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What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Foreign Policy in the Age of the Alpha Males

Politico Magazine: What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Foreign Policy in the Age of the Alpha Males

By Emily Tamkin

It’s not easy being one of the few women to play a senior role in the making of American foreign policy. Twenty-five months into his presidency, Donald Trump’s national security team is a distinctly all-male affair, with top jobs being filled not just with men, but with what one Trump aide once described as “alpha males”—giving America’s posture toward the world a distinctly testosterone-charged feel.

Trump’s national security adviser is a man. So is his secretary of state, who boasts of “swagger” on the world stage. So is his acting defense secretary. Their deputies? Mostly men. Indeed, name any top foreign-policy job in this administration—with the notable exception of UN ambassador, for which Trump recently nominated Canada ambassador Kelly Knight Craft—and it’s likely filled by a man.

In fact, both parties now suffer from a severe deficit of women voices on foreign policy, with dangerous repercussions for America’s national security, experts warn, not to mention the world’s peace and stability.

One of the only senior women to have any voice on America’s role abroad is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the lone female member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Shaheen’s plight is perhaps best illustrated by an episode last summer, when she clashed with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo, who had recently moved over from the CIA to replace the hapless Rex Tillerson in Foggy Bottom, was testifying before the Committee on Foreign Relations—and his rude treatment of Shaheen turned heads in the hearing room and well beyond it.

The New Hampshire senator, who also holds a spot on the Armed Services Committee, asked Pompeo if Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed downgrading the U.S. presence in Syria in their recent closed-door summit in Finland.

She tried asking the question slightly different ways. There was no change in U.S. policy, Pompeo said gruffly. When Shaheen explained that wasn’t exactly what she was asking, the secretary cut her off sharply: “Senator, it’s what matters.” Later, she pressed on the topic of a Russian Ministry of Defense statement that seemed at odds with the U.S. military’s line on what was covered in the meeting. Pompeo snapped again. “I will humbly suggest to you that you ought to have more confidence in General Votel than the Russian Ministry of Defense,” he said, referring to the commander of U.S. Central Command who had been at the center of the conflicting narratives about the Putin summit.

At the end of the hearing, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) exploded at Pompeo, accusing him of “demeaning” Shaheen.

But her exchange with Pompeo, Shaheen suggested in a recent interview, is all too common.

“There have been some people who have appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee—more the Foreign Relations Committee than the Armed Services Committee, interestingly enough—who have been a little condescending,” the senator told me. She declined to name names but assured me she remembered who they were.

Shaheen was, as ever, being diplomatic. In interviews with six Hill staffers and a handful of senators on the committee, several said that Shaheen, in working on the Hill, has had to confront the many faces of workplace sexism: condescension, interruption and a lack of recognition of her work and ideas. And it’s not just Pompeo: One Democratic aide on the committee noted that Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO accustomed to unusual deference in the world’s power corridors, was notorious for interrupting and speaking down to the committee’s only woman. At a hearing in 2017, for example, when Shaheen asked Tillerson about the consequences of changes to the State Department budget on women’s global health, he avoided the question, and instead explained how executive orders work.

As women’s voices on foreign policy become sparer in Trump’s Washington, they are also becoming more important, and Shaheen tries to fill a growing void. Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy has tilted away from military engagement, as questions of civil society, economic development, health, women and families become more urgent—the kinds of issues that are more likely to be championed by women leaders.

“Inevitably women in national security have a few moments where they feel they’ve damaged their career by overemphasizing gender,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former top aide to national security adviser Susan Rice, wrote in an email. “When in reality it’s everyone else who underemphasizes it.”

One case in point: Afghanistan. Trump ordered the withdrawal of roughly half of U.S. troops stationed there in late December, despite an unclear political future and regular violence in the country. Research from the Council on Foreign Relations has shown that women’s participation in peace processes increases the resulting agreement’s likelihood to last at least 15 years by 35 percent. But for Trump’s team, ensuring that those voices are at the table—not just for their own sake, but to achieve more lasting peace and security resolutions—has not been a priority. Advocates worry about the lack of Afghan government voices and Afghan women in the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. “Can you see male members of the committee, or any national security community,” said Schulman, who is currently a deputy director at Center for a New American Security, “demanding that Afghan women get an equal voice in their peace process?”

“When women are at key international tables, from peace talks to infrastructure loans, the outcomes are more durable,” said Heather Hurlburt, a former State Department official now with New America. 

Shaheen, unprompted, raised that same point. “We’re learning more and more about societies and how they operate … just how important women’s empowerment is,” she said.

The gender imbalance in Washington foreign policy is worsening under Trump. As of March 2018, 34 percent of political appointees at the State Department were women; under Obama in 2012, that number was 44 percent. At the Department of Defense, that number was worse—27 percent in 2018, down from 34 percent in 2012. The gender dynamic is reflected in the administration’s tone, too. Trump routinely praises generals for their toughness and even their physical brawn, recently calling them “better looking than Tom Cruise—and stronger, too.”

Amid this backdrop, Shaheen has focused on legislation that directly affects women and families around the world. In 2017, she introduced the Keeping Girls in Schools Act, which sought to use State Department and USAID funding to implement programs ensuring girls would enroll and stay in school, and to use U.S. assistance to address the barriers that keep girls out of school. That same year, she introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, and saw her Women’s Peace and Security Act, intended to promote women’s participation in peace-building, signed into law. Hours after I spoke to her, I got a press release from her office—she and Rep. Nita Lowey, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, were reintroducing the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act, which would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule, an executive order banning federal funds for foreign NGOs that also use non-U.S. funds to provide abortion or information about abortion.

One of Shaheen’s male colleagues expressed a worry that she was too often all alone on such issues. “It should not be her burden to bear—to be the member of the committee who most often raises issues surrounding global women’s health,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut on the committee, told me. “The rest of us should probably step up to the plate and take that responsibility off of her.”

But these additional burdens haven't kept Shaheen from doing her job, according to colleagues. “I think Jeanne’s bona fides on national security are stronger than the majority of members on that committee,” Murphy said. “She’s won more tough fights on foreign policy matters than almost anyone else on that committee,” noting her successful efforts to put conditions on U.S. support for the bloody Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Shaheen also has a history of working with Republicans rather than against them. Along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), she led the Senate’s efforts to get American pastor Andrew Brunson released from prison and then house arrest in Turkey. She and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) joined together to establish the Senate NATO Observer Group, which European diplomats now point to as evidence of America’s commitment to NATO. And when the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., put her on a “blacklist” and denied her a visa, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-N.C.) canceled the trip in solidarity. (“Politics should end at the water’s edge, and that has been my experience working with Senator Shaheen,” Johnson observed.)

But because Shaheen doesn’t seek the limelight, you don’t hear much about her achievements.

Perhaps it’s also because her male colleagues are hogging the microphone. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee now also includes Graham and Sen. Ted Cruz, two former presidential candidates who are fixtures on cable news. Though Shaheen did the legislative and political heavy lifting on the Yemen bill, for instance, it was Graham who made headlines with his pithy “smoking bonesaw” quip about the Saudi government’s alleged murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

When I asked Shaheen about being overshadowed by the committee’s big male personalities, she was characteristically humble.

“I think women are often better about worrying less about who takes credit for things and more about how do we get something done,” she said. “We can either get bogged down by all of those things or we can just keep going.