a clear statement that militarism and masculinities will once again be front-and-center.  For example, Trump has vowed to slash 30 percent of the budget for the State Department and USAID.  The budget request is almost completely silent on women. Instead the priorities are peppered with phrases like “defeating terrorism,” “improving cybersecurity,” and “strengthening economic imperatives.” So much for democratic values.

The Trump administration also highlights reductions in collaborative international efforts such as joint peacekeeping operations.  A particular target for State Department budget cuts are U.N. programs.  Ambassador Nikki Haley warned, “Anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with.”  UN Peacekeeping Operations were Haley’s first target.  The U.S. advocated a $1 billion reduction to the blue helmets’ $8 billion budget, but settled for a reduction of $600 million.  An exuberant Haley tweeted, “Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started.”  

The U.S. pays a quarter of the U.N. Peacekeeping budget, so we just saved ourselves $150 million (with an “m”) by cutting peacekeeping troops in the Ivory Coast and Sudan.  Just for comparison, the Trump Administration is proposing more than $600 billion (with a “b”) for our military.


Actions Speak Louder than Words

Beyond the numbers, the Trump Administration has been sending signals on women and human rights through active steps to destroy the few institutions created to further these goals.  The position of U.S. Ambassador of the Office of Global Women’s Issues remains vacant, though WPS is, surprisingly, still listed as a priority on the Administration’s website and the Obama-era National Action Plan on WPS has not yet been erased (an oversight, perhaps?).  

Also threatened is the entire Office of Global Crimes, which is a key actor in accountability and prevention regarding rights violations against women and girls.  

In addition, there is a salient absence of the mention of women’s rights and WPS in the Administration’s rhetoric.  For example, in the compilation of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks online, not a single statement directly touches on women, girls, gender, or reproductive rights. Rather than attend himself, Tillerson sent an Undersecretary to join the First Lady, Melania Trump, to deliver the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards in March 2017. While actions speak louder than words, the absence of words in this case speaks volumes about the weight this Administration is giving to women’s issues, including WPS.

What rhetoric does exist involves areas where women and girls are categorized as vulnerable creatures, objects in need of protection, rather than as important actors in generating shifts in policy or culture. Human trafficking, for instance, remains in the list of diplomatic priorities.  As for women in the military, in addition to his ban on transgender service members, Trump stated that rape was a natural result of putting men and women together.  This new policy rhetoric threatens to undermine advances made in gender and military service and gender and human rights.


A Force to be Reckoned with, or a Fire Deprived of Oxygen?

It is, of course, important to remember that international policy does not rise and fall with just one man— or woman – and that some logical constituents of a stronger military do not support Trump’s policy directions.  For example, 121 retired generals wrote a letter to Congress in February 2017 voicing their concern about aid cuts as they directly relate to security concerns.  Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s proposal to cut the diplomacy and aid budget by one-third would “gut soft power” and “put a lot of people at risk.”

Indeed, many have commented on the consolidating power Trump’s election has had, particularly around women’s rights.  The Women’s Marches were the largest in the US since the Civil Rights movement, and there were more than 673 sister marches worldwide.  Not necessarily because of Trump, but perhaps more indicative of the rising force of the women’s movement in this era, feminist activism in Poland, across Latin America, and in Ireland and South Korea, are bringing women’s issues to the fore.  Thus, the era that brought about the WPS Agenda may have laid a strong foundation from which the rights movement can thrive, even in the face of a misogynistic Administration.  That said, a movement and agenda deprived of oxygen— in this case, political will and funding— will face a more challenging path forward.

— Barbara Frey is the Director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Lindsey Greising is an independent immigration lawyer

— Photo by UN Photo/Logan Abassi