(Re)Masculinising the world? Thinking about international relations through the logic of masculinism

Christine Agius

Gender has polarised international politics in recent years. As states and international organisations pay increasing attention to gender mainstreaming, or even adopting ‘feminist foreign policies’, there has been a backlash against feminism, with the rise of incels, the Alt-Right and Men’s Rights Movement. The election of populist leaders promising to return the state to ‘traditional’ values and manage security through increasingly coercive measures has seen a ‘feminist spring’ emerge to defend reproductive rights and gender equality. These developments have also been reflected in popular culture, with the popularity of TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. We appear to be in a period of what Ulf Mellström calls masculinist political revival.

There are many ways we can try to make sense of recent developments. We can examine the rise of populism, the decline of post-war institutions, and the impact of globalisation. But understanding how gender is built into the structure of the global order is crucial for getting a handle on how it affects politics, economics, culture and society at all levels.

Patriarchy? Masculinities? Masculinism?

Concepts like patriarchy and masculinity have been useful for challenging seemingly settled categories like sovereignty, the state and power. Yet in the introduction to her latest book, The Big Push, Cynthia Enloe confesses that at the mention of ‘patriarchy’, she ‘almost broke into a run.’ Why? Because it sounds ‘so heavy, so blunt, so ideological.’ This admission tells us much about how concepts gain baggage and associations over time. But Enloe returns to the concept, arguing that patriarchy is a ‘searchlight, a concept that can enable us to see what we otherwise might miss: the connective tissues between large and small, subtle and blatant forms of racialized sexism, gendered misogyny and masculinized privilege.’ (2017: ix-x)

In our recent book The Persistence of Global Masculinism: Discourse, Gender and Neo-Colonial Re-Articulations of Violence, my colleague, sociologist Lucy Nicholas, and I draw on masculinism as an encompassing logic rather than an identity. Masculinism differs from masculinity, which is associated with male power and ideas about how men should be (see David Duriesmith’s Masculinity and New War for an in-depth discussion). Whilst we can speak of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ or multiple masculinities that shape international relations, we wanted to emphasise what Arthur Brittan referred to as the ‘masculine ideology’ that remained constant rather than the particularities of masculinity, which are changeable.

We see masculinism is a ‘logic, discourse, impulse, and moral voice that maintains and naturalises subtle and overt forms of domination’ (2018: 5). It shapes relations of class, race, sex, and can be discursive as well as violent. Importantly, masculinism persists in global politics and shapes outcomes, policies, ideas of security and community.  We deployed it in our case studies of anti-PC discourse and anti-feminist backlash, popular responses to gender-based and sexual violence, humanitarian intervention and drone warfare, where we focused on silencing, protection and harm as necessary logics that operate across complex levels. For example, masculinist logics infiltrate drone warfare, from the very object of the drone itself to the sort of subjectivities it produces:  does it have agency? What happens when agency is questioned? How do ideas of strength, valour, safe/suspect lives, space and protection take on hierarchical and masculinised forms? Domination is naturalised in this form security which can appear neutral and technocratic. Masculinism lends insights to drone warfare that force a reconsideration of how we understand security and hierarchical global relations.

Where and how do we see masculinism in global politics?

While it would be easy to identify forms of hypermasculinity in the ‘strongman’ politics of Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Putin, Duterte and other state leaders, this is only part of the story. Indeed, these leaders craft their policies and language around masculinist precepts such as power and appeals to protection of the population, or at least certain parts of the population. They speak of returning the state to strength (see Cai Wilkinson on Putin’s remasculinisation of post-Cold War Russia) or fighting external incursions to protect the body politic. They rely on gendered and violent discourses that reflect hierarchical structures and in a number of cases, advocate or endorse sexual violence. We also see how gender, masculinity and masculinism combine in non-state or ‘proto-state’ actors such as Islamic State.

Trump stands out as a crude caricature of this embodied idea of the masculinised leader. His worldview is fully scripted to a masculinist narrative: he valorises ‘strongman’ politics, and displays of militarism. He desires ‘loyalty’ and admiration, sees women as objects, revels in divisive politics and has no problem with tacitly supporting violence. In his international engagements, he has threatened peace and treated global security as a game of one-upmanship and strength, most notably in his taunting of Kim Jong-un of North Korea in boasts about his nuclear button being ‘bigger and more powerful’ and that it ‘works’. Trump also uses masculinist ideas of protection in curiously gendered ways – the response to Syria’s chemical attack on ‘beautiful babies’ was apparently spurred by his daughter Ivanka’s reaction. At the same time, recent developments have seen gendered analogies deployed against Trump in his 2018 Helsinki meeting with Putin, where he was seen to be not only a traitor to his country but ‘weak and submissive’ and ‘Putin’s Poodle’, echoing a similar emasculation of Blair during the lead up to the Iraq war after 9/11.

While the world focuses on these gendered performances of leadership and international politics, the very masculinist structures that underpin it are pushed to the side. Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy of separating immigrant children from their families was the ‘tough’ response to border control (Melania’s jacket notwithstanding). But this also obscures the longer legacy of US foreign and economic policies that create migrant insecurity. The logic of masculinism is in corporate tax cuts, the destruction of healthcare and education, and efforts to curb environmental protection. These policy choices are underscored by logics that are mired in ideas of binary relations and hierarchies that privilege power. Fears of weakness and loss of privilege are inherently masculinist in their ethos and they condition worldviews. Masculinism emboldens racism and provides justification for winding back the rights of women and LGBTQI communities.  

And although it may be embodied, masculinism and masculinist logic pervades our everyday practices, modes of thought, and ideas about how to respond to global problems and insecurities. Masculinism is in the drone strikes that promise clean and surgical security at a distance. It is present in the promotion of ‘choice feminism’ and liberal feminism that undermines women’s economic and social equality. Managing migration flows and bordering practices not only impact women but are themselves performances of masculinist politics, setting boundaries, hierarchies and forms of control. Masculinism is present in the austerity measures that are enacted across Europe, punishing aberrant states or imposing poverty on the working class. Masculinism is seen in responses to impending environmental disaster through the silencing of opposition and neglect of other forms of knowledge about land management, rights and conservation. We show that efforts to protect distant others is also imbued with masculinism in the form of military interventions and claims to protect human rights.

‘Unthinking’ masculinism

Seeing masculinism is one thing. But how do we ‘unthink’ and untangle it from our ideas of global and everyday politics? This is a harder question because it asks us to rethink not only the structural relationships that build what we call ‘international’ politics but requires us to reconfigure them in ways that may not cohere with our current language, institutions, policy prescriptions and power relations. It complicates our cultural, economic and social systems, and how we organise as societies and manage our lives and ideas of security. It prompts more questions than answers.

A masculinist understanding of global politics asks after the relationship between structural and agentic forces, and how they are co-constituted and informed by masculinist logics. How is international and everyday life coded by gender and intersections of race, class and sexuality? Who is excluded and silenced? And what sort of ‘order’ should we aspire to? How, for instance, can we revise the idea of the state as a form of political community? Or imagine outside the of state? Can we think about sovereignty without the logics of masculinism, such as a post-sovereign politics, and what would that mean for global politics and relations? 

One starting point is Enloe’s argument that we need to listen to the silences and find the concepts to name forms of inequality and power relations. We need different, multiple voices that reveal injustices and inequalities. We need to undo the binaries that structure our understandings of subjectivity, statehood and what we even mean by the ‘international’, especially when we ignore the experiences of class, race and myriad other categories.

Making visible is an important part of a process that asks us to essentially rethink politics. But what follows from that is also crucial, complicated and messy. It has to be. It is in the messiness of thinking that we imagine alternatives that do not collapse into binaries and open space for different ethical interventions. As Butler argues, we need ‘a different set of terms’ rather than a ‘reverse discourse’.  Otherwise our solutions will simply reinstate masculinism in a different form.

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Christine Agius is a senior lecturer in international relations and politics at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests cover Nordic politics and security, identity, and critical security studies. Publications include The Social Construction of Swedish Neutrality: Challenges to Swedish Identity and Sovereignty (2006, Manchester University Press), The Politics of Identity: Imagining Identity through Place, Space and Discourse (edited with Dean Keep, Manchester University Press, 2018), The Persistence of Global Masculinism: Discourse, Gender and Neo-Colonial Re-Articulations of Violence (with Lucy Nicholas, Palgrave, 2018), and articles in Cooperation and Conflict, Security Dialogue, and other journals. She is the director of the Identity Research Network (IRN), which brings together interdisciplinary research on the theme of identity.

 

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