September 15, 2017

Gender Equality as a National Security Priority

Voices from the Field

The Obama administration made efforts to advance gender equality around the world one of its core national security and foreign policy priorities, based on the premise that countries are more stable, secure, and prosperous when women enjoy the same rights as men, participate fully in their countries’ political systems and economies, and live free from violence. A growing body of research makes a compelling case about these links. Former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell and former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon sum up much of the evidence in this Medium piece, noting that advancing gender equality around the world helps grow global gross domestic product, decreases hunger, strengthens the prospects for peace agreements to succeed, and counters violent extremism.

Voices From the Field Series

The Voices from the Field series is designed to feature timely analysis gleaned from current or former U.S. government practitioners who have recently served either overseas in strategic areas of the world or who have participated in critical policy deliberations. This series also highlights observations and current assessments based on field research conducted across the globe by CNAS experts.

Despite this evidence, in a survey earlier this year of 500 foreign policy leaders working in and out of the government shows a mere 13 percent believe gender inequality internationally is a vital threat to U.S. interests. Less than one-third of respondents thought women’s and girls' full participation is an important foreign policy goal. This data demonstrates we still have a long way to go in changing the way foreign policymakers think about gender and truly integrating such considerations into policy debates on the most pressing national security challenges.

I had a front row seat for many such deliberations, having worked as an intelligence analyst covering the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as the Director for Egypt at the National Security Council (NSC) during 2012–2014, and as a senior advisor in the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues during the final 18 months of the Obama administration. Based on this somewhat unique combination of experience working on both “hard” security issues and in the office charged with integrating gender considerations into U.S. foreign policy, I offer the following assessment of what the Obama administration got right when it came to integrating gender into U.S. foreign policymaking, and where it fell short. In their piece, Russell and Donilon conclude that the success of our broader efforts to forge a peaceful, prosperous, and secure future for U.S. citizens and those around the world depends on our continued commitment to advancing the inclusion and empowerment of women and girls. I share their perspective and offer five recommendations to the Trump administration on how it might continue to make progress, even within the confines of its desire to reduce foreign assistance and scale back America’s diplomatic and development presence overseas.

What We Got Right

The Obama administration was largely successful in elevating the public profile of women’s issues as a national security and foreign policy priority. Only six weeks into his presidency, Obama nominated Melanne Verveer as the first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, a move the White House said reflected the “elevated importance of global women’s issues to the president and his entire administration.” Throughout the administration’s eight years, there was no shortage of high-level support for advancing women’s rights around the world. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry included the point that “when women do better, countries do better” in many of their public remarks. Verveer and her successor, Ambassador Russell, traveled the world to encourage governments to enact laws that advance women’s rights and protect them from violence, and to elevate women leaders in civil society and business. U.S. diplomats and development officers posted around the world picked up the theme, engaging government officials and civil society leaders about the rights of women and girls, directing foreign assistance to build the capacity of women in government and civil society, and using public diplomacy resources to spark discussion about gender issues in their host countries and support exchange programs focused on themes like women’s political participation and gender-based violence.

Perhaps even more critical for out long term success, the administration integrated gender into the very foundations of U.S. foreign policy through strategy development, policy guidance, and executive orders. These steps, while not particularly glamorous, are vital to ensuring that policy priorities are clearly articulated and that personnel and resources are allocated to advance those priorities. Departments and agencies responsible for foreign policy – including the departments of State and Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation – issued internal policy guidance to more fully integrate efforts to advance gender equality into their daily operations.

Two interagency policy documents were particularly important for integrating gender considerations into national security discussions: the 2010 National Security Strategy and the U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security. Previous national security strategies have included references to advancing women’s rights abroad, but the 2010 strategy linked these pursuits to conflict prevention and peace-building. The document says: “Experience shows that countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity. When those rights and opportunities are denied, countries often lag behind.”

In high-level policy discussions about our most significant national security challenges, including countering terrorism globally and stabilization efforts throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan, gender considerations often took a backseat to “more pressing” concerns.

In December 2011, the president issued an executive order that directed several departments and agencies to develop a NAP on women, peace, and security. The executive order notes, “The United States recognizes that promoting women's participation in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, as well as in post-conflict relief and recovery, advances peace, national security, economic and social development, and international cooperation.” It calls specifically on the departments of State and Defense as well as USAID to develop plans for implementing the NAP, and on the national security advisor to establish an interagency process for coordinating this implementation. The NAP – first released in 2012 and updated in 2016 to include emerging policy issues such as countering violent extremism – remains the foundation of U.S. government efforts to advance gender equality as a national security priority.

Where We Fell Short

The administration’s efforts began to shift the way foreign policy professionals consider gender issues and, in the words of one former official, made it “okay to talk about gender.” However, we never fully succeeded in integrating women’s issues and gender considerations into national security decision-making. In high-level policy discussions about our most significant national security challenges, including countering terrorism globally and stabilization efforts throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan, gender considerations often took a backseat to “more pressing” concerns. I can identify three reasons why these efforts fell short.

First, the administration stove-piped NAP implementation within the NSC staff, which is comprised of regional directorates responsible for coordinating bilateral policy initiatives and functional directorates that house experts on global issues like development, trade policy, human rights, and counterproliferation. The administration placed the interagency process for NAP implementation under the purview of the NSC’s Directorate of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, one of several “functional” offices on the NSC staff. Under its leadership, the NSC called regular interagency policy meetings to review departments’ and agencies’ efforts to implement the NAP. However, these meetings were primarily attended by gender advisors at the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense, resulting in a scenario in which discussions about the links between gender and national security were decoupled from the national security discussions on regional strategies or crises, which were led by the NSC’s regional directorates. For example, while the interagency meetings about NAP implementation might focus on the need to encourage greater participation by women in peace processes – a core tenant of the NAP – entirely separate interagency meetings would focus on U.S. efforts to encourage peace processes in Libya, Syria, or Yemen, often with little to no mention of how to ensure women’s participation.

The Obama administration’s failure to include the intelligence community (IC) in its gender integration efforts further limited its success. The IC plays a vital role in shaping national security discussions. In Obama’s White House, nearly every interagency meeting on national security began with an intelligence briefing, and the president and his national security team started every day by reading their daily intelligence brief. The purpose of these assessments and briefings was to provide policymakers with the best possible information needed to make decisions about critical issues. This might have included updates on battlefield developments in war zones, assessments of state stability and foreign leaders’ vulnerabilities, or analysis of global economic trends.

Issues related to women and girls were rarely included in the IC’s assessments, which reduced the likelihood that such issues would be considered by policymakers in the subsequent discussion. And while the IC prides itself on housing experts for nearly every topic under the sun – from weapons experts to hydrologists to social scientists to economists – it has focused few resources on developing and retaining gender expertise. The CIA boasts a small “gender cell” comprised of a handful of officers personally dedicated to analyzing the relationship between gender and national security challenges, but they have received minimal institutional support or resources.

Finally, many officials believed they simply didn’t have time to engage on women’s issues, or doing so would detract from more pressing security concerns. For example, in his book Worthy Fights, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reflects on the administration’s 2009 deliberations about a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, which included a debate on whether the United States could “live with” a restored Taliban in Afghanistan if the group governed without threatening its neighbors or others. Panetta recalls supporting U.S. engagement with the Taliban, arguing that our real enemy was al Qaeda, and that “the Taliban’s affront to the United States was not so much its backward domestic policies – denying girls the right to go to school for instance. The reason we were at war was because the Taliban had offered Al Qaeda safe haven. If we could grind down Al Qaeda, we’d have much less to fear from the Taliban.”

During my time in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, I consistently heard variations of this argument from officials at all levels. Ambassador Russell called this the “first, then” argument: First we need to stabilize Iraq, then we’ll worry about women’s participation; first we need to start peace talks in Libya, then we’ll try to encourage more participation by women; first we need to counter terrorism in Bangladesh, then we’ll address child marriage. She frequently encouraged her counterparts with the U.S. government and around the world to stop using this false paradigm, noting women have valuable contributions to make at every step of peacebuilding efforts and we would be more successful in achieving our other objectives if women could participate fully. There were certainly some “gender champions” within the policymaking community who understood the links between advancing women’s rights and meeting our broader goals. For example, during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Embassy Freetown supported local female leaders who brought together health care providers and members of their community to stem the outbreak. The lessons learned from these women’s roles in the Ebola response were ultimately adopted nationally by the government of Sierra Leone as standard operating procedures. Despite success stories like this one, we never quite succeeded in breaking through to many diplomats, particularly those working on areas affected by conflict.

Five Steps for Moving Forward

Despite these shortcomings, the Obama administration clearly set in motion policy changes that will ultimately improve the United States’ efforts to advance stability around the world. As the Trump administration considers how best to advance its own foreign policy priorities, it would be wise to build on these efforts rather than break them down. Here are five ways it can do so:

1. Articulate the administration’s gender guidance.

To date, the Trump administration has sent somewhat mixed signals about the importance it will place on advancing women’s rights globally. During their confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley reaffirmed their commitment to advancing women’s rights around the world. In her remarks at the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony, First Lady Melania Trump made an even clearer case, saying, “Together, we must declare that the era of allowing the brutality against women and children is over, while affirming that the time for empowering around the world is now. For wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them. However, wherever women are empowered, towns and villages, schools and economies, are empowered, and together we are all made stronger with them.” First daughter Ivanka Trump, accompanying her father on his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, reportedly told a group of Saudi women that her focus is on empowering women in the United States and around the world.

At the same time, one of Trump’s first steps as president was to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, which stipulates foreign nongovernmental organizations receiving U.S. family planning funding cannot inform the public or lobby their government on the need to make safe abortion available, provide legal abortion services, or provide advice on where to get an abortion. The administration selected just two public delegates to join Ambassador Haley at this year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women: Lisa Correnti from the Center for Family & Human Rights and Grace Melton from the Heritage Foundation. Both organizations have focused on defending traditional definitions of gender identity and marriage and rejecting efforts by member states and NGOs to advance pro-choice policies at the United Nations.

Furthermore, Trump’s transition team ominously asked the State Department to turn over data on gender-related programs and positions, a step that, when coupled with the dismissals of many career diplomats for their role in implementing Obama-era policies, sent a chilling message throughout the diplomatic corps. Former colleagues at the State Department have told me many officers have chosen to self-censor their work on women’s issues until they can be certain about the president’s policy preferences. Such self-censorship undermines years of efforts to integrate gender issues into U.S. foreign policy and has the potential to withhold U.S. support for women’s rights activists working around the world at critical moments in their countries’ futures. Governing is far different from campaigning, and President Trump has in several cases continued to implement Obama administration foreign policies he criticized during the campaign. Similarly, the Trump administration’s policy on advancing gender equality as a national security priority does not need to follow signals sent by the campaign and transition team. The administration should clarify its policy on this issue as soon as possible, whether in the form of an executive order or policy guidance to departments and agencies issued by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. This guidance should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to existing policy documents – particularly the NAP – and call on departments and agencies to continue their implementation. The president should also demonstrate that advancing gender equality is important for his entire administration, and is more than just a pet project for his wife and daughter. Nominating an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and including consistent language on the importance of gender equality in national security officials’ public remarks would also help send a strong signal to officials at the State Department that the president and Secretary Tillerson prioritize advocacy on women’s issues, and to people around the world that the United States will continue to promote gender equality as a core element of its foreign policy.

2. Ensure women have a seat at the table at all levels.

As the United States encourages women’s participation in peace and security overseas, we must lead by example at home. Gender diversity at the table will make for better deliberations and ultimately better decisionmaking. Moreover, the same survey of 500 foreign policy leaders previously cited also identified a gender gap between respondents who viewed gender inequality as a threat to U.S. interests and considered advancing women’s participation an important foreign policy goal, with women more likely than men to respond positively to these questions. Considering this gender gap along with the fact that men comprised nearly 80 percent of respondents, one could conclude increasing women’s participation in foreign policy leadership at home would assist in deepening our commitment to promoting gender equality overseas.

The administration is off to a rocky start on this point, with the president’s NSC, Principals Committee (PC), and Deputies Committee (DC) being dominated by men so far. A presidential memorandum issued April 4 names 18 permanent members of the NSC, an additional three for NSC meetings focused on economic issues, and an additional four standing members of the PC. Of the 25 officials who can participate in cabinet-level deliberations on issues of national security, only three – Ambassador Haley, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Powell, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Col. Andrea Thompson, U.S. Army (Ret) – are women. The DC adds only three women (Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Dawn Eilenberger, and Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel) to the table. The level of female representation in high-level national security deliberations was nearly identical in the Obama administration, although it improved slightly during his second term.

While the gender disparity of the NSC, PC, and DC are unlikely to change anytime soon, the administration can still work toward a greater gender balance at the Policy Coordination Committee (PCC) level. Most assistant secretary positions (who typically represent their departments at PCCs) remain unfilled, as do many key U.S. ambassadorships. During my time as NSC Director for Egypt, U.S. ambassadors participated in nearly every interagency meeting via secure videoconference, and their views carried significant weight in policy deliberations. As the administration fills key posts, it should consider the gender balance at the table and call on the many qualified women currently working in and outside of government who would capably serve in these roles. Doing so will produce better national security deliberations by including a more diverse range of viewpoints, and also will send a strong signal to partners around the world about the importance of including women’s voices in national-security decisionmaking.

3. Include NAP implementation in every NSC director’s job description.

As I previously argued, this was too often not the case in the Obama NSC, where the Directorate for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights oversaw NAP implementation while most other NSC directorates formed and implemented policies with little regard to the NAP.

The Trump administration has reorganized the NSC staff, replacing the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights with the Special Assistant to the President for International Affairs and Alliances, and critics have pointed to the significance of eliminating “human rights” from this official’s job title. But the change to the Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Directorate does not have to signal the end of advancing gender equality at the NSC.

McMaster and his deputies should issue guidance to the entire NSC staff that they are to consider women and gender issues in every policy deliberation. They should also lead by example, asking questions of the other principals and deputies about how specific policy proposals will impact women and girls, how development programs will support women and girls, and how U.S. officials are ensuring they consult women and girls in their diplomatic engagements around the world. This might not come naturally at first, but signaling from the highest levels of the NSC that gender equality is a priority will ripple throughout the national security bureaucracy, paying dividends well into the future.

4. Expand the IC’s focus on gender.

Establishing women’s issues as an intelligence priority would help reinforce the emphasis on the links between gender equality and security that, until now, have only been articulated by policy agencies. The administration could do this in several ways. First, the president or McMaster could direct the IC to develop a NAP implementation plan. To date, implementation of the NAP has been relegated to the State Department, DoD, and USAID. However, the IC also has a critical role to play, particularly on providing timely and accurate intelligence on the status of women and girls in conflict settings or countries at risk of conflict, to help policymakers make informed decisions around these issues. An IC implementation plan would provide the strategic framework for fully integrating issues related to women and gender into intelligence analysis and operations.

Second, the administration could work to integrate gender considerations into the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is the primary mechanism to establish national intelligence priorities and communicate them throughout the IC. Intelligence collection and analysis are centered on these priorities, which are updated every year, with input from the IC and key consumers of intelligence at the White House, State Department, and DoD. Including indicators related to women and gender in the NIPF would create the framework for greater focus on these issues in IC collection and analysis.

Finally, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) could consider appointing a National Intelligence Officer for Human Rights and Gender to the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC can produce analytic reports on its own and shapes the analysis of other IC agencies. By appointing a national intelligence officer responsible for human rights and gender, the DNI would send a strong signal throughout the IC that these issues are important. That individual could oversee the drafting of analytic products specifically related to the rights of women and girls and gender issues around the world, and could also encourage the integration of such issues into other analytic reports. Because national intelligence officers are almost always selected from within the IC, this would be a resource-neutral position that would not require additional funds for salary and benefits.

5. Invest in women and girls.

The president’s 2018 budget request, which reduces funding for the State Department and USAID by more than $10 billion, clearly demonstrates his intent to reduce U.S. investments overseas. The administration should ensure the remaining foreign and development assistance supports women around the world because doing so is a smart investment. Investing in girls’ education, for example, supports economic growth; just one extra year of secondary school increases a woman’s earning power by around 20 percent, which isn’t just good for women, but also for their countries’ economies. Such investments also save lives and improve health standards because better-educated women have smaller, healthier families, are more likely to immunize their children, and are at a lower risk for HIV/AIDS. More than 20 years ago, then-Chief Economist at the World Bank Larry Summers wrote, “When one takes into account all its benefits, educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.” His assessment is equally true today and should resonate with administration officials looking to run the government more like a business. Development and foreign assistance programs that advance women's rights have long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, and Congressional appropriators should take care to protect them as they set the final budget for fiscal year 2018.

More than 20 years ago, then-Chief Economist at the World Bank Larry Summers wrote, “When one takes into account all its benefits, educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.”

The administration also should ensure women are included in U.S. security investments around the world, whether by training female police and military officers, consulting women-led civil society organizations in post-conflict stabilization efforts, or ensuring women’s voices are included in efforts to counter online radicalization.

Women’s participation will be particularly important for the success of U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS, which the administration ranks as its top priority in the Middle East. In his March 22 remarks at the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, Secretary Tillerson reaffirmed the U.S. commitment not only to military operations against the so-called Islamic State, but also to stabilization and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Syria. If these efforts are attempted without the input of women, they almost certainly will fall short. A 2015 review of the U.N.’s peacebuilding architecture found women’s participation is crucial for post-conflict economic recovery, political legitimacy, and social cohesion; conversely, a lack of women’s engagement heightens the prospect for relapse. The administration should encourage all coalition partners – particularly the government of Iraq – to prioritize women’s inclusion, and should ensure women are the beneficiaries of U.S.-funded programs to help stabilize Iraq and Syria.


The Obama administration made some important progress in advancing gender equality as a national security priority, but there is certainly more work to be done. As the Trump administration considers its next steps on this issue, it is important to keep in mind that women around the world are already deeply engaged in promoting peace and security in their communities and are looking to the United States for leadership and support. Throughout my time in government, I had the opportunity to meet many such women and hear their stories. During multiple visits to Egypt, I was consistently impressed with the strength of Egyptian women working to advance legislative priorities in the parliament, support democracy and human rights protections as activists, and improve the lives of the Egyptian people as health workers and economists. In Dhaka, we sat down with women in the Bangladeshi military and police force who were breaking down gender barriers and increasing security at home and abroad through their service as international peacekeepers. In Sri Lanka, I met two Roman Catholic nuns working with widows to help rebuild the still war-torn north. And here in Washington, D.C., I spent a day with 2016 International Women of Courage Award Recipient Latifa Ibn Ziaten, a French-Moroccan activist who, after losing her son in a terrorist attack, dedicated her life to countering radicalization among France’s young Muslim population and advancing interfaith understanding.

Countless women are making a similar difference in communities around the world. We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to do everything we can to support them, as their success will help ensure our own.

  1. Tom Donilon and Cathy Russell, “Lessons from the Obama Administration: Why Gender Equality Should Continue to Be Part of U.S. Foreign Policy,” January 4, 2017,
  2. Joshua Busby and Heather Hulbert, “Do women matter to national security? The men who lead U.S. foreign policy don’t think so,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2017,
  3. This analysis is based on my firsthand experiences inside the government, particularly my time at the White House and State Department during President Obama’s second term. For a comprehensive evaluation of U.S. government efforts to advance gender equality during Obama’s first term, which includes a much more detailed evaluation of USAID efforts, see Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl’s The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
  4. Statement by the White House Press Secretary, March 6, 2009, https://obamawhitehouse.archiv....
  5. National Security Strategy, May 2010,
  6. Executive Order: Instituting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, December 19, 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archiv....
  7. Leon Panetta and Jim Newton, Worthy Fights (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 251-254.
  8. Ambassador Cathy Russell, remarks at the Collaborative Approaches to Global Security conference, October 15, 2015,
  9. First Lady Melania Trump, remarks at the State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony, March 29, 2017,
  10. Josh Rogin, “Trump team asked State Department for info on women’s issues programs, sparking fears of another witch hunt,” The Washington Post, December 22, 2016,
  11. Busby and Hulbert, “Do women matter to national security? The men who lead U.S. foreign policy don’t think so.”
  12. National Security Presidential Memorandum 4: Organization of the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and Subcommittees, April 4, 2017,
  13. David Corn, “Trump Drops ‘Human Rights’ From Top White House Job: And he seems to be doing the same with his foreign policy,” Mother Jones, May 3, 2017,
  14. Lawrence Summers, “Investing in all the People: Educating Women in Developing Countries,” Economic Development Institute Seminar Paper No. 45, The World Bank, 1994,
  15. Secretary Rex Tillerson, Remarks at the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, March 22, 2017,
  16. United Nations General Assembly and United Nations Security Council, Report of the Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture,, 20.


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