Foreign policy has always had a masculinity issue: gender shapes war, gender shapes intervention and gender shapes peacekeeping. In regard to military foreign policy, women and men are divided “always and everywhere,” according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Not only are women rarely part of diplomatic negotiations, but a statistical chasm exists where global security is concerned. From drone strikes to nuclear armament, women tend to disagree with men’s support of offensive strategies.
With few exceptions, foreign policy, especially in its highest echelons, is a man’s territory. But even in a realm governed by a formal rotation of masculine superegos, American foreign policy has never been in the hands of such a male id. Last week’s surprise announcement of a meeting by May between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un highlights, yet again, the perils of letting fragile male egos run the world. The prospect of the summit would be comic ― a Trey Parker and Matt Stone musical number ― were millions of lives, and perhaps ultimately the planet itself, not on the line.
Take a moment to ask yourself: As this meeting approaches, are any of the key actors motivated in part by a desire to appear “manly” in the eyes of their own principal allies or adversaries? What are the consequences? Feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe asked that in her 2000 seminal article, “Masculinity as Foreign Policy Issue.” Her question seems practically rhetorical in the case of Trump’s plan to sit down with North Korea’s dear leader. Then again, if you pose the same question about Russia, it answers itself just as quickly ― bare-chested ― and with no less menace.
Trump, ever ignorant and dismissive of convention and rules, has blown past the traditional process of laying diplomatic groundwork with lower-level experts, which seeds the field for delicate compromise. And now, he has fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whose own classic example of menacing American male power makes the president look like a preening bulldog. In September, Tillerson had said he was opening lines for conversation with North Korea. Trump denigrated those efforts on Twitter, writing that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” insulting his staff to inflate his own ego. (Tillerson did reportedly call the president a “fucking moron,” but really, who can blame him?).
Last week’s surprise announcement of a meeting by May between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un highlights, yet again, the perils of letting fragile male egos run the world.
Such dismissive tone from Trump extends beyond the State Department to the ground the president is laying for epically his high-stakes discourse with a nuclear-armed adversary. Back in November, Trump’s diplomatic engagement with the North Korean leader took the form of lobbing Twitter insults: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!”
The men began this new year in similar fashion. On Jan. 1, in his annual address to his totalitarian state, Kim was compelled to remind Trump, “I have a nuclear button on the desk,” before calling him a “dotard,” prompting a nation to collectively reach for the dictionary. Trump’s schoolyard taunting devolved further: “I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Never mind that there is no “nuclear button” in the Oval Office, and never mind that we all know Trump had other guns in mind. Trump, who insists on his right to denigrate women like he lives in a locker room, is staging his foreign policy in the same place, and the world is watching these two bullies working out their insecurities and daddy issues by pushing each other in the shower and whipping each other with towels. But in this scenario, there’s no coach to come in and break it up.
Diplomacy’s masculinity problem is nothing new, though every new Republican leader seems to inject it with fresh testosterone. Consider the Bush Doctrine, which arrived under cover of so much World Trade Center smoke. It sold two wars packaged in unequivocally masculine rhetoric, using the language of strength and dominance to distract from ― in the case of the Iraq War ― a lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction or of Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. As analysts at the Brookings Institution described Bush’s aggressive “revolution” in foreign policy, “other countries will either follow or get out of the way.” But such rhetoric, and indeed a defense of American manhood itself, led us as surely into the Spanish American War more than a century earlier, according to historian Kristin Hoganson. Stunningly little has changed since that war began, in 1898.
Diplomacy’s masculinity problem is nothing new, though every new Republican leader seems to inject it with fresh testosterone.
It’s tempting but fallacious to explain foreign policy’s masculinity problem with pure gender essentialism. Plenty of conservatives have made the argument that our chaotic world requires rule by male might. In his infamous 1998 Foreign Affairs essay, “Women and the Evolution of World Politics,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed that because women have a biological aversion to war, nations must have “masculine policy” in our increasingly “feminized” world. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt co-authored a response skewering his analysis, noting that men in the trenches are never as bloodthirsty as their commanding officers would prefer. Tara McKelvey’s excellent book about women as torturers certainly makes the case for the female capacity for aggression in the face of security threats, complicating Fukuyama’s problematic reduction of humans to biological sex differences. We can look to Margaret Thatcher’s own taste for invasion to see how female leaders can champion force. “This is not about hormones,” Enloe wrote. “It is about the male politician’s angst over not appearing ‘manly.’ This, in turn, is about American political culture.” Foreign policy’s masculinity problem is written not into our DNA, but into our society.
Trump’s grotesquely adolescent performance of masculinity arrives on the heels of a president deemed by some critics as too feminine to lead. A Fox News analyst called President Obama “a total pussy” on live television in 2015, clearly articulating the subtext of the network’s foreign policy coverage. Even tweedy New York Times columnist David Brooks was comfortable riffing in 2014 on “Meet The Press”, “Let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a — I’ll say it crudely — a manhood problem in the Middle East.” Brooks continued, “Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin?”
These remarks call to mind gender and security scholar Carol Cohn’s writing on how the words “wimp” and “pussy” are used to pummel leaders who avoid conflict, rather than chase it down. Obama, who was hardly a pacifist, was dismissed as both throughout his presidency. And the correction now to Obama’s deliberativeness, which so many perceived as a sign of the nation’s purported manhood problem? We’ve put a pussy-grabber in charge of our foreign policy, handed him the nuclear weapons and set him loose on the world, crass dick-size comparisons and all.
Of course, what makes our situation even more dangerous is that it’s not just Trump who is operating from a place of defensive masculinity. “From the outside, it is easy to underestimate how much of North Korea’s threats and bizarre expressions of aggression reflect its sense of vulnerability and wounded pride,” Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker this week. It’s essentially a therapist’s diagnosis of the pain underlying toxic manhood.
We now find ourselves at the mercy of two insecure grown-up boys pretending to be men, who might deploy defensive machismo by any nuclear means necessary. Each is led baldly by fear of failing to be the alpha male. And it’s a zero sum game: There’s only one alpha allowed. Who is going to rule the locker room? And who, when hazed, will punish the world for it?
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.