Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy: 7 Years Later
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image: Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea's nuclear program at the UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US on December 15, 2017. Credits: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Sweden, the pioneer of the concept of feminist foreign policy, is set to complete seven years since the establishment of such a foreign policy precedent that focuses on promoting gender equality, both at home and abroad. While this bold new policy framework was met with much enthusiasm and deemed as promising from feminists across the world, Sweden’s track record has been a mixed bag. With more and more countries adopting a feminist foreign policy, it is worth taking a minute to look back and see how Sweden has fared and whether its commitments have translated well from paper to reality.
Launched with the foundation of promoting the three ‘Rs’, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy focuses on:
i) Rights – promoting women’s rights issues on the global stage and fighting gender-based violence and discrimination
ii) Representation – Increasing women’s participation in all levels of decision-making across all sectors
iii) Resources – allocating resources equitably between men and women for government projects
The bulk of Sweden’s success stories are in its multilateral engagements, particularly during its membership with the United Nations Security Council from 2017-2018. It continuously pushed for including more women at the negotiation tables, called for gender parity to be compulsory during UN-backed peace talks, most notably in Yemen, and encouraged more informal talks in destabilized zones like Syria and Myanmar to ensure continuous public diplomacy between authorities on-ground civil-society representatives.
In terms of feminist foreign aid, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as of 2018, Sweden was the only country that allocated close to 90% of its financial aid to projects advancing gender equality. Sweden’s approach to aid was intersectional in that it did not just invest in projects that overtly focused on women’s empowerment but also addressed underlying structural problems affecting women and girls, such as access to clean water, through disaggregated data analysis. Additionally, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Sweden amped up funding for organizations that provide sexual and reproductive health services around the world. When former US president Donald Trump reintroduced the Global Gag Rule, Sweden refused to give any financial aid to any organizations that supported the anti-abortion rule, thus setting a strong precedent about their pro-choice feminist foreign policy. By using its status as an influential middle power and a norm-entrepreneur in terms of gender equality and feminism, Sweden also encouraged other countries such as the UK, Canada and Netherlands to follow suite.
Defense and Arms
The biggest areas of oversight in Sweden’s feminist foreign policy are with respect to its arms exports to authoritarian regimes with massive human rights violations, such as Saudi Arabia. What is ironic about this is that, while Sweden pushed for gender equality during UN-sponsored ceasefire talks with Yemen, it was indirectly exacerbating the violence by exporting arms to Saudi Arabia and supporting its military operations in Yemen. While its action plan for 2017 explicitly stated that the Swedish government would mainstream a gender perspective on disarmament, the Swedish military equipment agency claimed that it had not received any instructions regarding any feminist revamping. Moreover, in 2015, Sweden was caught in a diplomatic row when Margot Wallström, the then Foreign Minister, described Saudi Arabia as a “dictatorship that suppresses women’s rights”. Although relations were sour for a while, eventually Sweden signed a new arms deal and it was reported that human rights and feminist foreign policy were not even mentioned as a part of the agenda during the meetings. Ultimately, while Sweden continues to parade its feminist foreign policies, it has been criticized for being a mere smokescreen to cover the unsavory and business-as-usual’ happenings.
In December 2020, the parliament approved a bill that would increase its military budget by a whopping 40% over the next four years, in response to an incursion by Russia’s warships. Sweden shepherds a feminist foreign policy and preaches about the need to advance the Women, Peace and Security agenda at the Security Council, hypocritically, ramping up defense spending at the same time. This expands the military-industrial complex, which “reinforces an old-fashioned vision of security wedded to amassing arms and marshalling troops”. Militarism is inherently an anathema to feminist foreign policy, not only in that military weapons are destructive and violent but also in that military policy sustains neoliberal and patriarchal hegemonies that are run by male business and state leaders with profiteering ideals. (In 2015, when Wallström signalled her intention to stop the export of arms, she was met with heavy resistance from a powerful lobby of Swedish, European Union and Saudi businessmen whose businesses would be threatened). Sweden discounting gross violence, bloodshed and human rights violations caused by the global arms trade makes it no different from other Western neoliberal states whose realist, state-centric masculine-coded foreign policies are heavily influenced by militarism and national security.
Sweden’s idea of a feminist defense policy is one riddled with gaping holes and tokenistic add-women-and-stir approaches. One such example is deliberate effort to encourage more women to join the military as policymakers, strategizers, troops and leaders, with the goal of ensuring the make-up of troops in 2025 be 30% female. Instead of tackling excessive militarization or addressing the root causes of conflict and wars, Sweden instead succumbed into “making wars safer for women” by including them as participants instead of preventing them altogether. Sweden’s hypocrisy in this sense was in full display during its tenure at the Security Council, where it did not address neither disarmament nor non-proliferation as a means to conflict prevention or as a cause for women’s insecurity, in spite of mentions of the commitment to a gendered perspective on disarmament and weapons control.
Sweden’s migration and asylum policy has also come under criticism for its adverse harmful effects on women and children migrants in particular. Even though in 2017, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy Action Plan committed to “strengthening the human rights for women and girls who are refugees and migrants” as a prioritized area, in 2016, the asylum legislation made family reunification an extremely arduous process for asylum-seekers. With tightened borders and harsh immigration policy, the Swedish government’s actions disproportionately affected women and girls as they would be left in state of statelessness, waiting at refugee camps or detention centers or left behind in conflict areas. In all of these cases, there is not just a risk of overt violence but structural violence too in the form trafficking, going directly against the priorities laid out in the action plan, i.e “women’s human rights and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence”.
In terms of representation and resources, Sweden has a few success stories to share. Whether its action plans to reach gender parity at home or encourage the inclusion of women at negotiation tables abroad at international forums, Sweden extends its role as a champion of gender equality. In terms of resources, Sweden has made firm commitments to invest in projects that promote gender quality, directly or indirectly and has allocated the bulk of its foreign aid for the same. However, it is in terms of human rights and women’s rights that Sweden falters. The underlying issue is that Sweden continues to engage with feminist foreign policy in extant policy and legal frameworks which are under patriarchal and militarized structures. Whether it’s through increasing representation of women in the military or calling for more women in peacebuilding processes, Sweden is only extending the current limited understanding of “feminist” approaches to foreign policy instead of challenging contemporary and traditional conceptions of security and defense.
What Sweden pioneered seven years ago was bold and radical. But seven years on, it’s more of the same, even though the need for structural overhaul is more urgent now than ever.