In 1975, at the height of the Cold War, a tentative agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to link up their Apollo and Soyuz space shuttles hit a snag. Each craft refused to be the one boarded by the other. Both saw the role as too passive and effeminate. Scientists had to abandon the usual “male-to-female” docking method in favor of a not terribly macho “male-on-male” procedure.

Everyone knows that war can be absurd. But it is sometimes forgotten that gender plays a role in international relations.

Roderick Parkes
Roderick Parkes is a scholar at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a nonresident senior fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs and the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP).

The gender element is particularly apparent in the current tensions between the EU and Russia. If the Cold War was an all-male affair, this conflict is very much feminine versus masculine. It’s Mutti versus Papa Bear. It’s the EU’s conciliatory foreign policy chief versus Russia’s hawkish foreign minister. It’s Poland, which, according to its new Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, protects its children, versus Russia, which stoically sacrifices its sons to an unofficial war.

Well actually, the conflict is more deliberate and structured than this. For some decades now, the EU has tried to temper the male orientation of its activities. Its foreign policy has been no exception.

The EU might still be iffy about feminist concepts such as the responsibility to protect, but its engagement in the East is indisputably gender aware. One obvious example is the EU’s aspiration to create a zone of migration and mobility stretching from Ireland in the West to Russia in the East.

The EU's engagement in Eastern Europe is indisputably gender aware.
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The project has required the EU to first bolster its own internal free movement regime by lifting female labor-market participation. EU free movement policies used to be almost wholly male-oriented, tailored to the stereotypical Polish bachelor sleeping three to a room in Hamburg. More recently, however, the EU has tried to open its labor market to women and families, not least by increasing citizens’ access to welfare in other member states.

With these measures in place to strengthen its economy and labor market, the EU has been ready to use migration as a vector for promoting human rights and equality abroad. Brussels has made it easier for its Eastern neighbors to get visas to the bloc, opening space for civilizational contact. In return for lifting its border restrictions, moreover, the EU has demanded that Easterners introduce policies of their own to protect women and minorities.

The response from the East has not always been positive, even in countries like Moldova or Ukraine, where citizens are usually keen to lift barriers to the West. The EU’s antidiscrimination norms have angered the less mobile and more traditional sections of society. So too has the sheer intrusiveness of the union’s intervention, as EU policies attempt to target the private spaces where discrimination actually takes place.

This sense of a culture clash is now reciprocated in the EU. The baffling lack of enlightenment shown in the East—including by women—exasperates Brussels. There are concerns that Easterners will somehow “contaminate” the West’s hard-won progress in this field. Members of the EU’s male-dominated diplomatic corps are feared to be quietly pushing the bloc to slacken its demand that Eastern Europeans and Africans tackle discrimination.

The baffling lack of enlightenment in Europe's East exasperates Brussels.
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Some commentators see the tensions as wholly predictable. Already in 2003, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris identified gender relations as the real site of the Huntingtonian clash of Eastern and Western civilizations. This echoed the Kurgan hypothesis of the 1950s, which posited that prehistoric Europe was home to a settled pastoral society—peaceable and matrilineal—which repeatedly fell prey to nomadic warriors from the East.

Seen in this way, the current clash between the EU and Russia is not just predictable but inevitable, the latest bout in the continent’s ur-conflict. Brussels has attempted to harness and emasculate the East’s macho nomads, and the East is resisting.

One might even label this attempt “Europa’s revenge”: the West’s peaceful earth goddess has returned to punish the mobile sky gods of the East who tried to attack her. Her weapon of choice? An EU visa liberalization road map.

Or, to put it another way: what bollocks.

Happily, the more gender aware of the EU’s policymakers are resisting the idea that anybody, whether Western or Eastern, is somehow predestined to fall into an ascribed role in this way. Accordingly, Brussels is looking for less deterministic explanations for the East’s resistance. One is that “women’s rights” have a bad reputation in the former Soviet space, especially among women, because such rights imply pressure to both work and look after the family.

Yet, the real reason for the clash is probably rather different. In the West, economic progress enabled women to gain manufacturing jobs, then a role managing the services industry, and then relatively equal access to the international high-skilled labor market. In the East, progress has meant the reverse. There, the onset of globalization dented female labor-market participation and even forced some women on to an international market for marriage and sex.

If that’s so, then the EU’s cocktail of economic development and border lifting could actually be viewed as an attack on women not an empowerment. In other words, it’s a gender conflict but by no means an inevitable one.