Realism, cynicism, idealism – how has Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy played out in the EU arena?

Margot Wallström, the Swedish Foreign Minister who stepped down in September, is proud of her feminist legacy on the country’s foreign policy. At the EU-level, the policy’s concrete effects remain modest, and sceptics may argue the policy initiative was all hot air. But the power of example should not be overlooked.

‘It has become a concept that others have started using. Going from some people perhaps having sniggered at it initially, it has now become a serious question.’ When Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström on September 6th 2019 announced her resignation for the benefit of spending time with her family, she had no doubts as to the greatest achievements of her five-year tenure in two consecutive cabinets. The inception of ‘feminist foreign policy’ in 2014 was certainly one of them.
The Government of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven defined feminist foreign policy as applying a systematic gender equality perspective throughout foreign policy, whereby ‘gender equality is an objective in itself, but it is also essential for achieving the Government’s other overall objectives, such as peace, security and sustainable development’. Wallström, who is an ex-European Commissioner of both Commissions of José Manuel Barroso, projected at the time that one of the main arenas where the policy would be promoted would be the European Union. Since then however, the motives and accomplishments of feminist foreign policy have been assessed and criticised in various ways, but the European perspective has seemingly been all but forgotten.

Much talk, little action?

The overall concrete effects of feminist foreign policy remain ambiguous today. There is some agreement about the significance of the changes in the internal organisation, procedures and knowledgebase of the Foreign Ministry, entailing a new approach to and an increased focus on human security in the entire organisation. There have been new practical measures for strengthening women’s representation and participation in conflict mediation, and the Swedish Defence Forces have, interestingly, taken on an important gender focus. Meanwhile, weapon exports to dictatorial regimes have pitted feminism against realpolitik, to the defeat of the former.
In the European context, Wallström’s initial idea was to advocate EU as a peace project in the European neighbourhood. The policy has not appeared particularly effective in this regard. In the midst of crises such as the Greek bailout, the Ukraine conflict, the migrant influx, Brexit, climate change and rule of law challenges in member states, gender or equality issues have generally not been high on the agenda of either the Union as a whole or in the member states. However, this is not because gender approaches to the crises could not be envisaged or would not be available. Another observation concerns the recent endeavours of the EU to step up its hard power capabilities. Although such efforts do not need to be seen in contradiction with a feminist policy line, they do tend to focus foreign policy attention differently. None of the new defence projects seems to dedicate any outright interest to equality perspectives.
Does this mean that Sweden has been unable or unmotivated to advocate its policy at the EU-level? Aside from the general difficulty of any single member state to influence EU policy to a noticeable extent, the circumstances have surely been less than ideal for promoting equality issues. In addition to the many crises shaking the continent, there have been general tendencies across Europe towards the opposite of the Swedish position, ranging from populism to nationalism and from online hate speech against women to attempts at restricting abortion rights. In many EU member states, ‘feminist’ is a controversial enough term to be regarded as a provocation even by mainstream politicians and parties. Even countries considered socially progressive, such as Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, have in recent years had socially conservative governments hardly keen on openly flagging for feminism. On the other hand, the policy does seem to hold some appeal; exploratory research findings suggest that other EU member states are by and large in favour of it, although they have limited trust in it gaining wider following.
[bctt tweet=”Even countries considered socially progressive, such as Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, have in recent years had socially conservative governments hardly keen on openly flagging for feminism.”]

Hot air and publicity games

A more cynical analysis might question whether reaching concrete results within the EU was ever a main objective of feminist foreign policy. Feminist foreign policy garnered international attention, but possibly more thanks to the contentious term than to interest in policy content, let alone real policy performance. Commentators grumbled about publicity stunts of repackaging an old toolbox for marketing purposes. And certainly, regardless of its underlying motivations, the declaration of feminist foreign policy was an exquisite publicity and brand polishing manoeuvre. Sweden gained soft power points, adding to the country’s reputation as a moral leader that stands on the right side of history; it is noteworthy that Margot Wallström’s second great achievement as Foreign Minister was securing a seat for Sweden at the UN Security Council in 2017-2018. Among less progressive stakeholders, feminist foreign policy may not be to Sweden’s credit, yet it is likely that dissenting partners will ignore unpalatable labels as long as they see no increased meddling in their internal business. When ideology and other interests collide, as in the confrontation with Saudi Arabia, there appears to be ways to bypass ideology.
Speculations of this kind must have surfaced in Sweden’s fellow member states, and even inspired some progressive leaders; for instance, France announced in March 2019 that it would be initiating a feminist foreign policy. Outside of Europe, Canada declared a feminist international assistance policy and Australia a foreign policy gender strategy in 2017. However, the European Union as a whole might not benefit from outspoken idealism in the same way. As a big global actor, it has less leeway to be explicitly controversial, lest it appear as imperialistically imposing Western values. At the same time, the EU already holds a significant amount of soft power in the world, and a largely progressive and liberal reputation. Standing on the main stage of global politics, it needs less grand gestures to market its stature.

Idealism, real effort and the importance of words

Cynicism aside, though, Sweden has much to prove its real engagement with feminism. Few would question that, regardless of policy labels, Sweden is a leading actor in gender and equality issues in a global comparison. Feminist foreign policy may have been a conceptualisation of the Social Democratic-Green Party government coalition, but the gender profile was not conjured out of thin air. Normativity has been part of Swedish foreign policy since the end of the World War II, and gender has been an entrenched feature since at least the 1990s. The new policy was also not a bureaucratic or commercial project, but was backed up by heavyweight political gravitas. Foreign Minister Wallström, epitomising the policy, had for decades been among the most prominent and popular representatives of the Social Democratic Party, holding heavy portfolios as EU Commissioner and as United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Furthermore, the entire Löfven Government declared itself feminist. 
There is a genuinely idealistic tint in the Löfven Cabinet. And in this idealistic vein, it is possible that the most significant and courageous part of feminist foreign policy is the use of the term feminist as a denominator of foreign policy – a controversial ‘soft’ policy concept designating the highest and hardest sphere of politics. It marks unequivocally where Sweden stands and shows that the country is not afraid to speak up for its beliefs. It also proves that a daring idealistic policy can be credible if backed up persistent work and big-league political backing, something the Union and Sweden’s fellow member states could learn from. Feminist foreign policy may have made little perceptible difference in the European Union, but through setting an example, the policy defies accusations of futility.
TEXT Anna Savolainen
PICTURE Hans-Åke Rönnlund

The author has a Master’s degree in Social Science. Currently living in the United States and engaged with civil society. She has previously worked as private sector Analyst on issues concerning Nordic cooperation and EU Affairs.