Will Obama Be Inclusive When it Comes to Security?

01/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Amb. Swanee Hunt Swanee Hunt is a philanthropist, a lecturer in public policyat Harvard Kennedy School, and former US Ambassador to Austria in the Clinton Administration.

With the announcement of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Susan Rice as Ambassador to the UN, much of the current commentary on the selection of President-elect Obama's impressive national security team has speculated that US foreign policy will actively champion women's rights, fighting horrors like mass rape and female genital mutilation. Such welcome policies are only half the equation. Women in conflict areas aren't simply victims in need of our protection; they're our hope when it comes to creating stable societies. As such, we need to do more than protect them -- we need to acknowledge their leadership. That's the basic tenet of "inclusive security."

Recent American foreign policy has overplayed military might at the expense of broader efforts to cultivate democracy. That's part of the mess we find ourselves in today. After eight years, we're financially strapped, and living in a far more dangerous world because we have focused almost all our resources on extinguishing crises, failing to build up stabilizing forces of prevention. As a result, we have become caught up in a deadly cycle of crisis, costly reaction, and instability, which causes more crisis, costly reaction, and instability.... That's what we know how to do: address the urgent while vital languishes.

Afghanistan is a case in point, where the Afghan Women's Network (leaders of schools, health clinics, and legal rights centers) and the Women's Parliamentary Network (27% of the assembly) stand up to extremists. Indeed, women's leadership may be the most effective way to counter the rise of religious extremism worldwide. These leaders need external support, yet they receive a pittance compared to military operations. For example, four years after the fall of the Taliban government, less than one percent of US foreign assistance was implemented by Afghan women's organizations, despite the fact that women's empowerment had been a primary justification for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. And the higher judicial and executive positions in the Afghan government are almost exclusively male, ignoring the fresh perspectives and innovative ideas women bring to a leadership group.

The concern here is not "women's issues," or even "women's rights," but security. When women constitute about 30 percent of decision makers, their presence actually changes the behavior of men in policy-making and administration. In the short term, women's leadership reduces violence, starvation, hopelessness, and fear. And, since women are perceived as being less corrupt than men, their presence restores faith in the government.

But the long-term benefits of empowering women are equally important. The World Bank says that their advancement is the single most effective means of raising the standard of living of a community. We see the opposite in Somalia and Zimbabwe, dangerous failed states. Take a look at the news. To say the obvious, it's not the "Somalis" who are on a rampage. It's young Somali men between the ages of 16 and 30. The women who might be able to control them by sheer moral authority are nowhere to be seen.

So how do we achieve a stable society? Research says that across cultures, when women have formal power they tend to prioritize education, health, safety, and environmental programs over military spending. The problem is the phrase "when women have formal power," because women generally don't seek power. Although they abound as leaders of "civil society" (the humanitarian and human rights sphere, where they lack policy-setting authority), worldwide they're only 18 percent of parliamentarians and seven percent of government heads--far short of the critical mass needed for sustainable change. In fact, in war regions, they're usually shut out of teams negotiating peace accords and are less than ten percent of those contracted for post-conflict reconstruction work.

Despite the challenges of these numbers, benchmark language calling for women's empowerment has been adopted (if not implemented) by the UN, G-8, European Parliament, and World Bank. Several countries, including Canada, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, train women in conflict regions to run for office, negotiate peace agreements, or lead post-conflict NGOs.

In contrast, the US government has no real mechanism to increase global security by increasing women's leadership. But if we adopted one robust strategy for the advancement of women, we would find enthusiastic partners eager to renew ties with the US around this theme. What a change, to be a country others admire and thus want to join. It would be a classic example of using "soft power"--policies and values that attract allies--to create global security. The reaction to the last election has made it clear: others are more than ready to like us again.

What does this mean on the ground? In September 2005, Hawa Nuristani was shot in the leg by armed men and left for dead as she campaigned for parliament in a remote village in Afghanistan. She was undaunted by the attack and a fatwa that anyone who voted for a woman was an infidel. I sat on her bed in Kabul, hearing her story, as family and neighbors gathered around. When I asked which was her husband, she said he was still in the mountains; as she was being carried out on a stretcher, she'd asked him to stay back and continue the campaign.

Nuristani was elected to parliament with 67 other women. In the assembly they're sitting next to warlords, but they support each other through their caucus. I've worked on women's global advancement for more than a decade, and I've met determined women like these in more than 40 conflicts. They're ready. And I believe our new security team is ready. A systemic, long-term strategy to stabilize fragile countries by spurring women's global leadership can be a defining element of the Obama administration. With vision, expertise, and champions, serious change and economic pay-off will be achieved within several years. Such an initiative will be consistent with President Obama's determination to create a foreign policy with less swagger and more sway.