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Does Foreign Sexism Threaten Us?: An Exchange

In response to:

What Foreign Policy for the US? from the September 24, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

In her recent review of The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy [NYR, September 24], Jessica T. Mathews contends that we failed to make our case that the subjugation of women worldwide poses a threat to US national security.

Mathews bases her critique on a narrow definition of national security that precludes threats posed by transnational crime, the destabilizing effect of sectarian conflict (as witnessed by events unfolding in the Middle East), militarism, and corruption.

Donald Steinberg, former deputy administrator of USAID and now president of World Learning, perhaps said it best:

Compare those societies that respect women and those who don’t. Who’s trafficking in weapons, drugs? Who’s harboring terrorists and starting pandemics? Whose problems require US troops on the ground? There’s a one-to-one correspondence. Don’t tell me there’s no relationship between national security and the empowerment of women.

Contrary to Mathews’s review, Russia is a perfect example of how hypermasculinity is directly reflected in the national and foreign policy of a nation—i.e., the tendency of its government to rely on gangsterism, bellicosity, and force to repress dissent and deal with noncompliant neighbors. The hypermasculinity promulgated by Russia’s current government has the potential to destabilize an entire region and indeed, the world—and the US is clearly worried about that possibility.

So far as India is concerned, the abject status of women mires that nation in internal misery. Its child malnutrition rates are worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than being a force for stability in southern Asia, a nation that might become a natural and powerful partner of the United States when dealing with challenges related to Pakistan, Afghanistan, the rise of China, and other issues, India is incapable of assuming such a role. And it will remain incapable as long as Indian women remain so severely subordinated.

And finally, national security is not only about what happens outside of the US, but also the political and social conditions evolving within its own borders. That being the case, Americans would also be wise to pay heed to the link between gender inequality and the politics of repression and intolerance as they play out on its own domestic scene.

Given the upcoming presidential election, these are issues that should concern us all. Mathews’s shortsighted review gives a pass to candidates who are already contemptuous of the importance of women’s empowerment in both foreign and domestic politics. That’s lamentable, to say the least.

Valerie M. Hudson
Patricia Leidl
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada

Jessica T. Mathews replies:

Direct threats to national security are those that endanger the territorial integrity, political sovereignty, economic well-being, and safety of a country and its inhabitants. They may result from extreme cases of domestic instability or division, but generally these threats come from outside. The concept should be defined broadly enough to include real—if very long-term—threats (climate change, for example) and immediate but indirect dangers other than conventional military attack (the repercussions of failed states, for example), but narrowly enough to exclude conditions or trends that we simply dislike and would like to see changed.

The many forms of discrimination against women may be unjust, bad economics, morally abhorrent to us, or all three, but that does not make them a direct threat to national security. Ameliorating them will make the countries concerned and the world a better place, and therefore something to be desired and worked for, but that is something different.