Committing to the Women, Peace, and Security Strategy here at home


The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is key to the global success of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) strategy. Unfortunately, at the Pentagon right now, it’s not looking too good. More politicians need to encourage this agenda, more men need to take it up as a top cause, and newly developed lines of effort need to be regularly assessed for improvement.

Just last month, the Defense Department saw three highly-qualified female members of its senior leadership team exit the five-sided building. There are only 60 of these positions at the Pentagon. Today, just three of these roles are held by women. Elaine McCusker, Kathryn Wheelbarger and Lisa Porter announced their resignations from top roles reserved for Senate-confirmed appointees last month. These announcements came on the heels of another senior woman’s exit in January by Kari Bingen, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. (If the House and Senate defense authorization bills this year become law and the proposal to eliminate the CMO position prevails, then Lisa Hershman will presumably leave her post, and only two women will remain in top positions at the Pentagon.)

Yet also last month, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) implementation plans were released across the U.S. government, signaling the United States’ commitment to a policy agenda that prioritizes the integration of women and their interests into American foreign policy, aid, and national security. The Pentagon must lead by example in its own workforces to promote female viewpoints if the Women, Peace, and Security agenda is to be successful. If we want our partners and allies to meaningfully promote equality, what we do at home is more important that what we preach abroad.

To start, Congress and the executive branch can demonstrate their commitment to the Women, Peace and Security agenda by engaging with it more intentionally. In March 2020, Representatives Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla) launched a new, bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Caucus. It’s a step in the right direction for advancing the Women, Peace, and Security Strategy of 2019. The strategy needs support from senior policymakers, advocates from both genders, and measurable progress reported. That’s the bread-and-butter behind the departmental implementation plans by the Departments of Defense, State, USAID, and Homeland Security in order to track and report progress on the agenda.

But in order to increase policymaker engagement, there must first be awarenessDespite its history, the Women, Peace and Security agenda is hardly an issue that the American public engages with frequently or passionately. The U.S. government has encountered relatively predictable roadblocks, such as inadequate data on women’s experiences, not enough leaders supporting the agenda, and a lack of adherence to the plan.

In 2017, the New America Foundation released a study on the Women, Peace and Security agenda, asserting that “the overwhelming majority of U.S. policymakers and elites are not familiar with WPS.” That’s a problem, considering that a study from the Netherlands in 2015 found that the commitment of senior officials to supporting gender equality “if translated into practical measures, can increase the likelihood that the issue will be taken seriously and that reforms adopted will take root throughout security institutions.”

There are some indicators of progress, however. When the implementation plans were launched in early June, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues Kelley Currie reported “some of the best leadership buy-in that I could ask for.” That’s an undeniably positive signal. But if support for the WPS agenda is strong within the implementing federal departments, then the departure of female leadership from the Pentagon is a worrying juxtaposition. It suggests that, despite high engagement, the tenets of the Women, Peace and Security agenda are still far from realized.

If the current levels of support for WPS objectives still result in disappointing outcomes, Congress and the implementing departments need a clear strategy to improve results. Men must also take the Women, Peace and Security agenda seriously. Only 24.2 percent of the 116th Congress is made up of women, and that’s a record level of representation. In 2017, 18 percent of officers in the U.S. military were women. The WPS agenda will not be implemented in these institutions without engaging the majority of men within. Engagement demands incentives for men to be involved and male leaders taking this up as a top cause to promote, starting with their own teams, offices and organizations.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently announced a new “Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services,” which he said would mirror “the well-regarded and successful Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.” Making genuine progress on diversity in the armed services is critical, and advisory bodies to this end are helpful. That said, the Pentagon’s WPS implementation plan doesn’t mention the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Aligning new resources with existing tools should be a goal of each department.

Each WPS implementation plan is unique, but there are shared hard metrics and goals that were established by the 2019 WPS strategy. Each department will begin collecting sex-disaggregated data to address barriers to women’s participation in a host of national security and foreign policy-oriented processes. The departments will also focus on addressing the four lines of effort set out by the strategy:

  • increasing women’s participation,
  • protecting women’s rights,
  • improving domestic outcomes for women and
  • encouraging partner governments to improve the participation of women in WPS related institutions.

These activities are pursued via methods that are relevant to each department. The Department of Defense has WPS advisors spread throughout the Joint Force. DHS is positioned to administer domestic-based awareness programs related to gender issues and offer specialized law enforcement training to partner countries. USAID has a storied history of working on WPS issues; part of its strategy focuses on differentiated regional approaches and applies broad lessons about increasing women’s participation in public and private institutions around the world. The Department of State aims to include WPS objectives in its embassies and training programs. None of these summaries are comprehensive, but they illustrate the dedicated efforts undertaken across government. Since data will be collected that was not mandated previously, the conditions have been set to more accurately gauge our progress in this agenda.

Even if new data is collected that improves the accuracy of reporting on women’s opportunities within the U.S. foreign policy and national security establishment, generalities are defined, leadership meetings are held, and resources are used with intention, it may not be enough to achieve real progress for women. New data is helpful if it is acted upon with consistency and intention. Leadership engagement is important if it is tied to increased political support and advocacy. Resources are valuable if they are measured against results. The implementation plans are the baseline; they must be used to achieve tangible change. Advancing the Women, Peace and Security agenda is associated with a host of positive outcomes for society at large. Only once real change occurs in the United States government can U.S. foreign policy institutions lead by example in gender equality issues around the world.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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