Episode 5: The US Midterm Elections and Foreign Policy

This month, our co-hosts Ashley and Annika talk to women from different backgrounds about the impending American elections. What effect do American domestic politics have on the foreign policy sphere? Tune in to hear guests including Marissa Conway, Ruchika Tulshyan, Lori Adelman, and Lauren Baer, who is running for Congress in Florida’s 18th congressional district.  

Ashley Pratt: Welcome to this month’s episode of Women in Foreign Policy! I’m one of your hosts, Ashley. I’m a foreign policy professional working in D.C.

Annika Erickson-Pearson: And I’m Annika! I am now officially a graduate student studying conflict in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ashley: You’re listening to the monthly podcast of the Women in Foreign Policy organization, where each month, Annika and I discuss a different topic in foreign policy and hear from women working on that issue. Last month we had a feature-length interview with noted foreign policy author and feminist theorist Dr. Cynthia Enloe. If you haven’t listened, definitely go back and enjoy that episode, I had such a great time talking to her, [it was] one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.

Annika: It was brilliant, I am partial. And welcome to the October episode! This is a very timely one… in advance of the November 6 United States midterm election, we’ve decided to do an episode about the intersection of US politics, women, and foreign policy. We are not really sure what is coming during the election, we are recording this before the election, but we do know the major role that women play when it comes to politics and foreign policy. So, this month we’ll be hearing from women across a pretty wide array of fields, both American and non-American. As usual, we will start by letting them introduce themselves...

Marissa Conway: My name is Marissa Conway, I am the co-founder and UK director of the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, and despite my American accent, I live in London and our organization is based out of London and we just opened a chapter in Germany where my co-founder is based, in Berlin, which is very exciting. As an American abroad and particularly one that works in foreign policy hopefully I can speak to some of the questions and issues around American foreign policy.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Hi, my name is Ruchika Tulshyan. I’m a journalist and the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, and I’m originally Singaporean, but I currently live in Seattle, Washington, in the United States.

Annika: In this episode we will also hear from Lauren Baer. She is currently running for the US House of Representatives in Florida’s 18th congressional district. But she was interviewed back in December of 2016, so we’ll let her explain her roles then with the Obama administration:

Lauren Baer: So, for the last six years I have served as a member of the Obama Administration. I spent about 5.5 years working as a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff, which is essentially the internal strategy and innovation unit for the Secretary of State. I worked first for Secretary Clinton and then for Secretary Kerry, and I have rounded out my tenure in the Obama administration by serving as the senior policy advisor to Samantha power, our U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Annika: And, if Lauren is elected this November, she’ll be the first openly gay woman elected to Congress in Florida.

Ashley: And finally, we’ve also included some of the great content from our interview with Lori Adelman, who is the former Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood International. She spoke to Women in Foreign Policy shortly before the inauguration of Donald Trump, so some of the references she makes will be to, for example, the vice president-elect; he is obviously now the vice president. That sort of thing.

So, to begin, I think the really basic question that we a lot of time don’t have a lot of concrete answers to is whether women operate differently politically or regarding foreign policy than men do. There is a debate regarding whether there is a distinction and if there is a distinction, what characterizes it. What are some examples of women operating differently in the foreign policy space than their male counterparts?

Annika: Yeah, it’s really a good question. Ruchika had some thoughts to start us out.

Ruchika: So I actually began my career in journalism as a business journalist and I was very focused sort of focused on the thought that being a woman in the workplace didn’t really matter, and that it didn’t matter where you were from or your gender or your race, anything about you. My focus was very much on the sort-of US ideology which I saw carried on in the country I grew up in, in Singapore, which is that what matters is how hard you work, how good you are, so I really bought into that ideology and that was my focus throughout my career. And then slowly in journalism I did start to see the difference in the way stories are assigned or in the Daily News if I brought it a story that I thought was really important it wasn't given as much space as the ones by the male reporters and made me realize that a lot of the existing narrative around women needing to do better, women leaning in, the only reason women and women of color weren’t getting ahead was because they they didn’t lean in far enough - it really got me thinking that my own experiences and the experience of women around me really got me thinking that we need to examine that narrative more carefully. The more research I did, the more people I spoke to, the more I realized that it wasn’t that women weren’t trying hard enough; it was very much that the way that society was structured was focused on keeping women and especially women of color out of the top ranks, out of the decision making.

As I think about women in Foreign policy, an area I was really interested in when I was younger - I  actually even applied to be a diplomat in Singapore, I was unsuccessful but as I thought about that, as I looked around at the people around me, I saw that there is a very largely male [body] making the foreign policy, working as ambassadors, but also very very white or in countries like Singapore, very Chinese. I realized there’s very little opportunity unless there are structural changes to have women and especially women of color get ahead in many industries around the world, but foreign policy is one of them.

Annika: Lauren had some thoughts about her experience as a mother working in foreign policy as well.

Lauren Baer: I’ve been on maternity leave since my daughter arrived in late October.  But U.S. family leave policies in general are radically different than they are in the rest of the world. Particularly, the federal government does not offer any [paid] leave at all. You're permitted to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and not lose your job, but what you're using is your sick leave and any accrued vacation time. I think it’s critical when it comes to recruiting women to work in foreign policy and then retaining quality women. And men, for that matter. Any number of women leave foreign policy and leave government service on account of the family leave policies or conversely suffer real setbacks in their careers because of the sacrifice they have to make in order to take any time with young children.

MC: When it comes down to policy-making, I don’t think women have an inherently natural ability to make more effective foreign policy. I feel like we all participate in this very patriarchal structure that shapes so much of how we participate in this world and you really have to actively unlearn that, everybody does. I will say with most of the women I know who are in foreign policy, we all seriously struggle from imposter syndrome in a way I’ve never seen my male colleagues experience. I think it’s the conditions we’re brought up in, women are raised to be quiet and complicit and friendly and smile. When we do speak up and use our voice, we start falling back on “should I be doing this, should I be saying this, who am I to say this, why am I the person, who’s taking me seriously?” I know I’m not the only one who has this broken record of horrible negative thoughts about myself when I move more into my power. I do see that way women and men approach their jobs differently, but when it comes down to doing the actual work, if you’re competent you’re competent. People have different life experiences that lend to different opinions and I feel all of that is very important within foreign policy. It’s a very elite, kind of undemocratic field. Not many foreign policy-makers are elected. There’s a lot of behind the scenes, backdoor diplomacy that we don’t see. We don’t vote for these people to be there.

Annika: Imposter syndrome is something that has come up before and will likely continue to come up on this podcast. I absolutely get that and have experienced it, too. I think, as with many issues, the first step is just to be aware of the problem in the first place. That’s really the only way we can work through it, right? If we’re not aware of the fact that we’re suffering from imposter syndrome then we are way more limited in the way that we can work through it.
Switching gears a bit, both Ashley and I are Americans, and through some great analysis, we know that a number of you listeners are too. We thought it would be important to quickly touch on the idea of why the whole world watches US elections when perhaps the same isn’t true in reverse. Marissa summed it up pretty well.

MC: It speaks to the pervasiveness of American politics that even if I’m not actively trying to pay attention to it, it’s still very much on my radar, because it’s always in the news, obviously it would be the bullet points rather than the full summary of what’s going on in the states but the US is never out of the news over here. I can have an educated guess and say that’s probably the case with the rest of Europe as well, just because we are a world power, perhaps a fading world power, but the American government has an exponential impact on the rest of the world with its policies, the people involved, the administration.

Ashley: Ruchika, who is not American but is living in the US, had some great thoughts on the same topic:

Ruchika: A lot of what happens in the United States, US foreign policy, and elections really determines what happens around the world. Seeing the US leading the charge in many ways on women’s rights, on opportunities for people of different backgrounds, having Barack Obama as the president - I cannot emphasize to you how much that reality sparked conversations even in Singapore. In Singapore there’s a Chinese majority, there were conversations about if the US could elect a black president, are we in a place where we could have a non-Chinese prime minister, which hasn’t been done to date. So the whole world is influenced by certainly the power, the impact that the US has had on the entire world, foreign policy, currency, on all matters.

But I also think there’s been a very strong marketing machine behind the United States around the world. Growing up overseas in Singapore I really thought to myself, “Wow the US is a place where everyone is equal, it’s very much about how hard your work; your destiny is not determined by the color of your skin, or your gender identity, or any other identity.” That’s a very pervasive narrative that people talk about around the world when people talk about the United States; it’s only when you actually come here that you see that it’s different. I think there’s different facets to this. One of the facets is how much the United States impacts and influences what happens around the world and the second is definitely that marketing machine that I referred to.

Annika: And this is Annika chiming back in, Ruchika will come back later and expand a little bit more on these thoughts.

Ashley: So, you may be wondering: “Why should people with an interest in foreign policy pay attention to domestic electoral politics?” Sometimes we treat these things like they live in two completely different worlds. First of all, that’s a real fallacy on our parts. All policy is affected by our elected policymakers and the people they put into power. There’s no separate foreign policy process from the domestic electoral process. I think there is sort of a symbiosis there. So we asked the women we were talking to, “why should people with an interest in foreign policy pay attention to domestic electoral politics? Why should they care?” And we asked if there were any races in particular that they were watching closely. Lori Adelman starts us off.

Lori Adelman: We have an extreme push by politicians like Vice President Elect Mike Pence, who in the US want to defund and shut down Planned Parenthood, which would deny millions of people access to services that they rely on. These attacks are not just attacks on Planned Parenthood but are attacks against the reproductive rights movement that Planned Parenthood stands for. Planned Parenthood Global ourselves are not currently receiving USAID money, so there would not be a direct defund effort in the same way that Planned Parenthood in the US is facing defunding under the Trump administration. But we are extremely concerned with the impact this administration could have on women, young people, communities in the global south and around the world. The U.S. is a huge contributor to so many global health programs, the leading bilateral donor for family planning and really meant to be a beacon of progressive values and democracy in global health around the world. And we have seen indications, although we can’t know for sure, that some of that legacy and some of those contributions may be in jeopardy.

Annika: And Marissa spoke to this as well.

Marissa: One of the things we’re trying to do with CFFP is to make foreign policy a lot more accessible to the general public, and I do think there is so much power in grassroots movements. A lot of what we try to do is work really closely with NGOs, think tanks, and politicians to convince them of the importance of a feminist foreign policy, but that can’t be done without those people who go to protests, and make sure they angry-tweet their senators when they say dumb things. It’s a critical part of foreign policy making even though it seems like maybe a detached thing.

Ashley: Finally, here are some thoughts from Ruchika.

Ruchika: It’s also a little bit of that hubris that comes from having that much power and influence. And I can say this as an immigrant: it’s been quite difficult for me when I had people, Americans who had the right to vote, saying to me, an immigrant who (a) could not vote and (b) very much our destiny is dependent on who is in that office, that they can’t be bothered to vote. Or ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’. Or ‘I don’t like any of the candidates’, and I’m not going to bother to look deeper into the issues and take a stand.

And I think there’s a little bit of hubris that comes with being so powerful and influential around the world, but then not understanding the responsibility that comes with it. So, I think my big message is if you can vote in the United States midterm elections, please do.

The attitude that I’ve seen in the United States which is concerning to me is, as in any individualistic society, is to say ‘I don’t need to involved in politics because the school district that my kids will go to, the parks in my area, my ability to travel, my ability to have economic opportunity in the jobs that I apply for are certain. So I don’t need to look around me and see whether my neighbor has the same opportunity. Whether a woman of color who is two miles away from me will have the same opportunities as me.’ And the answer is no. And I think we have a responsibility. I hope the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections demonstrated how important it is to actually have a little bit of a collectivistic mindset. And also the idea that ‘Hey, even if I have a lot of privilege, even if I come from and live in an area where because of other factors like my skin color, it doesn’t matter what happens because I’m still safe.’ I think that’s really concerning. Because at the end of the day if one person is not safe, none of us are safe.

Annika: I can only really speak for myself, but I watch domestic politics like a hawk, even though I study mostly international issues it’s something that I really pay attention to. Really, I think the important thing here is also to remember to vote. Domestic politics really affects foreign policy, and voting is one way to make sure your voice is heard! For those of you who are interested in taking a step further and maybe working in this realm of politics and foreign policy, we want to know… how does one get a position working as a foreign policy person for an elected leader?  What is the path/route there? We know it’s different for many people, but Lauren shared her path with us.

Lauren: In the United States, most of the dedicated people who work in national security are members of either the career civil service or the career foreign service. But there are a small number of political appointees, several hundred. There are a number of routes into becoming a political appointee. They may have independent expertise, or have worked on or volunteered for a campaign, or have served in a previous administration, or some combination of the above.

For me, I had not worked on the campaign. In 2008, I had graduated law school and was working in a federal clerkship and was therefore precluded from engaging in any kind of campaign activity. But I did have a background in policy and law, and therefore had a number of connections with people who were serving at a fairly senior level in the administration. So when it was about halfway through President Obama’s first term, I was at the point where I decided I wanted to make a career shift and enter the foreign policy space.

Or, re-enter it I should say. I was practising law in New York, primarily commercial litigation and appellate work, and wanted to get back to my foreign policy roots. So for me, it was a matter of reaching out to those individuals I knew who were serving in the administration, finding out about available positions, and then, you know, the good fortune of my resume ending up in front of the right person at the right time.

Annika: And then Ruchika spoke a little bit about ways that she got involved in her own community.

Ruchika: I realized that very few women, and especially women of color, were getting into or even thinking about careers in foreign policy and diplomacy. And that really worried me. Because I started thinking about who are the representatives that make those connections globally and advocate for countries globally, and I realized that it’s not women, or women of color. It’s not people who look like me. And therefore it’s very easy to get turned away from careers like that.

One thing when I moved to Seattle five years ago -- I decided I really wanted to become civically engaged. And one of the reasons was looking around me and seeing very little representation, very little on the issues that I care about. Gender equity not at all on the agenda, and people especially didn’t talk about women in the workplace and the lack of economic opportunity for women. So I wanted to become civically engaged and I realized that are many opportunities, but they aren’t advertised very well. So in the US, for example, in Seattle I applied and was nominated for a voluntary position to advise the Seattle mayor and the Seattle city council on women’s issues. It’s called the Seattle Women’s Coalition and I’m now one of the co-chairs two years later. And I realized that there are opportunities and it’s really necessary to seek them out.

Ashley: For Annika and I it’s pretty necessary how the dominance of American foreign policy can shape the foreign policy of the rest of the world, and maybe even the domestic policy of other countries. But I think some people might not understand how American foreign policy and hegemony can affect other people’s work, and the entire conversation. For this particular issue, Marissa gave us a lot to think about.

Marissa: I went to the NATO summit back in July and they have this offshoot of the event called “NATO engages”, and the purpose of this event is to bring together foreign policy wonks from all over to just come nerd out about foreign policy for two days. There were very clear agendas, one of them was very strongly emphasizing the importance of NATO. This event was coming after a series of soundbites from Trump talking about how the US carries NATO and slandering it a little bit. So their response to this was to fiercely be like, “No, NATO is really important, everybody needs it,” and one of the first discussions we had over the course of two days was “how do we make this event not about trump, how do we make sure we don’t talk about trump all the time?” And my thought was, just by bringing up Trump as the very first thing and asking how do we make this not about Trump, you’re sort of making the whole thing about Trump. I feel like every time you focus too much on who is elite and in power, but more importantly in the case of the Trump administration, who is taking up space in a very reality-TV sort of way, who is getting the headlines in the tabloid magazines, you detract from everything else that is going on, from all of these really important conversations in feminist foreign policy around marginalized communities that already aren’t getting a lot of attention or being taken seriously. We’re spending so much of our time focusing on how Trump said he was in love with Kim Jong Un which is a really weird, weird thing. But at the same time it’s almost like a show. I’m not convinced if he knows what he’s doing or not. We forget about what’s important, we forget about the people that are actually affected by foreign policy, we get so caught up in the conversation about these two ridiculous foreign leaders that we forget about how this affecting [others]. We’re still dealing with children being separated from their parents at the border, and all the people in North Korea that are suffering under a dictatorship.  

Annika: Similarly, we wondered and asked: is there any issue that you wish got more coverage in the US foreign policy space than it currently does?

Marissa:  My mind immediately goes to domestic policy because you really can’t have a feminist foreign policy without a feminist domestic policy. Obviously shots at a feminist foreign policy while Trump is in office [are] zero. But this is how I frame things, in my mind. The ease with which we as a culture just ignore indigenous communities - that’s particularly troubling. The way america treats immigrants and the rhetoric around immigration and particularly mexican immigrants is just disgusting. I think it’s also very short-sighted. It’s “what can we sensationalize, what will get headlines?” when immigration needs to be looked at as a big-picture. It’s never just one thing in isolation, it’s never just a ton of mexican people trying to cross over the border into the US. it’s part of a bigger system. We need to be asking what caused them to try to come to the US in the first place. What’s going on with their homes and their families that they think this is the best solution, to take this incredibly risky route to come over and live in a country without documentation. Clearly there’s a very compelling, pressing need that drives them to do this, I don’t think anybody just picks up one day and thinks, “hey, maybe I’ll give this a shot.” And then that feeds into bigger stories of our global economy - obviously there’s a lot of trafficking, both human trafficking and drug trafficking across the border, which feeds into bigger state relationships like how our administration speaks about and with the Mexican government. My frustration is with the disconnect, the very shortsighted way that we approach very specific issues that are actually part of a broader whole. I do think perhaps some of it is this fear about re-election, but no one seems to be thinking long term and so few people actually talk about structures and institutions and how things fit into bigger pictures and how different policies, not just immigration policies but trade policies potentially has effects on whatever headline has made it into the newspapers that day.

Ashley: Something I discussed with Marissa in our conversation, and that i”ll point out again here, is that in reality, most border crossings from Mexico are by people from Latin Americans countries, rather than Mexican citizens, so there’s also an extra level of racism at play that elides everyone of a certain skin tone spectrum and linguistic heritage into “Mexican,” all the while ignoring the very real challenges of violence and persecution in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, etc etc that drive people to Mexico and then eventually to the US. So, coming off of that, you might wonder: how do I fix this? Or maybe there’s another foreign policy issue that you want to get up to your elbows in and make a difference? So we asked some of these women, what made you choose this career?

Annika: Yeah, it’s such an important question, so I’m glad that we heard from Lauren:

Lauren: I firmly believe that our foreign policy improves when individuals with diverse voices have a seat at the table. We are better able to tackle today’s complex foreign policy challenges when we approach them with creativity and openness to new ideas, when we challenge long-standing assumptions, and when we leave ourselves open to fresh ways of thinking—and all of this is made easier when our decision-makers are as diverse as our great nation. So, to all the young women and LGBT leaders who want to work in this space, stick with it, seek a seat at the table, exercise your voice.  Our foreign policy will be richer on account of your participation.

Annika: Participation is essential. I know that if I could change something about American foreign policy, it would be creating space for more voices at the table. I think about Ben Rhodes’ description of the DC foreign policy community as “The Blob” quite often. We desperately need new voices and to reward diversity of thought, instead of subtlety forcing conformity. Ah, in a perfect world. I also asked Ruchika what she would change about foreign policy, and loved her answer:

Ruchika: I think that mindset, and it sounds very kumbayah, is that we’re really deeply lacking empathy for each other. And I say this because I sort of dabble in global health work as it relates to diversity and inclusion. And the older I get the more I see that there’s a lack of empathy and understanding that we’re all connected in this world. So in the same way that somebody can not think of their neighbor in the United States and wonder, ‘Are they okay? Are they safe? Do they need something?’ so that we all have an equal amount of economic mobility and safety in life… we also have that attitude towards other countries. And that’s not just true in the United States. I see that more and more of the world is becoming isolationist and turning inward. There’s obviously a very strong nationalist sentiment that’s rearing its head all over Europe. And so if there’s something I wish we could change, it’s that I wish we could see people as people. We could see other countries as our neighbors. And I understand that that sounds very trite, and even wishy washy, but without that empathy when we are at those tables making those decisions (and especially white men at those tables), when you have a very individualistic and winner-takes-all mentality, we all lose. And especially people from marginalized communities really stand to lose.

Ashley: Finally, we got some pretty inspiring advice from Lori Adelman that we wanted to share with you too.

Lori: I think the kindest compliment i’ve ever received in a professional setting to this day has been that I have good instincts. I think so many young women especially are encouraged when they enter the workforce to put their instincts aside to learn the way of the world and get their bearings. It is really important to take lessons from those around you and learn the ropes but it's also really important to keep that instinct that you have and trust yourself. Especially when it comes to communications and global health ,there has to be a voice of authenticity that shines through the NGO jargon and all of the things that can come up when you’re working in global health. You always want to go back and be able to trust your judgment. That will propel you forward and make your work footprint unique.

Ashley: I think that this is so important, not only professionally but also personally. I have really learned over the past few years that trusting my judgment is essential. And not only that trusting my judgment is essential to the way I operate but that my judgment can be trusted. Even though I’m young and I have this baby face and this newly minted master’s degree and I’m working full time for one of the first times in my life, I have developed a keen sense of judgment over the past almost 25 years. I think it’s very important to realize that no matter what reasons you have for doubting yourself, there is this wealth of knowledge that you subconsciously have synthesized that will lend itself to giving you a gut feeling of what is right or what is wrong, not just on an ethical or moral level but what’s right or what’s wrong professionally, what’s the best way to approach a problem. I think you should not be afraid to draw on diverse experiences you might have had.

Annika: Heck yeah. Preach, sister. I totally agree with that. I think I’ve said this before, but I really firmly believe that we all have a unique contribution to make and that it’s really important that we do the work of showing up to make that contribution. This episode has been a really interesting exploration of that. It’s definitely edgy to make an episode about American politics, particularly when America is already at the center of a lot of conversations. We really look forward to continuing to include more voices, to feature more voices prominently in the coming months and the coming episodes, voices of people not coming from America; we’ve dominated for a long time. I think whether we like it or not, American foreign policy and American politics reverberates out into the rest of the world. It is so important for us to be thoughtful and consider the ways in which it does it, to think about the ways that we can influence it for good. For me to be a white American woman, I was born with enormous privilege, just because of the country that I was born into. Our country has an enormous impact on the rest of the world and it is absolutely incumbent upon me to use that privilege wisely and to use that privilege to impact positive change. I’ve said this before, but the most immediate way that I can think to do that in the next two weeks is to vote.

Ashley: That’s very well-said.

Annika: I hope that those of you who are listening who are American and who have registered [to vote] are definitely going to get out there and vote, and that this episode has provided some inspiration to you for the places where we might feel intimidated or the places where we might feel like the foreign policy community, particularly in [Washington] D.C., is a blob. [I hope] that you feel inspired to get in there and make the meaningful contribution that you can make.

Ashley: I think that’s a great send-off and that really encapsulates what we wanted to do with this episode because it can be sort of a tricky tightrope to walk to say “we’re trying not to be U.S.-centric” but at the same time these are really crucial elections, not just domestically, but they have really crucial foreign policy implications as we’ve seen. So I hope that we have successfully walked that tightrope.

Annika: Yes, yep. But just in case we didn’t! We want this to be a conversation, so come talk to us on the internet. We’ll be back at the end of November with our next episode on international scientific cooperation, but in the meantime, we’re on Twitter at @WomeninFP. Also we’re on Instagram, and we’re doing videos every weekend over the next few months. Each Women in Foreign Policy team member is introducing themselves, so definitely check that out. And then my personal Twitter is @annikaep.

Ashley:  Yeah, the videos are looking really cool, Annika’s is coming up here really shortly and you guys will get to see my lovely face in December. We absolutely want to hear back from you about what you thought about this episode, what you thought about our previous episodes, what you think about the podcast in general, anything you’d like to hear in upcoming episodes, anything and everything. Basically, my eyes will light up if you send me a Twitter message of any sort. I will be very excited about it. If you’ve got thoughts that can’t be expressed in 240 characters, which some of us still do, allegedly, we also love emails. You can find contact information on the Women in Foreign Policy website for all of us. I am now on twitter @vaguelyacademic, which is a new twitter handle for me. The past few episodes have included my previous Twitter handle, so just a little note if you’re going to go find me on Twitter, it’s now @vaguelyacademic. Fewer underscores! So much easier to say! If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.

Annika: Thanks so much for listening and for being here, and we will see you next month!
Ashley & Annika: Bye!