An introduction to Swedish feminist foreign policy

Swedish foreign policy has long been engaged in issues relating to gender. This was cemented in 2014 by the launch of its Feminist Foreign Policy which has been heralded as ground-breaking and the most comprehensive of its kind. It allows for a systematic mainstreaming of gender throughout the whole Foreign Ministry and in all aspects of foreign policy, along with an increased emphasis on concrete results. The Swedish government has however been criticized for, for example, hypocrisy as they continue to be involved in arms trading.

The cover of the official handbook to Sweden's feminist foreign policy, published by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019.
The cover of the official handbook to Sweden's feminist foreign policy, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2019.

In 2014, the then Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström launched the Feminist Foreign Policy (feministisk utrikespolitik, or 'FUP' for short). Even prior to this, at least from 1996, Swedish foreign policy had specifically prioritized gender equality. This was partly because of the strong standing of gender equality in Sweden. This stance within foreign policy was strengthened by the UN Security Council’s resolution 1325 ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS). Sweden was not alone fronting these issues. Other Nordic countries, for example, have also been front runners. Elsewhere, Hilary Clinton emphasized women’s rights and participation as a key strategic issue, and British foreign minister William Hague put forth women’s power as a key strategic goal.

In 2014 there was a shift in Swedish foreign policy, with the declaration of it being explicitly feminist. A systematic gender equality perspective was to permeate all aspects of the foreign policy agenda, including not only traditional areas such as development, but also security policy.

The Swedish FUP is presented as both a perspective and a working method. As its starting point, it takes three ‘Rs’:

  • Rights
  • Representation
  • Resources

FUP strives to strengthen these Rs for women and girls. These three Rs are all based on a forth R: Reality, referring to the reality that the women live in. Margot Wallström said in an interview:

“It’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy. I think feminism is a good term. It is about standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.” (aritcle in The New Yorker, 'Who’s Afraid of a Feminist Foreign Policy?' By Jenny Nordberg, April 15, 2015).

the strongest voice for gender equality and full employment of human rights for all women and girls

The then newly formed coalition government proclaimed themselves the world’s first self-defined feminist government. With this self-definition and the feminist foreign policy, they sought to become the strongest voice for women's and girls' rights and gender equality. The reactions were mixed. Even inside the ministry, it was considered to be rather challenging, leaving some of Wallström’s colleagues “gasping for air” (as she put it in an interview). Externally, some applauded the stance; others criticized it. The most common reaction was related to how FUP was going to look in practice. Additionally, some commentators queried the seriousness of fighting real security threats with feminism.

Branding gender

In October 2018, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) launched their handbook in Sweden’s feminist foreign policy – a 111-page document, detailing the FUP and giving examples of activities. The handbook describes the first four years of working with the new policy, providing both methods and experiences that aim to inspire both the Swedish MFA and others. The handbook is thereby introduced as responding to considerable national and international interest in this policy. It clearly brands Sweden and its role in the world; the Swedish FUP is explicitly tied to the Swedish ‘brand’ and gender equality is an important part of this image. In the handbook, the EU is mentioned 38 times, Nordic is mention seven times, Iceland, Norway and Denmark are each mentioned once (the two first as countries which have also ratified similar provisions to the Swedish Sex Purchase Act; the latter as partaking in the ‘She Decides’ campaign). Being strong on gender equality is, however, specifically linked to Sweden throughout the handbook rather than any other country, such as is shown by the following feedback on FUP from Swedish embassies listed in the handbook (pages 50 and 51): 

  • “the policy has strengthened Sweden’s position as a champion of gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights.”
  • “The country’s brand has become even clearer and stronger: ’Sweden is clearly wearing the yellow jersey'.”
  • "…having a feminist foreign policy clearly marks us out. With it, we demonstrate an ability to see bigger contexts, with political courage and a desire to lead.”
  • “The feminist foreign policy has also contributed to Sweden being even more clearly seen as ‘the country of gender equality.’"

The importance of Sweden’s role in the world is made clear, as is the moral responsibility taken on by Sweden of being a norm provider in the area of feminism.        

The normative agenda for gender

The need to bring about change is at the core of FUP, both in terms of operational and normative work in order to create the conditions for girls and women to be given space, be heard, and realize their visions. In the Foreign Ministry's action plan for FUP 2019 to 2022, the moral responsibility Sweden takes on is plainly laid out where it is made clear that, as long as global gender inequality remains, Sweden will continue to pursue its feminist foreign policy – “with full force, throughout the world” (p. 1).

Swedish diplomats differentiate actively between issues that are normatively established or not. For example, many countries take a very different position from Sweden on women’s reproductive and sexual rights, gender equality and climate, so topics such as these are focused on with respect to trying to establish alternative norms. The Women, Peace and Security agenda on the other hand, for example, is much more normatively established, but needs extensive operational efforts.

This normative reorientation of foreign policy has been cited by, for example, Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond (in an article from 2016, called "Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy in the Making: Ethics, Politics, and Gender") as one of the aspects that make the FUP distinct. Foreign policy has now shifted to being “guided by an ethically informed framework based on broad cosmopolitan norms of global justice and peace” (p.323). This focus on norm-creation is dubbed “normative entrepreneurship”. While driven by broadly accepted norms of global justice and peace, its focus on steering global developments to be more gender-sensitive is distinct.

Picture of Wallström she held the position of UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and had advocated for the rights of women in the UN.

“Is Wallström going to defend Sweden by lecturing Putin on feminism or what?” A Tweet originally in Swedish quoted in a 2016 paper posted as a response to the new foreign policy (author’s translation). Wallström has held the position of UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and had advocated for the rights of women in the UN. Photo: UN Photos

Has the FUP made any difference?

The question many have asked is whether the FUP brings about more substantial change compared to previous initiatives on gender that the Swedes have had, particularly as it has been emphasized that FUP came with raised ambitions. Some commentators (such as Egnell (2016)) have pointed to the fact that the feminist attitude has been relatively continuous in Swedish foreign policy, and that the big difference under the feminist governments (2014-2018; 2019-2023) has been the ways and methods that are used to reach the goal of gender equality and women’s rights. For example, now the focus is on the need for methodological and systematic work to push this agenda forward. Staff at the ministry have been trained on issues of gender equality through, for example, lectures by experts and reading lists. Incorporating gender into all areas of the ministry’s portfolio is challenging, and activities for mainstreaming have been extensive.

A gender-sensitive lens

The FUP has a dual goal: gender equality and a rights perspective are essential goals in themselves, but they are also viewed as crucial for achieving other foreign policy goals, including security and development. This strengthens the relevance of FUP, as the gender aspect is relevant to all areas of policy, and can thus not be side-lined or isolated. That said, some commentators have pointed out that the most novel thing about FUP is not the specific programs and initiatives, but rather the changed perspective that potentially could contribute to seeing security in a new light. Thus, gender equality offers a new angle – or 'gender-sensitive lens' through which one can see the world.

On the other hand, a key aspect of FUP is an increased focus on concrete results. For example, in their period on the UN Security Council from 2017-2018, Sweden worked to strengthen women’s influence through different measures including a resolution that sexual and gender-based violence could be grounds for sanctions; women’s rights defenders from Somalia and Nigeria were invited to speak to the council; and the key topic of the Swedish membership was gender equality and Women, Peace and Security. The seat has been seen as a unique opportunity to implement FUP.

Other countries following suit

The front cover of a Swedish rapport on feminist trade policy

There is nothing to indicate that the other Nordic countries will follow suit and declare an explicitly feminist foreign policy. It has been argued that Norway is as feminist or ‘female-friendly’ as Sweden when it comes to normative, political and financial investments and priorities, but its foreign policy has not been labelled feminist in the same way that Sweden’s has. Denmark, Finland and Iceland also score highly on being ’female-friendly’ states, but have also not labelled their policies as feminist (though, there are rumors that Iceland may take on a feminist foreign policy, if not under that name.) Other countries have however followed suit, namely, Canada and France. The Swedish approach remains the most comprehensive of these extending as it does to all areas of foreign policy. Where many foreign policies have gender as only one of their focus areas, few have taken the stance of mainstreaming gender throughout the organization, asking repeatedly, like Sweden does, in all spheres of foreign policy – from development to security – “where are the women?”

PICTURE: One of the distinct aspects of the Swedish feminist foreign policy is that it has been mainstreamed throughout the organization, like this report trade policy. Photo: Government Offices of Sweden.

Criticism of FUP

While recognizing FUP as a world-first in many ways, it has not been without criticism. The feminist foreign policies can be perceived as neo-colonialism in disguise, without giving due credence to the perspectives of those on the receiving end. This criticism is said to be especially relevant for development assistance. Intersectionality is often overlooked, and women particularly in marginalized positions have often “not been included in the discourse that developed and shaped policies about them. While well-intentioned, such approaches can perpetuate, rather than dismantle, inequalities and systems of oppression.” (in the words of Thompson and Clement, from the 2019 article "Defining Feminist Foreign Policy", p.2).

The second criticism concerns the arms trade. On the one hand, Sweden is working to improve women’s influence and participation in peace- and state-building, and to secure the rights of women and girls. On the other hand, Sweden continues to export arms to regions and conflicts with atrocious human rights records, with extensive consequences to women and girls.

Further reading: