Review: Gender, Sex, and the Postnational Defense: Militarism and Peacekeeping

This review originally appeared in International Feminist Journal of Politics 14:4 (2012), 569-72.

Annica Kronsell. Gender, Sex, and the Postnational Defense: Militarism and Peacekeeping. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-984606-1.

Peace operations complicate the ideas of military masculinities around which the armed forces that constitute those operations have been built. The training of male soldiers for combat and warfighting has not only disciplined the body in strength and aggression, but also in the rejection of the feminine; yet the skills required to do peacekeeping and peacebuilding well involve communication and co-operation, tasks that – as the author of this monograph notes – have been feminized and devalued in the prevailing masculinity of the combat soldier. A change in how military power and performance is gendered may therefore be essential to the success of peace operations, yet the depth with which Jean Bethke Elshtain’s famous binary of the male ‘just warrior’ and the female ‘beautiful soul’ (Elshtain 1985) is embedded into Western thought makes this immensely difficult to bring about. Annica Kronsell’s monograph on gender and peacekeeping in the Swedish armed forces thus raises questions that resonate well beyond the context of this small, traditionally neutral state.

Kronsell uses what she describes as ‘a constructivist institutional approach’ in order ‘to capture the constructions around gender and sexuality in the postnational defense’ (p. 10). Gender, following Judith Butler, is approached as ‘a continuously (re)constructed category’, such reconstruction taking place ‘in the continuous processes and activities of daily life’ (p. 8). This enables Kronsell to apply her framework to levels ranging from the making of EU defense policy to the everyday level of the gender order on a military base. She seeks to critique the material, normative and symbolic asymmetries involved and the effect of normalizing ‘male bodies, masculinity, and heterosexuality’ (p. 9) in defense policy, recruitment, training and operations. The institutional side of her approach rests on the argument – which appears especially convincing when studying the military – that ‘organizational rules, norms, and features influence actors, and this has political outcomes’ (p. 9). Across five chapters, this clearly written book explores the convergence of these approaches with regard to conscription and citizenship in Sweden (highly relevant for understandings of nationalism as well as war), the experiences of female military personnel, the cosmopolitan transformation of the Swedish military, the clash between the military’s new gender awareness and how gender constructions operate on the ground in Afghanistan, and how gender has been conceptualized in EU security and defense governance after 9/11.

Sweden, as a non-member of NATO, is distinct from many of its coalition partners, in whose cases an extra layer of policy and governance would also need to be taken into account. Yet its participation in coalition operations and joint Nordic units means that Swedish experiences can still serve as useful case studies with wider relevance. This is particularly the case in the chapter on the construction of sex and gender in operations in Afghanistan. Kronsell points out that the notion of women as more effective peacekeepers rests on a problematic gender essentialism that pervades even further than the feminization of communicative skills. The ‘specific resources’ that female peacekeepers are thought to contribute to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are no more than ‘their bodies and their appearance’: they are able to ‘talk to, engage with, and obtain information from local women’ just because they are women, and their uniformed and armed bodies are thought to challenge traditional Afghan gender roles (pp. 107–8). The result is that ‘female peacekeepers are pushed into specific tasks that relate to them being women rather than to their capacity as soldiers or peacekeepers’ (p. 111). This may be increased military effectiveness, but it is not gender equity.

Kronsell advances the literature on gender and the military by incorporating the concept of the ‘postnational defense’, a security strategy that she perceives in post-9/11 Swedish foreign policy and emerging in the European Union as a whole. Her main research question is to ask how this specifically has altered gender relations. The postnational defense is defined as ‘one that pays less attention to the defense of the territory and more to the security situation outside its borders, often in cooperation with other states’ (p. 3). On one hand, it is conceptualized as a projection of force outside state borders in order to defend the territory (for instance by eliminating terrorist training camps), but on another it also includes a humanitarian dimension of ‘solidarity […] with other people in faraway places’ (p. 3). Though Kronsell acknowledges a ‘contradiction of war-making/peacekeeping occurring at the same time and in the same place’ (p.5) in contemporary coalition operations, this broader contradiction is not taken further. The two objectives may clash with each other, and the best way of expressing that solidarity with others in faraway places may not always be to use force in the faraway places they live in.

The unexplored areas of this contradiction recur in the concept that Kronsell uses to give the Swedish study wider relevance, Lorraine Elliott and Graeme Cheeseman’s notion of the ‘cosmopolitan military’ (p. 69 citing Elliott and Cheeseman (ed.) 2004). Cosmopolitan militaries are those which ‘adhere to cosmopolitan norms’: ‘ideally, a key ambition of a cosmopolitan is to protect human beings elsewhere, outside national boundaries, and to save “distant others”, in the name of human rights’ (p. 70). A cosmopolitan military is thus inherently postnational. Critical objections to the idea of a cosmopolitan military, however, are not discussed. Kronsell does recognize a contradiction between Sweden as a cosmopolitan military and Sweden’s parallel role as a major arms exporter. Yet it would also be possible to engage with wider critiques of cosmopolitanism and of the mission to save distant people: for instance, Craig Calhoun’s argument that cosmopolitanism neglects or obscures relations of power and privilege (Calhoun 2003), or Sherene Razack’s argument that peacekeeping reflects a continuing imperialist concept of the ‘white saviour’ (Razack 2004). Kronsell’s hope, as reflected on the last page of the book, is to reconceptualize militarism ‘away from combat to the ability to take action to protect “distant others” so that they may live to their full human potential’ (p. 147). This is an emphasis with which some feminists might take issue, yet the solid theoretical framework and the clarity with which the author’s findings are expressed make this an important contribution to the study of militaries, peace and gender.


Calhoun, Craig. 2003. ‘Belonging in the Cosmopolitan Imaginary’. Ethnicities 3 (4): 531–53.

Elliott, Lorraine, and Graeme Cheeseman (ed.). 2004. Forces for Good? Cosmopolitan Militaries in the Twenty-First Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1985. Women and War. New York: Basic Books.

Razack, Sherene H. 2004. Dark Threats and White Knights: the Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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