In an age of Trump, Putin and Erdogan, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström stands tall in her ambitious beliefs. Since assuming her role in 2014, Wallström has advocated a foreign policy she describes, and has largely been accepted, as ‘feminist.’
This take, oozed in idealism, is a perspective that intends to accentuate the role that women have in ensuring peace and security. The empowering position that the foreign minister takes is grounded in the belief that equality between women and men must be fought alongside human rights efforts. Indeed, the notion that gender equality is still a vision and not a reality has been taken in full stride by Wallström who is set to switch that concept on it’s head. Whilst gender equality is a goal in itself, it is now too declared by the Government Offices in Sweden as a fundamental aim of Swedish foreign policy. In fact, not only is equality declared to be an obligation, but a prerequisite for reaching Sweden’s broader goals on peace, security and sustainable development. This stance is supported by a growing body of evidence that suggests supporting women’s rights leads to more security. Indeed, countries where women are empowered are shown to be vastly more secure in the sense of both resolving disputes with other nations peacefully and countering violent extremism.
In an era of hard power, Wallström’s distinctive brand of Nordic idealism has drawn worldwide attention, not least for it’s uniqueness but for its considerable success. The feminist foreign policy efforts ranged from contributing to some 20 countries drawing up laws to strengthen gender equality, to some 90 local communities abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation, to hundreds of thousands of women and girls avoiding unsafe abortions and to 65 countries and organisations making commitments to combat gender-based violence. The doctrine has certainly earned accolades. Only behind Germany, Sweden was declared in 2015 to have the second largest influence shaping European foreign policy in 2015.
Moreover, the bold stance on feminism stands in stark contrast to the machoism portrayed by leaders such as Trump and Putin. Both men, who surround themselves with generals to project an image of military might, adopt positions of ‘toughness.’ Indeed, Trump’s border wall, frank support for torture and immigration raids whilst largely archaic, are also markedly fuelled by fear. In contrast, what takes real courage is the ability to move away from this dominant thinking and embrace a different view of how security should be implemented. As Wallström said, ‘it’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy.’
However, the bold agenda has also earned itself notoriety. After vehemently criticizing the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, Wallström wrought a diplomatic crisis. Indeed, on 9 March 2015, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden after it declared that Wallström’s comments made in parliament were considered ‘unacceptable interference.’ Yet, due to this diplomatic quarrel and Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region, the Swedish foreign minister was also condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes fifty-seven countries. Sweden’s progressive foreign policy and the harsh realities that exist have also led to friction with Turkey. In order to limit the flow of refugees into Europe, Brussels and Ankara struck a deal in which Turkey would increase intake to reduce the encumbrance on it’s European neighbors. However, with the deteriorating human rights conditions in Turkey, Wallström has remained adamant that without improvement, Turkey will be barred from one day joining the EU, a decision capable of hindering their refugee agreement.
Domestically, Wallström isn’t free from detractors either. The government’s recent removal of plans to introduce quotas for the number of women on boards has been faced with much condemnation. There have been fervent complaints that the governments desire to improve gender equality globally is neglecting the need for change within it’s own borders. Issues such as sexist advertising remain a key concern. This is especially so considering that Sweden is the only Nordic country not to have legislation on sexist ads, despite pre-election promises.
However, with the rise of conservative movements in many Western countries, perhaps high expectations that aren’t yet met are better than none at all. Indeed, by applying this broader and more systematic approach, feminist foreign policy has a greater potential to strengthen the rights and representation of women globally. Whilst to some such a feminist agenda on international policy may seem naïve, to others it is both urgent and necessary. Either way, the time has come for gender equality. Whilst much work is yet to be done, Margot Wallström stands tall in the global arena as she takes a decisive step forward.