Written by Florina Neagu and Maren Wilmes

Abstract: Throughout history, all across the world, military institutions and their actions have been marked by the dynamics of binary gender relations and especially the image of men as strong protectors. Existing military masculinities not only make it difficult for women to access a career in this field but also have the potential to reinforce gender norms and perpetuate stereotypes in foreign policy, outside of this institution. In the context of increasing security threats across Europe, the reproduction of masculinities in military mobilisation cannot be ignored. In the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war, this article analyses the impact of military masculinities, deeply institutionalised in the Common Security and Defence Policy, and how they shape the EU’s response to the existing crisis in Europe. 

The CSDP: where, how, what and when? 

The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was created more than 23 years ago to undertake different operations abroad and support states with mechanisms necessary for crisis management programmes. The main purpose behind the CSDP is also connected to the EU’s position as a global actor that strives to promote human rights and gender equality, prevent conflicts, establish political partnerships and counter security threats in any sector relevant to the Union. The military and civilian missions are equipped not only to respond to crises but also to provide strategic support to those international actors who are facing conflicts and political instability (Koukakis, 2022). Despite its name, the CSDP is mainly seen as an instrument of foreign policy and less as a defence mechanism, currently subordinated to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (Nováky, 2022). 

When looking at the CSDP from a gender perspective, in the context of strengthening European unity in times of crisis, the question arises to what extent masculinities play a role within the EU’s foreign and security policy, and consequently in the common response towards the ongoing war in Ukraine. Not only do existing military masculinities still make it difficult for women to access a career in this field, but they also have the potential to reinforce gender norms and perpetuate stereotypes beyond foreign policy and the military. To analyse these issues, this paper will first provide an overview of the CSDP’s usual response to crises and explore more closely the EU’s previous efforts regarding gender equality in this field, in Ukraine. It will examine the CSDP from a gender perspective to identify the masculinities linked to military action and defence within this policy and how these shape the current discourse across Europe and beyond. Ultimately, it will assess the CSDP’s potential for improvement and how the EU can give a more unified response to existing crises by including a gender perspective in its security field.

How does the CSDP usually respond to crises?

Concerning the EU as a political actor in the international system, many experts have argued that the current situation at the EU borders is crucial for future changes in Europe’s geostrategic position and its approach to security and defence (Erci̇yas & Soydemi̇r, 2022; Moser, 2022; Nováky, 2022). In this context, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 challenged not only the EU’s position within the region but also its capacity to develop efficient crisis management mechanisms and respond to emergencies near its borders. 

The European Union has been using the CSDP to respond to the crisis in Ukraine and encourage many reforms in the security and juridical system, ever since 2014. At that time, the Union opened an advisory mission (EUAM), responsible for supporting national authorities to fully implement the rule of law and fight corruption. However, due to the conflict’s escalation in February 2022, the mission couldn’t implement its mandate and new mechanisms within the CSDP were considered for mitigating the impact of the war. In the second half of the same year, the Council decided to establish a military assistance mission (EUTM), similar to those stationed in Africa, in countries such as Mali, Central African Republic or Somalia. The role of this new mission was mainly to facilitate training activities and support Ukraine’s armed forces and their capacity to respond to existing attacks. 

After all, ever since the beginning of this conflict, the EU has engaged to support Ukraine not only economically and with humanitarian assistance, but also politically and militarily (EEAS, 2022). In this context, the EU has been securing financial support through the European Peace Facility, the delivery of military equipment and training activities for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with an important contribution through the main mechanisms of the CSDP (Blockmans & De Agostini, 2022).  

However, the CSDP’s capacity to respond to the Russo-Ukrainian war has been under scrutiny, due to the need to strengthen the European defence mechanisms, but also because of the lack of gender approaches. Many have indeed noted that despite the EU’s strategy to promote gender equality and include gender mainstreaming in its policies, it failed to meet these expectations when it comes to the security sector, including the CSDP (Guerrina et al., 2018; Keukeleire & Delreux, 2022). As a consequence, these approaches are also missing from the mandate undertaken by civilian and military missions across European borders. 

How does the CSDP take gender into account?

Overall, the European Union has decided to put gender equality at the core of its engagement with other countries worldwide. As a consequence, promoting gender mainstreaming in different fields represents one of the EU’s priorities in its foreign actions. Especially when looking at the CSDP as a common guideline for the EU’s foreign policy from this perspective, it tries to promote reforms in states at the EU’s borders and mainstream gender in external security programmes. 

The flagship of the EU to promote gender equality in fragile and conflict contexts is a central part of the so-called Security Sector Reform (SSR). Moreover, the reforms implemented under the Gender Security Sector Reform (short: GSSR) are based on an overarching framework linked to gender and international politics, namely the United Nations (UN) Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This framework, which started with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, is used to integrate gender into the CSDP and strives for involving more women in foreign interventions and reducing masculine militarisation in foreign policy (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021).

Nevertheless, this normative self-image of the EU creates a contradiction with the neglect of these norms when it comes to external security and defence regarding debates and work within the EU. In this context, there are certain challenges to gender integration that can be observed within the CSDP. A more practical constraint is the definition of gender , which is not clearly outlined. Although several gender equality strategies are formulated, such as gender balancing or gender inclusion, meaning the promotion of equal participation of men and women in security institutions and oversight bodies, the meaning of gender is often limited to women only. This does not include men, which leads to them not seeing themselves as part of the problem. In addition, it also excludes individuals who do not define themselves as such. Other practical limitations also include, for example, insufficient support from Brussels and the problem that the EU itself often takes technical rather than values-based approaches to its understanding of security as a whole. In this context, there are structural-institutional obstacles due to the EU’s security and defence policy, which is often seen as gender-neutral. Among other things, this has led to the recurrent exclusion of feminist actors in EU security policy processes, as their representation is not considered as important in processes that are supposedly gender-neutral. Moreover, the implementation of EU gender policy is also hindered by the neoliberal thinking that underlies mainstream gender approaches, in which women are seen as actors rather than victims in peace and security, giving women too much ownership of their political contribution within a system that continually limits that contribution. A current example of the EU’s loss of credibility as a normative actor on the international political stage is the resurgence of far-right and anti-feminist populist movements that attack and oppress women, but also migrants and other minorities (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021). 

This becomes even more evident when looking at the “SHEcurity Index”, an index that provides information on how many women are represented within the field of security and peace worldwide. One can see in the data regarding the CSDP missions that women joined as heads of missions only in 2015. The highest number was in 2017, where 50% of heads of missions were female, while in the other years, the number was lower. Currently, the number for 2023 is anticipated to be 30%. Looking specifically at the data for the CSDP’s military missions, there are no women in leadership positions to date, with the highest percentage of women participating in military missions at 14% with the EUNAVFOR ATALANTA in 2017 (Neumann & Shevchuk, 2022). These statistics clearly show that women are not sufficiently represented in the EU’s CDSP missions, especially those with a military focus.

Overall, when looking at EU documents, a dissonance can be observed between the incorporation of transformative feminist insights on gender, peace and security, and the translation of gender relations, identities and policy actions within EU discourse. In this context, gender is mostly seen as a foreign affair linked to maintaining peace and security but not so much as a part of internal EU matters. At the same time, there is a contradiction between EU WPS policy and the practices of the CSDP planning. More specifically, the implementation of the WPS agenda is constrained due to limited security tools and missions within the CSDP, which are based on operational concerns decided mainly within the parameters of EU member states and their crisis management in the context of the missions undertaken. In this way, the WPS agenda is subordinated to national interests and can therefore be communicated as a pan-European practice, but not fully implemented as such in practice (McDonagh & Deiana, 2017).

On the one hand, since the adoption of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325, the European Union and its Member States have been dedicating efforts to challenging the status quo that historically defines security as a gender-blind sector. Together with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is in charge of the territorial defence of the European borders, the EU made significant progress in including more women in security and mainstreaming gender beyond social or labour policies. Furthermore, the CSDP was also considered when implementing the provisions of Resolution 1325 and the EU’s gender equality policies. Nevertheless, feminist scholars (Guerrina et al., 2018; Jayasundara-Smits, 2021; Kronsell, 2016b) are pointing out that inherent structural and institutional obstacles are still restricting women’s access to security and defence as well as institutional practices, hierarchies and masculinities are reproducing gender norms and enforcing a climate of discrimination.

Masculinities & the CSDP: what types of military masculinities can be found in the CSDP?

Masculinities represent principles, cultural values, and experiences naturally perceived as masculine (Hale, 2012). They are usually shaped within a specific social, institutional or historical context and are associated with traits which can further define a person and reproduce existing stereotypes and power relations. Historically, the security sector, especially the military practice, has had a role in reframing masculinities and associating them with their current meaning (Kronsell, 2016b). Consequently, only those who possessed the masculine attributes necessary to adhere to the military practice were given access to this sector. Moreover, different types of masculinities further defined power relations that were inherited by institutions and became almost impossible to challenge.

Gender inequalities are reproduced in the institutional framework of the CSDP and further disseminated and reinforced by its civilian and military missions in other territories across the world, including in Ukraine. Although the CSDP is seen more as a foreign policy mechanism that does not engage in security operations, its institutional framework is still based on military practice, hence the masculinities present in this sector. As a consequence, among the key issues identified in the EU’s security and defence domain consist of the promotion of heterosexual masculinity within the decision-making and combat structures, and the EU male protector model during training missions (Kronsell, 2016b). 

When analysing the CSDP, all the institutions carrying out missions are dominated by military norms, male figures and masculine practices. Most of those in highly-ranked positions are male, representatives of the European white ethnicity. While there are women present in these institutions, their contribution is mostly invisible, due to a process of normalising toxic masculinities. After all, military activities with embedded masculinities and dominated by male figures became the norm in different systems throughout history. Gender roles are reflected in this system by historically enlisting mainly men in the military and shaping the norms according to the needs and practices of male bodies (Kronsell, 2016a). Men are often seen as defenders, while the security sector, especially the military service, became a process of training masculinity. The current structure of the CSDP and its embedded masculinities are also determined by the overall security sector of member states, due to their role in appointing male military and defence leaders or ambassadors (Kronsell, 2016b). Despite the EU’s mission to include gender mainstreaming in most of its areas, the security sector is still predominantly male in many countries across the Union, which then transcends their borders and influences the structure of the CSDP. 

Combat groups of the CSDP, mainly involved in providing humanitarian aid and in peacekeeping or peacemaking missions, are also defined by inherited masculine views and norms, enforced through military training and practice. In this context, we see the same white, heterosexual, European men, as the ideal soldier of the battle groups (Kronsell, 2016b). Women, on the other hand, are mostly recognised as victims, members of vulnerable groups in need of protection. In this context, they are always the ones left behind in their homeland when conducting the CSDP operations abroad (Kronsell, 2016b) and their agency is limited, while men undertake the role of protectors. 

Furthermore, the main discourse surrounding the CSDP justifies the European missions by pointing out the need to protect others, promote interventionism and enhance foreign states’ capabilities to assure their security. Promotional materials or reports about the CSDP operations abroad frequently illustrate existing masculinities. European officers, mostly men, are undertaking decision-making roles in the training missions of combat groups, while local armed forces, also dominated by male bodies, are taught how to enhance the security response of their country. Women are either missing from these materials or are portrayed as mothers or victims of conflict, with few exceptions of female soldiers among these battle groups (Hoijtink & Muehlenhoff, 2020)

How do these masculinities shape discourses and the official response of the EU and CSDP to the crisis in Ukraine? 

Ever since the agenda on women, peace, and security was introduced at the international level, many reports and policy documents have been emphasising the impact of excluding women from this sector, including areas such as peacemaking, peacekeeping or decision-making (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021). Moreover, despite numerous changes, international organisations fail to respond to new policies and to facilitate women’s access and inclusion, and continue to reproduce masculinities. Women are often seen as victims of conflict and in need of protection, which undermines the whole purpose of gender mainstreaming in the security domain. 

Looking, for example, at Ukraine and the EU’s influence in the region through the implementation of CSDP’s missions, it becomes clear that after the adoption of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2004, the EU gradually supported some state reforms in Ukraine. These efforts triggered negative reactions, especially from Russia, given the long-standing geopolitical tensions in the region. While those reforms were, to a certain extent, directed at promoting gender mainstreaming and more women in security in Ukraine, the EU itself presented Ukrainian women as rather marginal and ‘decorative’. In this context, women that were part of the military forces were depicted doing computer work, as civilians or as mere spectators, which in turn reinforces and reproduces existing social and institutional inequalities and dominant images concerning gender. In contrast, men were presented in a more active way demonstrating power and strength, by for example holding military and security equipment. 

These differing representations of women and men working in the same field point to “hegemonic masculinity, and how it produces and is produced by subordinating and excluding femininity and images of non-hegemonic masculinities” (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021: 95). At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that this contradicting representation can also be observed in visual reports of the activity of EUAM in Ukraine. As seen in the CSDP mission in Ukraine to promote gender equality in the security sector, gendered images are also passed on by the EU. This reproduction shows that gender and related inequalities are somehow, whether deliberately or not, an integral part of EU foreign policy. In this context, pictures used for illustrating the scope of an EU mission can reinforce and reproduce existing social and institutional inequalities and dominant gender stereotypes (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021). 

When responding to crises, the European Union’s discourse and implementation of the CSDP has the potential to advance military practices which are often associated with hegemonic masculinity. Once normalised in the security sector, they can go beyond military and combat training, being further reproduced in society and exacerbating gender inequalities (Hoijtink & Muehlenhoff, 2020). 

How to improve the CSDP and implement a sustainable gender-sensitive approach

The EU, through the CSDP, is not only an important global actor but also a military power which inevitably relies on multiple masculinities (Hoijtink & Muehlenhoff, 2020). While its engagement in military operations is minimal, masculinities are still shaping practices, discourses and the EU’s response to a crisis. There is no European army or direct involvement in combat, but the Union is supporting many states around the world to develop better military capabilities, crisis management mechanisms, and a strengthened response to conflicts. In this context, gender mainstreaming should be integrated into policies regarding security and defence, as women have the power to change institutional practices if the opportunity is given. The masculine nature of the military and its impact on the CSDP should be acknowledged, as a first step to challenge the gender-blindness and persisting masculinities in this sector. 

A key improvement would be to recognise that CSDP’s missions are not gender-neutral. In this context, it is crucial to apply a more reflexive approach to better understand the inner-EU constraints underlying the outcome of the CSDP and all actions undertaken in relation to it. This means that the WSP agenda should not be seen as an additional value, a ‘plus’ to the current way of developing crisis management mechanisms. On the contrary, gender equality should be considered a continuance and consequently an integral part of the existing response to international challenges. Therefore, the CSDP could be improved by introducing gender-sensitive practices and putting gender concerns at the centre of its mechanisms. In this context, it would become almost impossible to think of missions under the CSDP that do not take gender concerns into account (McDonagh & Deiana, 2017). 

Additionally, a broader approach to countering masculinities in CSDP’s missions and their goals to reduce conflict and promote peace would be highly beneficial. This would more efficiently contribute to the implementation of the WPS agenda and increase the EU’s commitment as a supranational actor in the field of crisis management, which has so far mostly been tied to member state decisions and national security practices. Giving the EU more influence over the unified response can therefore not only strengthen crisis management as a whole but also offer the opportunity to improve the impact of the CSDP in the context of gender equality in times of crisis. To achieve such goals, an internal and external analysis of the EU as a normative political actor should be conducted to resolve existing challenges, considering the use of masculinities and gender-blind policies (McDonagh & Deiana, 2017).

In conclusion, several changes have been made regarding the promotion of gender equality in the field of security and defence. However, the EU continues to promote a self-image that is nowhere seen in practice. Multiple military masculinities are still present in the actions taken under the CSDP which further reinforce gender stereotypes and impose institutional barriers for women. In order to improve the CSDP and the EU’s unified response to current crises, gender mainstreaming should be a central and integral part of foreign policy, rather than a mere addition to existing and supposedly gender-neutral frameworks. Moreover, military masculinities should be acknowledged and further countered through reforms within the European security institutions, to stop them from transcending the EU’s borders and influencing the crisis management mechanisms implemented abroad. 


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