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Of Arms and the Woman

Article that discusses Chnthia Enloe's book The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War. Lind's dialogue with Enloe's text examines feminist international relations theory and its various manifestations.

The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War
by Cynthia Enloe
(University of California Press, 326 pp., $38, $15 paper)

About halfway through Cynthia Enloe's feminist study of post-cold war international politics, one finds the following:

So when I first heard the news of what was instantly called the Gulf crisis, I tried, not always successfully, to think about what the invasion and its ripple effects meant....Perhaps it was these mental aerobics that encouraged me a month later ... to set off on a trial run at analyzing the crisis by imagining it from the vantage point of one of its apparently least significant participants: a Filipina working as a maid in Kuwait City.... I might get back to George Bush, Fran´┐Żois Mitterrand, King Fahd and Saddam Hussein eventually. But coming to their ideological outlooks and uses of state power by way of particular groups of women, and the relationships of those women with other women, would prove more fruitful than taking the masculinist shortcut. That was the path paved with presumptions that powerful men would reveal the most about why a crisis had developed and why it was following its peculiar course.

Welcome to the world of feminist international relations theory. Try to follow along.

International relations, as a discipline distinct from history and political science, goes back only to the early twentieth century, the time of a great debate between "idealists," who believed in the irenic possibilities of international organization, and "realists," who believed that conflict was a permanent feature of world politics. The realists won that debate. A second great debate took place over questions of method, with pseudo-scientific positivists triumphing over traditional or classical realists, at least in the cloisters of the American academy. And today still another great debate is taking place, with the ascendancy of various postpositivist and antirealist schools of thought: postmodernists, critical theorists, poststructuralists and feminists.

Feminist international relations theory itself comes in several versions. There is feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theory and feminist postmodernism. Feminist empiricism is epistemologically conservative, though not politically conservative. Its adherents assert that an unconscious masculine bias has influenced the choice of, and answers to, questions in academic disciplines, but that the presence of female scholars can correct "androcentric" distortion; objectivity is difficult, but it is possible. Feminist standpoint theorists and feminist postmodernists criticize feminist empiricists for failing to realize how much mainstream (or "malestream") thinking incorporates "masculinist" assumptions. The standpoint theorists argue that the entire enterprise of international relations theory, like other disciplines, has to be rethought from the standpoint of women. The postmodernists qualify this by arguing that there is no single standpoint of women, accusing the standpoint theorists of the great heresy of essentialism, that is, of mistaking their own white middle-class feminine concepts and values for those of women in general. In short, the standpoint theorists accuse the empiricists of thinking like men, and the postmodernists accuse standpoint theorists of thinking like affluent white women.

Now--if you are still with me--the great intellectual challenge to the conventional realist understanding of international relations comes from the standpoint feminists and the postmodernist feminists, who agree on the broad outlines of the critique. (In what follows I will use "feminist" to mean standpoint and postmodernist scholars.) According to feminist critics, international relations theory as it has evolved incorporates "masculinist" prejudices at each of its three levels of analysis: man, the state and war. Realists are "androcentric" in arguing that the propensity for conflict is universal in human nature ("man"); that the logic and the morality of sovereign states are not identical to those of individuals ("the state"); and that the world is an anarchy in which sovereign states must be prepared to rely on self-help, including organized violence ("war"). Feminist theorists would stress the nurturing and cooperative aspects--the conventionally feminine aspects--of human nature; they would expose the artificiality of notions of sovereignty, and their connection with patriarchy and militarism; and they would replace the narrow realist emphasis on security, especially military security, with a redefinition of security as universal social justice.

The first thing that must be said about the feminist critique of realism is that it is by no means incompatible with realism, properly understood. In fact, realist theory can hardly be recognized in the feminist caricature of it. Take the idea of the innate human propensity for conflict. Although some realist thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau have confused the matter (often under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr) with misleading talk of "original sin," the controlling idea of realism is that there is an ineradicable potential for conflict between human beings--"men" in the inclusive, gender-neutral sense-- when they are organized in groups. Realism is not about conflict between individual men, that is, males; if it were, it would be a theory of barroom brawls or adolescent male crime. It is about conflict between rival communities, and those communities include women and men alike.

Feminist critics of realism, then, begin by attacking a straw man, or a straw male. Even worse, they tend to indulge in the stereotypes that they otherwise abhor: aggression is "male," conciliation is "female." To their credit, most feminist theorists are aware of this danger, ever mindful of their dogma that all sexual identity is socially constructed, ever fearful that they will hear the cry of "Essentialist!" raised against them. Thus Enloe, in an earlier book called Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, struggles with how to answer what she calls "the `What about Margaret Thatcher?' taunt."

Her answer is that women like Margaret Thatcher and Jeane Kirkpatrick reinforce the patriarchy by making international conflict look "less man-made, more people-made and thus more legitimate and harder to reverse." Enloe applies this analysis consistently--right-wing women like Phyllis Schlafly are pawns of the patriarchal-militarist power structure, while left-wing women like the Greenham Common Women are disinterested proponents of the good of humanity. Still, Enloe is troubled enough to return to the question: "some women's class aspirations and their racist fears lured them into the role of controlling other women for the sake of imperial rule." Admit that, however, and you are close to conceding the point about collective human behavior made by realists.

Then there is "the state." Here, too, there is nothing in realism that cannot accommodate many feminine observations about the particular patriarchal features of particular historic states. The realist definition of "the state" as a sovereign entity with an existence and a strategy distinct from that of individuals is very broad, including medieval duchies and ancient empires-- and, perhaps, female biker gangs. Realist theory holds no preference for the modern nation-state, though a word might be spoken in its defense. Again and again in feminist writings one encounters the claim that the modern nation- state is inherently "gendered," as though its predecessors--feudal dynastic regimes, theocratic empires, city-states, tribal amphictyonies--were not even more rigidly patriarchal.

Completely missing from such an analysis is any acknowledgement that the successes of feminism have been largely based on appeals to the universal norms governing citizens of the impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state. Those appeals would have made no sense in any previous political system. Notwithstanding this, feminist scholars tend to join free marketeers, multiculturalists and Wilsonians in their approval of the (mostly imaginary) dissolution of the nation-state in a new world order. If the nation-state is "gendered," Enloe reasons, then perhaps the post-national nonstate need not be: "Perhaps effective u.n. soldiering will call for a new kind of masculinity, one less reliant on misogyny, less insecure about heterosexual credentials." (If the recent "peacekeeping" of u.n. forces in Bosnia and Somalia shows anything, however, it is that a little more of the old masculinity may be necessary to prevent mass slaughter--and mass rape, too.)

Though realist theory can survive, and perhaps even accommodate, many of the arguments of feminism with respect to collective conflict and state sovereignty, realism must reject the third aspect of the feminist criticism: the redefinition of security to mean social justice. From the Marxist left, feminists have picked up the argument that interstate violence is just one genre of "structural violence," which includes the economic oppression of lower classes by upper classes (Marxism) and the subordination of women to men by custom and by violence (feminism). But this notion merely disguises a change of subject as a change of approach. To say that mass rape by soldiers in wartime and wife-beating in societies at peace (excuse me, at "peace") are parts of the same phenomenon is to abandon any pretense of engaging in serious thinking about international relations. The result may be feminist theory, but it is not a theory of world politics. It is a theory of human society in general. When, as in "ecofeminism," the mistreatment of women by men in all societies, in peace and at war, is fused, as a subject of analysis, with the mistreatment of the ecosystem by humanity, one has a theory of everything, and a theory of everything is usually not very much.

If you don't know where you are going, as the old saw has it, any road will get you there. Hence Enloe's decision to understand the Gulf war by beginning with the experiences of Filipina maids in Kuwait. "I might get back to George Bush, Fran´┐Żois Mitterrand, King Fahd and Saddam Hussein eventually." Or maybe not. The results of combining an abandonment of the idea of international politics as something that can be understood by abstracting certain aspects of reality from the blooming, buzzing confusion of fact with an abandonment of a "positivist" effort to establish chains of causation are amply on display in The Morning After, as in the earlier Bananas, Beaches and Bases.

These rambling exercises in free association have less in common with a monograph on a diplomatic or military subject than with the associative and politicized writings of, say, Adrienne Rich; they amount to a compendium of vignettes linked only by vague humanitarian sentiment and the writer's consciousness. Enloe is grandiose in her employment of "I": "I've become aware now of the ways in which men have used nationalism to silence women...." "Those like myself who believe that militarism is separable from masculinity are especially interested in conscription...." "For instance, I realize now that I know nothing--nothing--about Kurdish women." (Such personal observations, one must admit, are refreshing compared to sentences like these: "Sexual practice is one of the sites of masculinity's--and femininity's--daily construction. That construction is international. It has been so for generations." Or: "Thinking about militarism in this way reminds us that we all can be militarized, as girlfriends, fathers, factory workers or candidates.")

Resolutely ignoring the world of high politics--dictators, presidents, chanceries, general staffs--Enloe devotes attention to various feminist political groupuscles far out of proportion to their actual significance in shaping events. Thus she dwells on a Serbian women's party that "called for respect for cultural diversity within Yugoslavia." She salutes Danish women for voting against Maastricht and Iranian women for working to depose the Shah. "Women Against Fundamentalism is a group formed in Britain by women who included Jews, Arab and Asian Muslims, Hindus, white and Afro-Caribbean Protestants and Irish Catholics. It was formed in 1989, in the turbulently gendered wake of the threats against Salman Rushdie's life...." "The first National Conference of Nicaraguan Women was held in January 1992...."

This recurrent focus on little sisterhoods, mobilizing against "gendered" nation-states, multinational capitalism and racial and religious prejudice, owes a lot to the Marxist dream of a transnational fraternity of workers (in a new form, as a transnational sorority of feminists) and even more to the hope of early twentieth-century peace crusaders such as Jane Addams that the women of the world can unite and put an end to war and exploitation. Enloe tries to justify the attention paid to quite different groups of women in various countries with the claim that "no national movement can be militarized"--or demilitarized?--"without changing the ways in which femininity and masculinity infuse daily life." Even if "militarization," however defined, does result in certain kinds of gender relations, it does not follow that altering masculine and feminine roles will, in itself, do much to reverse the process. Something may, after all, be an effect without being a cause.

Rejecting the feminist approach to international relations does not mean rejecting the subjects or the political values of feminist scholars. Differing notions of masculinity and femininity in different societies, the treatment of women and homosexuals of both sexes in the armed forces, the exploitation of prostitutes by American soldiers deployed abroad, the sexual division of labor both in advanced and developing countries: all of these are important topics that deserve the attention that Enloe awards them. She shows journalistic flair as well as scholarly insight in detailing what abstractions like the Caribbean Basin Initiative mean in the lives of women in particular Third World countries. Still, such case studies, however interesting, do not support the claim of feminist international relations theorists that theirs is a new and superior approach.

One thing should be clear: commitment to a feminist political agenda need not entail commitment to a radical epistemological agenda. Ideas do not have genders, just as they do not have races or classes. In a century in which physics has been denounced as "Jewish" and biology denounced as "bourgeois," it should be embarrassing to denounce the study of international relations as "masculinist." Such a denunciation, of course, will not have serious consequences in politics, but it does violence to the life of the mind. The feminist enemies of empiricism would be well-advised to heed their own counsel and study war no more.

Michael Lind is executive editor of The National Interest.

Contributors : Michael Lind
Last modified 2005-01-20 03:05 PM

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