What made Barack Obama abandon his timidity over Libya and endorse a UN Security Council resolution that was tougher than the one Britain had drafted? The story has been put about that he gave in to the joint persuasion of his three most senior diplomats – all, as it happens, women: his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; his UN ambassador, Susan Rice; and Samantha Power at the National Security Council. They, it is said, conjured up the hellish vision of a bloodbath in Benghazi and begged him to use his presidential might to stop it. This, in a matter of hours, is what happened.
The picture of the "girls" pleading with the President to exert some "hard power", even as the "boys" of the US defence and military establishment preferred softer means, led to the three women being dubbed "Valkyries" and "Amazon Warriors" in America. In Europe, by contrast, the supposed success of female pester-power at the White House passed almost unnoticed. More remarked upon was Germany's UN abstention – but the shock was that Germany had crossed France and Britain; no inference was drawn from the fact that the Chancellor is a woman.
Whether or not the Valkyries changed their President's mind, however – and the White House has gone to some lengths to deny they were even party to the decision, which, frankly, sounds more plausible for the male-dominated world of politics – the story poses a question of its own. Does a woman, or a quorum of women, in the upper reaches of foreign policy make a difference – and if so, how? Is there something that could be identified as a female foreign policy?
The US-Libya example fascinates because you can find there two divergent strands often associated with the female psyche. On the one hand, there is the sense of common humanity and compassion, along with co-operative action. Their female hearts, so this argument might run, went out to the people of Benghazi who were so bravely prepared to take on Gaddafi's tanks. How could the most powerful man in the world not use the power vested in him to save them? They joined forces to lobby the President.
The other, opposite, strand would be the female determination not to be defined by the stereotyping that casts women as the weaker sex. Thus, it might be said, did the Clinton-Rice-Power trio refuse to flinch at the use of US firepower, even knowing that blood could be shed. They underwrote the use of armed force against armed force for the higher purpose of protecting civilians.
Is it possible to detect an element of overcompensation here? A desire to confound the expectation that a woman would instinctively shy away from the use of force? Maybe. But if there is, it predates the 20th-century feminist movement by a long way. Every schoolgirl in Britain can probably quote Elizabeth I, rallying the troops massing against the Spanish Armada, speaking of having "the body but of a weak and feeble woman", but "the heart and stomach of a king".
Nor should it be forgotten that it was a woman Prime Minister who sent the Royal Navy to recover the Falkland Islands (against the better judgement of some of her male ministers). It was Margaret Thatcher, too, who urged the first President George Bush not to "go wobbly" after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Queen Victoria was quite a one for wars, too, as – moving further afield – was Catherine the Great of Russia, who fought two wars against the Ottoman Empire and extended Russian territory to the Black Sea. Monarchies make for better comparisons, as they have so far thrown up more female leaders than republics, where men have been adept at keeping power to themselves. Perhaps with women leaders there is also that particular element of the foot-stamping indignation that Thatcher seemed to feel over the Falklands: you don't do that to me, I won't allow you to exploit your perception of my feminine weakness.
A separate, even more intriguing, question is whether foreign policy – at least in the Western world – is undergoing a process of what might be termed feminisation: with that mix of humanity and toughness that perhaps triggered the Clinton-Rice-Power response. If so, however, this might be less a result of more women rising up a mostly male hierarchy than because today's male politicians – especially in Anglo-Saxon countries – are becoming more attuned to their feminine side. This in turn could be because they are more likely than in the past to have articulate, politically engaged partners, and because they are told that showing a softer side makes them more electable.
The doctrine of the "Responsibility to protect" – developed in response to the 1994 Rwanda genocide – perfectly exemplifies a feminised foreign policy, favouring as it does human life over considerations of national sovereignty. Advanced to justify the intervention in Kosovo and now to buttress the case for intervention in Libya – though not for Iraq – it was a favourite of Tony Blair, who elaborated its principles in his Chicago speech of 1999. Filled out by a Canadian-chaired commission, it was subsequently adopted as a "norm" by the UN.
In helping to lead the push for the Libyan no-fly zone, David Cameron showed himself to be a modern, "metrosexual" politician in the Blair mould, even though, as a Conservative and a Eurosceptic, he might have been expected to put the principle of national sovereignty above civilian safety. Obama, it seems, took some persuading, but eventually came down on the same side. Either that or his Libya decision was a classic case of pre-emptively passing responsibility to a woman for something the man in charge fears will go badly wrong.