Winter 2016 (30.4) Review

The Hillary Doctrine: Sex & American Foreign Policy by Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

The Hillary Doctrine: Sex & American Foreign Policy, Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 456 pp., $29.95 cloth.

Given that much of the political science literature on women, gender, and U.S. foreign policy has primarily examined the legislative branch and public opinion, The Hillary Doctrine’s focus on the executive branch is an important and welcome contribution to the international relations field. Hudson and Leidl focus on Hillary Clinton’s prioritization of women’s empowerment in all facets of U.S. foreign policy and national security during her tenure as secretary of state in the Obama administration, noting that “she was (and is) the world’s most influential and eloquent exponent of the proposition that the situation of women and the destiny of nations are integrally linked” (pp. xiii). The authors make clear, however, that the book is not about Hillary Clinton herself but about the Doctrine as an idea translated into policy, and hence their “foundational question” is as follows: “Do the situation, security, and status of women within a nation affect that nation’s security, stability, and prosperity? If so, then the premise of the Hillary Doctrine is sound, and warrants a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy” (p. 68).

Building on Hudson’s previous work and the work of others demonstrating the strong link between women’s security and national security, and drawing on theory and extensive empirical research (interviews, field work, quantitative analysis, and detailed case studies), the authors examine the origins and implementation of the Hillary Doctrine. In her address to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2010, Clinton first articulated what eventually became known as the Hillary Doctrine, stating that “the subjugation of women is a threat to the national security of the United States.” The Doctrine was officially included in the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review of U.S. foreign policy, published in December 2010 (p. 4). As Hudson and Leidl note, “For the first time in history, the United States of America has committed itself to the proposition that the empowerment of women and girls is a stabilizing force for peace in the world, and thus should be the cornerstone of American foreign policy” (p. 4). The book explores subsequent policies and programs as formulated and implemented—in particular by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—in the context of the Doctrine. Case study chapters on Guatemala, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan provide empirical evidence of when women’s rights have mattered in U.S. foreign policy, if at all.

The book’s three parts reflect the authors’ three overarching questions. First, what has been the role of sex in U.S. foreign policy? Through a historical overview of the Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, the authors analyze the ebb and flow of policies and programs focused on women and girls. They also consider in detail how women’s rights in other countries influenced foreign policy in the George W. Bush administration, particularly in the context of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when the plight of Afghan women was presented as one of the justifications for military action. They further examine Hillary Clinton’s term in office as secretary of state. During this time President Obama appointed a number of women to top foreign policy positions; and the head of the Office of Global Women’s Issues was given the title of ambassador at-large, reporting directly to the secretary of state. And it was under Clinton’s leadership of the State Department that in 2011 the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security was published.

This overview then takes us to the authors’ second question: How has the Hillary Doctrine actually been implemented? As Hudson and Leidl ask, “To what extent does the rhetoric of the Hillary Doctrine match the reality of U.S. government policy and programming? Will it indeed help bring about a more stable future for the nations of the world as Clinton has articulated time and time again?” (p. 4).

Given the empirical evidence, they conclude that the record has been mixed. For example, Clinton was vocal about women’s rights and empowerment in some countries (for example, Afghanistan) but silent about others (Saudi Arabia, China). In a close examination of USAID’s work they found that the rhetoric at the top did not often match the reality on the ground. An interview with a gender advisor on a USAID-funded project revealed that “too few in-country USAID employees fully understand why gender programming is so critical” (p. 221). Moreover, the authors argue that the mixed record on the effective implementation of the Hillary Doctrine has resulted from the lack of political resolve. Prioritization of gender must come from the top—from the president. They assert that Obama has not provided the necessary support for the Doctrine; and that while her successor, John Kerry, initially highlighted the importance of women’s empowerment and inclusion in all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, he has since not been very outspoken about these issues (p. 282). In an overall assessment of the Doctrine the authors astutely note that “in a real sense, the Hillary Doctrine is what the Hillary Doctrine does” (p. 182).

Third, what might a feminist foreign policy, as exemplified by the Hillary Doctrine, look like in the future? Hudson and Leidl note that in many ways aspects of the Hillary Doctrine have been institutionalized, but they caution that future secretaries of state may “acknowledge the web of institutions and obligations but remain indifferent to them” (p. 279). Hence, by presenting a normative argument for what U.S. foreign policy should look like, the authors provide concrete recommendations for how the Hillary Doctrine can be successfully implemented in the future. Beyond its borders, the United States must ensure that in negotiating the end of conflicts, for example, local women are included at the table. Domestically, women need to be appointed to top U.S. foreign policy and national security positions “in order to change the atmospherics” (p. 313). The authors also make clear that the Hillary Doctrine is not just about women but also about men and narratives of masculinity and hypermasculinity (p. 310). Whether the Hillary Doctrine will be fully integrated into U.S. foreign policy such that the status of women is recognized as essential to the national interest and national security remains to be seen.

Hudson and Leidl’s argument and evidence further contribute to existing feminist scholarship on the relationship of women, gender, and foreign policy. As with other feminist scholars, the authors convincingly show that it is not enough to have women in foreign policymaking roles (“add women and stir”) in order to change foreign policy to support women’s equality and empowerment, but that a fundamental shift in conceptualizing national security in relation to women’s empowerment and gender equality is necessary. Rich in empirical research and theory, The Hillary Doctrine challenges us to rethink how to define the U.S. national interest and is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding why and how women’s security and the status of women around the world matter for U.S. foreign policy and national security.


Kristen P. Williams is professor of political science at Clark University, specializing in international relations, nationalism, and gender and war.

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