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Micah Zenko: Why women are less inclined to start wars

  • Published Friday, August 9, 2013, at 12 a.m.

The Pew Research Center recently released a new Global Attitudes Project survey that found of the 12 countries for which Pew provided corresponding data, the female-male gap approving of U.S. drone strikes ranged from 31 percent in Japan to 13 percent in Uganda. When the same question was asked in 2012, the female-male gap similarly ran from 30 percent in Germany to 12 percent in Poland. Within the United States, the divide was 23 percent in 2012 and 17 percent this year. American women are also between 11 and 14 percent more likely than men to show concern that drones harm civilians, cause blowback from extremists, are illegal and damage the reputation of the United States.

This female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force and generally persists regardless of the weapons system employed, military mission undertaken, whether the intervening force is unilateral or multilateral, and the strategic objective proposed. The gap is also one that is sustained over time and is consistently found whenever or wherever comparable questions are posed regarding prospective military options. Richard Eichenberg, of Tufts University, who has written several essential works on gender differences in security attitudes, found: “There are many commonalities in the views of men and women, but the direction of gender differences is always and everywhere that women are less supportive of using military force than men.”

Indeed, it is an overwhelmingly global phenomenon found in almost every single country where such questions are asked – though there are less foreign data as the United States is comparatively over-polled. Nevertheless, for example, 13.5 percent more Australian men than women approved of joining the U.S.-led coalition to depose Saddam Hussein in 2003, 14 percent more French men than women supported the intervention in Mali earlier this year, and 20 percent more German men than women think force is sometimes needed to maintain order in the world.

Since the United States has unmatched conventional military capabilities (and has a comparatively high tendency to attack other countries and non-state actors), it is useful to look closely at polls of American adults. If, like me, you are an observer of opinion polling on the use of force, you find evidence of the female-gap for different missions, no matter which type of military action is proposed or which party is in the White House. Eichenberg examined 486 surveys of the American public between 1990 and 2003, for which a gender breakdown was provided, where U.S. military force was contemplated, threatened or used. He found that the average gender difference for supporting the use of force was 58 percent men and 48 percent women. This is roughly consistent with data covering significant U.S. military intervention over the past quarter-century.

Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay that tried to explain why men are more likely, and women less likely, to support bombing other countries. He contended that “there is something to the contention of many feminists that phenomena like aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women.” However, such mostly male characteristics cannot be changed as they are rooted in biology, and since rogue male leaders remain a fact of world politics the “democratic, feminized, postindustrial world” will not be up to the challenge of confronting them. “Masculine policies will still be required, though not necessarily masculine leaders.”

Responses to Fukuyama’s essay essentially accepted his gender dichotomy by defending women’s ability to wage war.

“Women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich.

Katha Pollitt noted: “Historically, cultures organized around war and displays of cruelty have had women’s full cooperation.”

The question more interesting than why women and men perceive militarized approaches to foreign policy challenges differently: What might the policy implications of them be today? Unfortunately, many commentators who have written about this phenomenon in the past focused on the gender of combatants themselves, while ignoring the gender of those who actually decide to use force.

Below the level of top decision makers, women are vastly underrepresented in senior uniformed and civilian positions within the Pentagon. According to the Pentagon, women make up 20 percent of all official senior defense positions, while they are 31 percent of the CIA’s senior intelligence service. However, agency veterans tell me the percentage is much lower in the national clandestine service that is responsible for conducting lethal covert operations.

Within the foreign policy community of think tanks, the academy and punditry, the underrepresentation of women’s voices is readily apparent, particularly wherever “hard” security issues are debated. Despite marginal improvements in the past decade, more than three-quarters of all commentaries in major print outlets are consistently penned by men, including those with a foreign policy focus. At the Aspen Security Forum in June, there were 59 featured speakers, just four of whom were women.

As someone with 15 years of experience in this community at various levels, I have come to recognize that most colleagues agree there is something inherently wrong with this picture, and that the relative lack of gender diversity (among many other underrepresented voices in U.S. foreign policy discussions) has an impact on how debates unfold and probably on what outcomes emerge. However, they are painfully uncomfortable discussing exactly what that impact is, or what should be done to expand the range of perspectives.

In a 2011 poll that asked respondents “the best way to ensure peace,” 8 percent more men said “military strength,” while 9 percent more women said “good diplomacy.” Likewise, the undervalued and essential role of women as peacemakers was the core theme of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark December 2011 data-driven speech. Meanwhile, her husband, Bill Clinton, recently opined that presidents who refrain from using force because of public or congressional opposition “look like a total wuss, and you would be.” The time-honored connection between looking “tough,” masculine and bombing others endures, which makes military force the appealing default solution for so many U.S. foreign policy problems.

Micah Zenko is a fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

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