Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Defense Peace & Conflict Studies Saman Rejali Saman Rejali Security The United States of America Women in Security

Militarized Masculinity and Gendered Security: War and Peace From a Feminist Perspective II

Part II- Militarization of Public Office and Foreign Policy

There are numerous measures that assess world leaders in terms of their domestic and foreign policies. To date, however, the aptitude of politicians world over is often essentialized to their degree of “maleness” or perceived level of “masculinity.” By giving too much credence to leaders’ ability to exude “masculinized toughness,” both in terms of their personal mannerisms and political foreign policy approaches, a gendered politics of masculinity forms.

Socio-politically constructed gender norms advocating for “manly” leaders, with “tough,” “no-nonsense,” “uncompromising” stances, perpetuate military-oriented approaches to conducting foreign policy, which leave little room for compromise, and ultimately undermine international stability. Thus, under pressure to showcase their “masculine strength and power” world leaders are more likely to take harsh military stances, reject possibilities for negotiation, and inhibit the potential for peace-making processes.

As two of the world’s leading powers, the presidential posts in the United States and Russia are among the most notable cases illustrating the force of masculinized militarization on public office holders and foreign policy decisions. In the United States, the president is legally obligated to be a “gender neutral, civilian democratic” public official. Yet, as seen in past American presidential elections, since the American President is also the Commander-in-Chief, candidates’ military credentials are often central in legitimating their bid for the presidency.

Prior to, and during his eight years in office, George W. Bush continuously claimed that his military credentials qualified him for the presidency. To this end, while as a Texas Air National Guard, Bush “never served even close to a wartime battlefield,” he nevertheless used his military background to amass public approval from “a sizable portion” of the American public during both election runs. During his tenure as well Bush consistently infused his presidential authority with militarized notions of masculinity. Most resoundingly, this is evident in his governing style of “in-your-face American exceptionalism,” his aggressive bullying of American allies, and his use of pre-emptive war rhetoric to legitimize his “shoot-first” foreign policy approach to the US invasion of Iraq.

Such politics of masculinity are presented as “natural.” It is espoused that “effective” leaders demonstrate their masculine strength, by marking their territory through force, or the threat of force. Yet, the Bush years exemplify the negative international implications that ensue when militarized masculinity is intertwined with the foreign policy decisions of civilian-leaders in positions of high public office.

Under pressure to showcase their “masculine strength and power” world leaders are more likely to take harsh military stances, reject possibilities for negotiation, and inhibit the potential for peace-making processes.

By the time Barack Obama took office in 2008, he faced the prospect of keeping his campaign promises to end the war in Iraq; withdrawing troops from Afghanistan; and managing America’s economic crisis and accrued debt, a large portion of which comes from the country’s $700 billion (USD) annual military expenditure, which is more than any other nation, and more than the “next 14 biggest spenders combined.”

In contrast to Bush, however, Obama’s terms in office have been defined by-and-large by his “failure” to not only deliver on his campaign promises, but also uphold the militarized image of a “macho” leader who employs the same force-first foreign policy strategies as a uniformed senior military official. In choosing to take a more nuanced approach that leaves room open for complex peace strategies, diplomacy, and negotiation, Obama has been brutally chastised by the Right for failing to exude a “masculine,” and thus, militarized approach to foreign policy decisions. Accordingly, the President’s proclaimed foreign policy stance of employing “diplomacy first and war as a last resort” with respect to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the crisis in Ukraine, and the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa region has been characterized by Right-wing pundits as signalling “weakness, dithering, [and] inaction.”

Meanwhile, as events in the Ukraine have escalated and cease-fire talks have faced tumult, the foreign policy approaches of Obama and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have been put to the test. It is important to note, however, that pundits’ assessment of each leader’s foreign policy approach are not based so much on their degree of effectiveness, as on their ability to demonstrate unabashed masculinized bravado. It is on this skewed basis that “military-minded” Republicans attack Obama’s presidential authority by questioning his “manliness,” while they “speak almost admiringly about Vladimir Putin’s macho boldness.”

As Cynthia Enloe accurately points out in her assessment of militarized masculine gender norms, “civilian representatives’ repeated privileging of military concerns over other important U.S. international goals is due in part to the nervousness that many male civilian executive and congressional officeholders feel when confronted with military resistance…it is about the male politician’s angst over not appearing manly.”

In Russia, where gender norms are continuously used as “means of authority-building,” particularly for the president, Putin’s “macho antics” have been used to bolster public support for Moscow amidst growing domestic corruption and income inequality.

As illustrated in the cases of both the United States and Russia, the prevalent acceptance of gender norms perpetuating militarized masculinity reduce the aptitude of leaders to their degree of “manliness.” Thus, leaders are coopted– whether knowingly or unknowingly– to act the masculine parts they feel obliged to play and perform. However, when leaders abide by such gender norms they perpetuate the false notion that the only way to protect a country and advance foreign policy is through militarized strategies, cumulating in warfare. What’s more, a patriarchal gender hierarchy is created whereby the embodiment of “masculinity” is placed above that of “femininity,” even if such “feminine” traits include taking more nuanced, less destructive approaches that minimize conflicts, strengthen international ties, and give strength to marginalized voices.

Saman Rejali
Saman is a Research Assistant at the University of Toronto, and a Research Fellow with the NATO Association of Canada. She has served as the association’s Editor for the Women in Security program, lead coordinator of the Women, Peace, and Security Conference, and Co-Editor of Canada in the World: Youth Dialogue on Women, Peace, and Security. Prior to joining NATO AC, she was involved with Toronto City Hall, the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and the G8/G20 Research Group. Saman holds an Honours B.A. from the University of Toronto, and will be starting her Master’s degree at The Graduate Institute Geneva come fall. Her research interests include international development and women's rights, particularly as they pertain to achieving structural reforms in the MENA region.