Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, Long May It Reign

Stockholm should continue actively pursuing a foreign-policy agenda focused on gender equality. And the world should follow.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks before the U.N. Security Council meeting on understanding and addressing climate-related security risks in New York on July 11, 2018. (Luiz Rampelotto/Sipa via AP)
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom speaks before the U.N. Security Council meeting on understanding and addressing climate-related security risks in New York on July 11, 2018. (Luiz Rampelotto/Sipa via AP)

On Jan. 18, the Swedish parliament confirmed Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to a second term. It wasn’t an easy return to office for the incumbent: It came after four months of political deadlock—the longest impasse in Sweden’s history. As his new government outlines its political agenda for the next four years, Lofven should ensure that one of Sweden’s most contentious governing strategies remains firmly in place: its feminist foreign policy.

In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to publicly adopt what it explicitly called “a feminist foreign policy,” putting the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights at the center of its diplomatic agenda. This policy consists of three laudable R’s: rights, meaning the promotion of women’s issues, including by countering gender-based violence and discrimination; representation, including support for women’s participation at all levels of decision-making, from parliament to private sector boards to the legal system; and resources, to ensure equitable allocation among people of all genders, whether in government budgets or development projects.

While the policy builds on Sweden’s long history of multiparty support for gender equality, the government’s explicit adoption of the word “feminist” to describe its policy approach was a significant—and arguably radical—new direction for the ministry, one that initially was met with skepticism even within the Swedish diplomatic corps. Describing what a feminist foreign policy would look like, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom explained in an interview with the New Yorker in March 2015 that it meant “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.”

But Wallstrom’s announcement of a feminist foreign policy was not simply rhetorical—it was also strategic. The government recognized that gender equality is critical to Sweden’s broader foreign-policy objectives, including economic development, prosperity, and security. There is a growing body of research at the Council on Foreign Relations, the United Nations, academic journals, and military publications demonstrating a relationship between women’s inclusion and stability. A 2015 study by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies found when women participate in peace processes, agreements are more likely to last—and to be forged in the first place. Improving women’s status is also imperative to economic growth. In a separate 2015 study, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economic research arm of McKinsey & Company, calculated the potential benefit of closing gender gaps in the workforce at a staggering $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025—as well as an estimated 19 percent growth rate in Sweden alone—if women simply participated at the same rate as men.

A feminist foreign policy may have been a radical move in 2015—and Sweden remains the only country to explicitly proclaim and detail a feminist foreign policy—but the country is no longer alone in its bold approach. Leaders in many countries—from Canada to Australia—now have taken steps to integrate a focus on gender equality and women’s rights into their international work. To date, 79 nations have adopted national action plans to elevate the role of women in peace and security processes. Several countries—including Australia, Finland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have also created ambassador-level envoy positions for global women’s issues to elevate the role of gender equality in foreign policy. Australia and France have created explicit gender equality and women’s empowerment strategies to guide their foreign aid programs. And, last year, Canada launched the first feminist international assistance policy, pledging to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls through its foreign aid, with the understanding that doing so “is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world.”

To be sure, these feminist foreign-policy approaches have not been immune to their fair share of critique. In Sweden, for example, some scholars and activists on the left have panned the government for hypocrisy and failure to live up to its feminist principles and ambitions. In a 2017 report from the umbrella advocacy group Concord, Swedish civil society organizations highlighted areas where the former government contradicted its feminist foreign-policy goals, including its arms exports to authoritarian regimes with records of human rights abuses and its temporary suspension of the right to family reunification for refugees. And in the United States, the Trump administration has been criticized for leaving the position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues open for two years, effectively deprioritizing gender equality under U.S. foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the potential positive outcomes for wider adoption of feminist foreign-policy strategies are significant—and important changes are already underway. During its membership in the U.N. Security Council, for example, Sweden insisted on women’s participation in critical Security Council debates, increasing the number of civil society representatives and eventually ensuring gender parity among those providing input. In Canada, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stood by her call for the release of two women’s rights activists who remain detained by the Saudi government, even after Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh. Although the women remain in prison, the Justin Trudeau government has continued to speak out on women’s rights in the kingdom, recently granting asylum to another Saudi woman fleeing her abusive family. And in 2018, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office allocated significant funding to its efforts to prevent conflict-related sexual violence, an issue that is critical to women around the world.

The true test of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and other national efforts will only be answered with further implementation and evaluation, which will require consistent and sustained support. As the next government in Stockholm grapples with negotiations over its new agenda, it should sustain the country’s commitment to advancing gender equality through foreign policy. Doing so will not only strengthen Sweden’s foreign policy but also serve as a model for other countries on how to avoid overlooking the talents and contributions of 50 percent of the population. Even nations like the United States—which is unlikely to adopt an explicitly “feminist” foreign policy under an administration that has overseen retrenchment on women’s rights—are enacting laws to strengthen and enact legislation to ensure that foreign and national security policies incorporate a gender perspective. After decades of exclusion, it is long past time to find out what we stand to gain when women are at the center of international affairs.

Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Alexandra Bro is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations