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Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy Can’t Be Undone

Despite domestic setbacks, the movement will continue to shape foreign policy around the world.

By , a lecturing fellow at Duke University’s Center for International Development.
Protesters take part in a Women’s March in Stockholm.
Protesters take part in a Women’s March in Stockholm.
Protesters take part in a Women’s March in Stockholm on Jan. 21, 2017. PONTUS LUNDAHL/AFP via Getty Images

Sweden, once a pioneer of feminist foreign policy, is now the first to revoke it. Shortly after the country’s newly elected prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, announced his cabinet on Oct.18, his new foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, declared the policy’s reversal, saying, “Gender equality is a core value for Sweden and this government, but we will not conduct a feminist foreign policy.”

The reversal in Sweden is in some respects unsurprising. Gender politics often fluctuate with political transitions, and waves of progressive gender equality agendas have historically met barriers and reversals. What is surprising, however, is that the founding nation behind this movement is now at the helm of its attempted undoing.

Like the broader feminist movement, the feminist foreign-policy agenda is the subject of intense debate and cannot be prescriptive for every context; thus, there is no universal consensus as to what it entails. Despite this lack of cohesion, the agenda can broadly be understood as policies that focus a country’s international engagements on gender issues through rhetoric, diplomacy, and development aid, among other vehicles. Underlying this approach is the belief that issues of gender equality shape every dimension of global stability and prosperity, from ensuring that peace deals last to lifting up global economies to protecting global health and beyond.

Sweden, once a pioneer of feminist foreign policy, is now the first to revoke it. Shortly after the country’s newly elected prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, announced his cabinet on Oct.18, his new foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, declared the policy’s reversal, saying, “Gender equality is a core value for Sweden and this government, but we will not conduct a feminist foreign policy.”

The reversal in Sweden is in some respects unsurprising. Gender politics often fluctuate with political transitions, and waves of progressive gender equality agendas have historically met barriers and reversals. What is surprising, however, is that the founding nation behind this movement is now at the helm of its attempted undoing.

Like the broader feminist movement, the feminist foreign-policy agenda is the subject of intense debate and cannot be prescriptive for every context; thus, there is no universal consensus as to what it entails. Despite this lack of cohesion, the agenda can broadly be understood as policies that focus a country’s international engagements on gender issues through rhetoric, diplomacy, and development aid, among other vehicles. Underlying this approach is the belief that issues of gender equality shape every dimension of global stability and prosperity, from ensuring that peace deals last to lifting up global economies to protecting global health and beyond.

Sweden’s 2014 implementation of a feminist foreign-policy agenda under then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom aimed to put the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights at the center of its global activities. The policy consisted of three R’s: rights, representation, and resources, which directed funding and support toward enhancing women’s position, participation, and wider inclusion in society.

In practice, the adoption of this policy in Sweden led to a notable boost for the country’s aid spending on gender equality efforts abroad, increasing from $2 billion in 2016 to almost $2.7 billion in 2019. This spending helped Sweden finance a large and growing number of gender-focused international development programs and deliver gender-responsive humanitarian assistance to populations in need.

Beyond aid, the feminist foreign-policy agenda has also shaped Sweden’s approach to high-profile diplomatic negations. For example, it was seen as having influenced Wallstrom’s bold criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights in 2015, which ultimately contributed to the country’s decision to end a long-standing weapons deal with the Persian Gulf state. Under this framework, Sweden also led global initiatives on women’s rights—including when it introduced a resolution at the United Nations Security Council in 2017 to elevate sexual and gender-based violence as grounds for economic sanctions. The policy also led the Swedish government to increase the number of women serving as ambassadors to almost half of all positions.

Sweden’s experience has demonstrated that this approach is more than a rhetorical gesture, and it can meaningfully influence policy outcomes on the world stage. Yet even with its successes, the movement has faced continued criticism from supporters and skeptics alike, with some today calling for a “rethink.” Many have raised concerns about the agenda’s failure to match rhetoric to action and demand a precise vision as well as its lack of accountability to citizens and feminist groups. Others have criticized the movement for failing to incorporate adequately inclusive and intersectional approaches to feminism, suggesting the agenda is steeped in perceived cultural imperialism—although the introduction of Mexico’s feminist foreign policy has helped stunt critiques of the agenda as an export of the global north.

Still, others perceive the use of feminist terminology to be too radical, either because they do not agree with the term or more simply because they worry that the policy can inspire negative reactions or backlash in contexts where the term is not accepted, hampering the potential for programs and policies to take effect or harming intended beneficiaries.

Sweden’s reversal, however, is less a rebuke of the feminist foreign-policy movement’s goals or strategy than it is a reflection of the country’s current political dynamics, as right-wing politicians attempt to reclaim conservative authority on social and fiscal issues. In his recent announcement, Billstrom claimed the policy reversal was necessary “because labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content.” His point highlights clear schisms in Swedish politics whereby views of the feminist term have, at times, been perceived as too radical.

This shift is undoubtedly a blow to the movement, but it does not necessarily signal its undoing. Because Sweden’s new government has—at least in rhetoric—publicly claimed an interest in upholding policy supporting women’s rights, its hands may be tied when it comes to reversing many of its feminist policies in practice.

Take, for instance, foreign aid. Sweden has long been a leader not only in gender equality foreign assistance but also in foreign aid writ large, committing more than 1 percent of its gross national income (GNI) to these efforts since the mid-2000s. As a result of these commitments, Sweden was ranked the third most generous aid donor country among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in 2021.

Billstrom’s rebuke of the feminist foreign-policy agenda is swept up in concurrent efforts by the political right to cut Sweden’s aid spending. The new government has announced it aims to freeze its aid spending, reducing its long-standing 1 percent of GNI contributions to a projected 0.8 percent in 2023, which will inevitably lead to cuts in funding for global gender equality programs.

Yet because it promised to remain a leader for global gender equality, the new government must be careful to avoid making specific cuts to gender equality commitments that are not proportional to other reductions. Any shifts in aid spending for these programs could heighten criticisms that the government is hostile to women’s rights, risking backlash from voters.

The legacy of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy may also prompt attention from the new government to the optics of its mostly male leadership. Almost a decade after launching the agenda, women’s representation in global politics still hovers low, with women comprising just 21 percent of government ministers worldwide and only 26 percent of national parliamentarians. Facing public pressure, Sweden, among many countries, has boosted its investments in support for women’s political representation. Activists have urged the government to expand the government’s bureaucratic expertise in issues of political inclusion and for male leaders in particular to bring in greater women’s representation in their own cabinets and parties.

Partly as a product of this investment, Sweden’s new cabinet consists of 24 ministers—13 men and 11 women. Thus, the image of Sweden’s current male foreign minister slashing the country’s heralded former female foreign minister’s feminist project could create problems for the current administration, especially as the world’s attention is locked on the crowds of women and girls defying male authorities in Iran. The perception of this legacy under attack will then likely pressure Billstrom to avoid damaging optics and make the country’s female leadership even more visible in its global engagements on gender equality.

From spending to diplomacy to cabinet composition, the feminist foreign-policy agenda will continue to shape the government’s decision-making at home and abroad—whether Sweden’s leaders like it or not.

But the agenda’s ripple effects won’t stop there.

Sweden’s commitment to a feminist foreign policy in 2014 was met with fanfare from global gender equality advocates and sparked a wave of national commitments to this framework in Canada (2017), France (2019), Mexico (2020), Spain (2021), Luxembourg (2021), Germany (2021), and Chile (2022). Although their impacts are difficult to measure, these endorsements have resulted in a more gender-sensitive approach to the global COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery effort and in enhanced commitments from government to collect sex-disaggregated data to inform policymaking, among other measures.

Given that Sweden was a pioneer of the movement, it’s tempting to look at Sweden’s reversal as a test case for feminist foreign policy elsewhere. But Sweden’s setbacks could counterintuitively strengthen feminist agendas in other contexts. A study my team at the Overseas Development Institute conducted on women’s rights movements and norm changes indicates that perceived threats to gender equality in other countries can provide an anchoring effect for national women’s movements, which are motivated to double down and hold fast to progress in response. For example, the high-profile gang rape of a young girl in New Delhi in 2012 contributed to an explosion of national anti-violence against women campaigns working to maintain and expand existing protections in other countries. It’s possible, however, that Sweden’s changes could also inspire and empower backlash, thus indicating that the full effects of the move could depend on the relative strength of other movements in their national contexts.

Even facing challenges in certain settings, gender equality advocates across the board are broadly benefitting from an improving global consensus on women’s rights. In my research, I have explored how feminist principles are generally expanding over time. In my team’s study of attitudinal change in the World Values Surveys since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, we found that attitudes that men should hold power and not women have palpably dropped over recent decades. In the mid-1990s, 50 percent of people surveyed globally agreed that “men make better political leaders”—a share that has since fallen to 35 percent. Even in traditionally conservative societies, such as Kuwait, engagement with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has contributed to norm change as local discourse has gradually absorbed the language of preventing discrimination against women. Rising global solidarity on women’s issues—reflected, for example, in the Qatari foreign minister’s recent disappointment with the Taliban’s retrenchments of women’s rights in Afghanistan—also indicate growing rhetorical consensus on the importance of women’s rights.

Regardless of what happens in Sweden, the feminist foreign-policy movement is far from over. The elevation of feminist issues to the country’s highest-profile international engagements means that attempts to roll back its policies on women’s rights will inevitably meet attention and scrutiny. Traditionally, governments hostile to gender equality issues have been able to shift their approaches under the cover of wider budgetary and strategic changes, but the feminist foreign-policy agenda has forced these decisions into public view. So-called anti-feminist policies are no longer the status quo but rather an exposed choice.

Although the feminist foreign-policy agenda in Sweden can be reversed on paper, its legacy at home and abroad cannot be fully erased.

Rachel A. George is a lecturing fellow at Duke University’s Center for International Development. She previously served as a research fellow for gender equality and social inclusion at the Overseas Development Institute in London. She holds a bachelor’s in political science from Princeton University, a master’s in Middle East studies from Harvard University, and a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @Rageorge88

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