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This interview is with Margot Wallström, former minister for foreign affairs of Sweden. In 2014, Wallström made headlines around the world as Sweden became the first country in the world to formally adopt a “feminist foreign policy.” On October 1, 2019, Wallström spoke about feminist foreign policy at a CFR roundtable. Listen to the full conversation here.
Alexandra Bro, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program, contributed to the development of this piece.
Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is structured around three Rs: Rights, Representation, and Resources. Why did you choose these three Rs?
I created parameters that our embassies and diplomatic representation could use. First, it has to do with rights. Check whether women have the same legal and human rights in every country. What about child marriages? What about their rights to open a bank account or start a business or their economic rights? Secondly, are they around the table? Do they have a seat around the table where the most important decisions are being made? What about political representation, and how can we help improve that? And, thirdly, it has to do with resources. What does the statistics and facts tell us? Does the country have a gender budgeting? Do we know how resources are distributed? Do they meet the needs of girls and women?
To me, it is very practical. That is how you change the world—by being very, very practical. I refuse to get involved in all of those theoretical discussions about definitions. I really think it must be a practical tool. And that’s why I would say that in combination with a fourth R—reality check—I think these Rs still work after these four years, and that they have been useful parameters and tools for all our embassies. It is not mysterious and you do not have to change everybody’s attitude first, but you rather have to be very hands-on.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in implementing and pursuing a feminist foreign policy in your country?
I, of course, understood that if you choose to call it a feminist foreign policy, feminism has a negative connotation in some countries and an interpretation that is often twisted in a negative way. Therefore, I knew that I would have to start to explain what we mean by this. So it was important to decide, early on, how to address that and how we work on this through our embassies and diplomatic representations. We have to engage in dialogue and debate, and we have to find very practical means to work on an issue like this.
I also understood early on that if I am to make sure that this makes a difference around the world, we have to use our diplomatic representation around the world. And, there were those that thought that this was a rather provocative rubric, to say it is a feminist foreign policy. They were a bit hesitant. But I also found that, very soon, this became something that engaged all of our embassies and all our diplomats in a rather amazing way, because they could see the needs, and they started to ask different questions.
Have you seen any effects of the feminist foreign policy in your diplomatic engagements with other countries and in international forums?
Sweden served as a non-permanent member in the UN Security Council, and we wanted to make sure that in every resolution and written statement from the Security Council, women’s participation was mentioned. Sweden’s Ambassador to the United Nations Olof Skoog said: You know, I was always the one raising my hand asking where the women are. Are they mentioned in resolutions? Are they there as peacekeepers? Are they around the table? In the end, I questioned whether it was really getting the result we wanted, and whether I had to nag on about this all the time. But then, the whole Security Council traveled to Mali, and when they got to Mali, women came up to Olof and said: Thank you very much, because without that formulation in the resolution, we would not have been at the table here. We would not have had a seat. So it is important to advocate for these issues in the Security Council to make sure that there are gender advisors, that violence against women is looked at, and that sexual violence is mentioned in the resolutions. If women do not ask for that, it is not given. In fact, it will not even be looked at or mentioned in resolutions or in reports. So we just have to make sure that this comes naturally. Now other countries also ask the question: Where are the women? I think we are slowly moving in the right direction.
We also see this in our diplomatic engagement with Russia. If you have a clear policy like this, then they know what to expect, and they know what I will ask. When we meet, they know exactly what points I will raise with them. And often they are prepared, of course, with a response. But it means that we can open up to a dialogue on the difficult questions as well.
Last year, Canada launched a feminist international assistance policy, and earlier this year, France proclaimed the adoption of a feminist foreign policy. What are the fundamental building blocks that you would like to see in any government’s articulation of a feminist foreign policy?
I think it is easier for many countries to start with development policy. And we can see that that is necessary to save women’s and children’s lives. And women play an important role when it comes to development projects. So that is not controversial. I have not had time to follow exactly how it is being carried out in other countries, but I hope that this serves as an inspiration. I think every country has to choose their own priorities, their own way forward, and not forget that this is about peace and security. It is not a women’s issue; it is really about peace, security, and development. Without women, we cannot have peace, nor security, nor any more development.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm in response to your statements about a public flogging of a blogger. There was a cancellation of a military agreement between Sweden and Saudi Arabia and leaders of prominent businesses in Sweden signed a letter that objected to these events, warning that this new policy would ruin Sweden’s reputation as a trading partner. Is it inevitable that the pursuit of a feminist foreign policy, from time to time, will come into conflict with other national security interests, and how do you weigh these competing priorities?
As a political leader, I think you have to be courageous but also patient—and I tell young diplomats this when they come to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Sometimes change will take time, but they have to be courageous. If you only do things that nobody will ever criticize or have other opinions about, then I do not think you are doing any good, and I do not think you should be a leader. You have to stick your neck out and do what you think is right. Of course, you will be criticized; you just have to make sure that you can keep a dialogue open, and that we can sometimes agree to disagree, but continue to talk.
I was a rather lonely voice. And I got criticized by some not-so-courageous business leaders. Actually, nothing happened. Nothing negative happened to these companies that they threatened about. I think, on the contrary, that many of the Swedish companies who are serious and want to invest in countries—including countries that we disagree with on policies or laws—will always say that it is easier for us to invest in a country that respects human rights, or where we can trust the respect for the law. I think we have sorted it out, and I actually visited Saudi Arabia just a few weeks ago. And we can respect each other, but you have to stand your ground. Respect for human rights is so important these days. But that’s what happened.