Three Years of Feminist Foreign Policy – What Difference Does It Make?

On the third of October 2014, Sweden made history. In a surprisingly sunny Stockholm, the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, proclaimed the first explicitly feminist foreign policy in the world. This subject was nothing new for the minister, who had recently served as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on sexual violence in conflicts, and few swedes were surprised by her statement that ”women, peace and security are themes I will act on” .

Since that day, Sweden has had several political successes in the international arena, amongst them hosting the recent EU top summit in Gothenburg, as well as its current membership in the UN Security Council. However, many fail to see where the difference between the new feminist agenda and what might be called “regular foreign policy” lies. Indeed the Swedish government has been criticized by parties from justify to right for not living up to the high standards they have set for themselves. With less than a year before the Swedish elections, the national media have demanded answers from Wallström, wondering – like some of their international colleagues – what the big deal is?

According to a report issued by the Swedish government, much of the feminist agenda has been carried out through aid; focusing on reproductive health, education of female mediators and everything in-between. Much effort has also been put in pushing for more progressive agendas in multilateral organisations – such as the UN and EU – where the Swedish delegations have made sure that women’s rights are a pervasive theme in new resolutions and programs. These actions might not be that controversial, yet the feminist foreign policy has proved to be one of the Swedish governments first major challenges.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia was far from impressed by the Swedish policy. Photo: / Wikimedia Commons

In march 2015, a weapon’s sales deal between Sweden and Saudi Arabia was abruptly cut due to the arab kingdom’s lack of respect for human, and especially women’s, rights. Just days after, Wallström called Saudi beheadings “medieval”. Relations froze to a standstill; king Salman re-called his ambassador home from Stockholm, and Wallström’s speech at the Arab League was cancelled at the last minute. What was seen as the first application of the feminist foreign policy in practice faced severe domestic criticism, from opposition parties and businesses alike, creating a diplomatic crisis for the Swedish government. This was only resolved after the Swedish king wrote a personal letter to his Saudi counterpart, considered by many in the middle east to be a formal apology.

After more than three years in office, Wallström now also addresses the inspirational effect the government’s approach has had, where Canada might be the most obvious example. On the ninth of June this year, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canadian Minister of International Development, launched the official “Feminist International Assistance Policy”. This policy bears much resemblance to the Swedish ‘original’ with its focus on different kinds of aid. A striking difference is however that the Canadian government has chosen to adopt “climate action” as one of their action areas, investing in – amongst other things – the inclusion of women in the adaption to climate change.

Canadian minister of international development, Marie-Claude Bibeau. Photo: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Flickr. This photo has been edited.

Such wording sounds well when announced, but it can also serve as an example of where a ‘feminist foreign policy’ – or other ambitious promises – clinches with reality. Canada’s high profile in climate issues was questioned after a speech by the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, where he claimed that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there”; a stance that, whether true or not, stands in stark contrast to the noble words of the foreign policy. Additionally, Canada – like another country previously mentioned – continues to sell arms to countries like Saudi Arabia. Contrary to perception, Sweden never actually stopped selling weapon’s equipment to the Saudi regime, and the so-called ‘crisis’ in 2015 only concerned one out of several contracts.

These are matters which have made the feminist foreign policy seem to many like nothing but a better wrapping on regular realpolitik. However, the Swedish policy has in fact lead to some concrete results. After US President Donald Trump signed the Mexico City Policy, prohibiting American aid to go to NGOs performing or promoting abortions, Sweden quickly increased its own aid aiming in this direction, and co-arranged a conference encouraging others to do the same. Such things might not attract the same attention as the Saudi affair, but has made a difference for thousands of people, particularly young women.

Perhaps it is impossible in the world of today to live up to the high expectations placed on an explicitly feminist policy, or perhaps politicians are just far too comfortable to do what is necessary, but one thing is certain: it is more than just cheap PR. Even so, just like so many times before, the national interest somehow seems to trump everything.

Theo Vareman

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