Can foreign policy be feminist? Sweden says yes.

Gender equality isn't just a domestic issue, according to Stockholm. It's an ideal that countries can help implement around the world – but not without wrinkles. Part 5 of Reaching for Equity: a global series on gender and power.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea's nuclear program at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., on Dec. 15, 2017.

A doctor in a sparsely furnished Nairobi clinic, providing a young woman with birth control. A job-training center throwing open its doors to women in Armenia. A United Nations delegate urging the assembly to consider gender in its global climate change policy.

If those are the answers, then this is the question: What, exactly, does a feminist foreign policy look like?

It’s a question that has been floated many times since October 2014, when Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, announced that her country planned to become the first in the world to put feminism at the heart of its foreign affairs.

“A feminist foreign policy aims to respond to one of the greatest challenges of this century, continued violations of women’s and girls’ human rights – in times of peace and in conflict,” Ms. Wallstrom explained at Helsinki University in March 2015. “Failing to do so will ultimately undermine our overarching foreign policy and security objectives.”

And so, she said, Sweden was going to let gender barge into every aspect of how it approached the world, from its role on the UN Security Council to how it doled out aid in the world’s poorest corners.

Over the last three years, other countries have begun to emulate Sweden’s feminist experiment; Canada, for instance, announced its own “feminist international assistance policy” last year. But it has also raised difficult questions about how far it is possible to balance idealism and realpolitik in the world of global diplomacy, and who benefits.

Saying you want your country’s foreign policy to be built on an idealistic vision of equality between the sexes is one thing. Actually carrying that out in the coldly pragmatic, and deeply male-dominated, world of geopolitics – that is entirely another.

And at the most basic level: What does “feminist,” as a guiding principle, even mean?

Ideals put to the test

For her part, Wallstrom has said a feminist foreign policy has to answer three questions. Are women’s rights being respected? Do they have enough resources to live safe and equitable lives? And are they represented in the halls and chambers where the world’s most important decisions are being made?

For her, those issues are deeply personal. More than three decades ago, she walked out on an abusive partner after he held a knife to her throat, a decision that she has said gave her the jolt of confidence to jumpstart a powerful political career. Within a few months, at age 25, she had been elected to Sweden’s parliament. She went on to head up three ministries and serve as UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

“She’s an incredibly popular politician and has been for a long time, which allows her to get away with saying and doing things that a lesser known or respected foreign minister never could,” says Emma Lundin, a historian who studies Swedish politics and social movements.

But even the most popular politician can’t rearrange the pieces of global diplomacy overnight. In 2015, Wallstrom accused Saudi Arabia – an important Swedish trading partner – of being a dictatorship with no respect for the rights of women; soon afterwards, the Swedish government cancelled a controversial military arms and training deal with the kingdom. The Saudis briefly recalled their ambassador to Stockholm and stopped issuing business visas to Swedes.

In the end, business leaders from the two countries came to a détente. But the incident was a reminder of how complicated it can be to carry out a foreign policy based on something as seemingly simple as equality.

Being the nice guy

The feminist agenda itself, though, can also serve Swedish self-interest, experts note, as a way for tiny Sweden – population 10 million – to stand out in a diplomatic world crowded with bigger, wealthier, and more powerful countries.

“All the way back to the cold war and earlier, Sweden has been cultivating a sense of its own difference on the international diplomatic scene,” says Dr. Lundin, the historian. The country has a long history of neutrality in global conflicts, she notes. “So policies like this feminist foreign policy, while laudable, are part of a long history of how to amplify the voice of Sweden in the world.”

Last January, for instance, when US President Donald Trump announced that he was cutting American family planning aid to any organization that performed or promoted abortions, Sweden was among those to quickly – and loudly – step into the gap.

Working for gender equality “will make America great again,” Wallstrom said, weeks before the US rule was imposed. “Without it, [Trump] will not be able to make America great again.”

Stockholm quickly pledged $22 million in additional aid for family planning, much of it to be distributed in sub-Saharan Africa, where the effects of the “global gag rule” were expected to be especially harsh.

One place that money ended up: a family-planning clinic in Nairobi’s busy Upper Hill neighborhood, where the two doctors on staff had recently begun buying supplies from DKT International, a family-planning nonprofit that sells low-cost contraceptives to private clinics. Although the group hopes to eventually become self-sustaining – they sell their products, rather than give them away – about half its operating costs in East Africa are currently funded by the Swedes, according to Collin Dick, the organization’s managing director in Kenya.

“The global gag rule is a scary thing for us,” he says. “But the Swedes have come in and shown us they are really passionate about wide access to contraceptives and safe abortion – it’s a big comfort.”

“To those who say that by being a feminist government we’re imposing our values on the world, I would make the counterargument that what the new US administration has done – that is imposing values,” says Gustav Fridolin, the Swedish Minister of Education, who has been involved in a Swedish-supported effort to expand sex education in schools across Africa. “We cooperate with countries with very different ideals and laws than us.”

On-the-ground asterisks

At times, however, it seems to critics of Sweden’s foreign affairs stance that the country actually has not one, but two policies marching side-by-side and sometimes out of step. Gender equality may sound like a simple ideal, but it’s also a very broad one – and the real-world complications of implementing it are rife. 

Sweden has said it is dedicated to “strengthening the human rights of women and girls who are refugees or migrants,” for instance – even as its door swings shut on many of those migrants. 

Six thousand miles away, in Colombia, Sweden has pushed to ensure that more women are included in a historic peace process between rebels and the government after five decades of conflict; it also signed a deal paving the way for major imports of Swedish arms.

Stockholm has promised about 95 million euros ($120 million) between 2016 and 2020 to support the fragile peace process, and contribute to services and economic development in the most-affected corners of the country. Much of that money is earmarked to increase women’s participation.

“The [Colombian] government is paying more attention to women’s rights and gender perspectives” as a result of pressure from countries like Sweden, says the director of a Colombian NGO that focuses on women and peacebuilding, who asked not to be identified over concerns that it could affect future funding from Sweden. The Swedes “are an important ally when it comes to lobbying and advocacy” for women, she says.

But Sweden has parallel, and different, interests. In March 2017, Sweden’s enterprise minister signed a cooperation agreement with Colombia allowing Swedish companies to export fighter jets to Colombia.

The Swedish government framed the agreement as a way to help Colombia’s armed forces adapt to their new peacetime role. But critics pointed out that the country’s military had recently been implicated in wartime atrocities, and questioned whether enough had been done to ensure the human rights of civilians – particularly women – would be protected as the military bulked up.

“At the end of the day, the geopolitical realities have a tendency to guide the government on how to act,” says Helene Lackenbauer, a researcher with the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “There is a feminist agenda that is absolutely there, but it is also sometimes toned down as needed.”

Contributing to this report were Whitney Eulich in Mexico City, Sara Miller Llana in Paris, and Paula Rogo in Nairobi.

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