by Chloé Baumes
When President Trump reinstated the so-called anti-abortion “Global Gag Rule” two days after taking office in January 2017, it did not take long for some countries to take the opposite stance. The Netherlands launched the “She Decides” initiative just one day after Trump’s decision to withdraw federal funding to any institution performing or promoting abortion, including domestic and international NGOs. “She Decides” is a funding campaign intended to compensate organizations affected by this rule. Sweden quickly joined the initiative but also went one step further. The Scandinavian country announced that it would freeze aid to organizations that followed Trump’s order. After a year of implementation, this legislation and the reactions it sparked give us a glimpse of what a “feminist foreign policy” — or its opposite — could look like.
In October 2014, when Margot Wallström was appointed foreign minister of Sweden, she declared that she would implement a “feminist foreign policy.” Before her, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served from 2009 to 2013, had claimed to give particular attention to women’s issues in her foreign policy. So did her counterpart William Hague in the UK from 2010 to 2014. But Wallström was the first diplomat to officially coin the term “feminist foreign policy,” revealing a comprehensive approach going beyond a single-issue focus on women’s rights to a more systemic change in the practice of foreign policy.
She aims to incorporate a gender perspective in every aspect of her policy, and to take feminism — understood as the emancipation and empowerment of women — as its structuring principle. The Swedish government’s website lays out her framework, stating that:
“Ensuring that women and girls can enjoy their fundamental human rights is both an obligation within the framework of our international commitments, and a prerequisite for reaching Sweden’s broader foreign policy goals on peace, and security and sustainable development”
Take what happens with peace processes. Often only government representatives and members of armed groups — that is, the warring parties — are represented in peace talks. These actors are almost always men, with women largely excluded from official discussions. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), between 1990 and 2017 only five percent of peace agreement signatories and eight percent of negotiators in peace processes were women.
Yet studies have shown that the participation of women is instrumental in bringing about lasting peace. The same CFR report shows that agreements are 64 percent less likely to fail, and 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years when women have participated in the discussions, either as witnesses, mediators, or negotiators. It is an important fact to keep in mind when almost half of all peace agreements fail within five years. As a consequence, the promotion of women as mediators in peace processes is part of the agenda of the Swedish foreign minister, aimed at achieving the broader foreign policy goal of sustainable peace.
Linking the inclusion of women and conflict resolution, peacebuilding is also why Wallström reaffirmed her country’s commitment to the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda when Sweden held the UN Security Presidency in January 2017. Sweden notably pushed for a Security Council presidential statement that stressed the importance of women’s inclusion in mediation efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was also at Sweden’s initiative that a different list of criteria for gender-based violence was added to the sanctions regime for the Central African Republic.
Sidebar: The “Women, Peace and Security” Agenda
The “Women, Peace and Security” agenda has its origins in the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 adopted in 2000. Advanced by women’s peace groups from around the world, the resolution recognizes that women and girls are uniquely and disproportionately affected by armed conflict; acknowledges women’s important role in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding; and urges countries to increase the participation of women in decision-making related to war and peace. To implement the agenda, many countries — 73 as of March 2018 — have adopted so-called “National Action Plans.” Sweden is among them.
A “feminist foreign policy” takes into account the fact that the repercussions of foreign policy decisions are gendered. To give an example: After 1991, international sanctions against Iraq disproportionately impacted women, who were more likely to work in the public sector than their male counterparts. More recently, in Ukraine, most NGOs focusing on internally displaced persons (IDPs) have failed to take into account the specific needs of women and girls, who have faced higher risks of sexual and gender-based violence.
Gender mainstreaming, which the Economic and Social Council of the UN defines as “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action,” is also central to Swedish foreign policy.
The involvement of feminist movements in the state, however, risks overemphasizing the experiences of dominant (i.e., upper-middle class, white, able-bodied) women. A feminist foreign policy should not portray women as a unified group, which would inevitably lead to the exclusion of some women’s experience. The need for an intersectional analysis and practice, which takes into account other systems of domination such as classism or racism, is central to the inclusion of all women and marginalized groups. This thinking also avoids the instrumentalization of women’s rights rhetoric to serve other covert agendas, as was the case with the war in Afghanistan in 2001. At the time, US President George W. Bush notably justified the intervention by mobilizing a discourse around the defense of Afghan women against the Taliban regime. In fact, the resulting intervention had a detrimental effect on the local population, including women. Moreover, many feminist thinkers have noted an inherent hypocrisy in the Bush doctrine, which did not also advance women’s rights in the United States’ domestic policy.
It is unsurprising that in a world still dominated by supporters of realpolitik, Wallström‘s approach to foreign policy has sometimes been met with skepticism. When she voiced criticism against the treatment of women and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2015, the Saudis forced her to postpone her speech to the Arab League, and Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Stockholm.
Even if at the time Sweden refused to renew a defense memorandum meant to enable the Saudis to create their own arms industry with the help of Swedish companies, the Scandinavian country still remains one of the largest arms exporters worldwide. As much as Wallström wants her foreign policy to be feminist, she has failed to address the military-industrial complex in her own country. In fact, Sweden increased its military budget for 2018.
Nevertheless, Wallström has made some courageous decisions, including the recognition of the Palestinian state after taking office. She is the very antithesis of President Trump indeed. If her style has at times been qualified as “splendidly undiplomatic,” some argue, as does the IR scholar Jacqui True, that a “feminist foreign policy must be undiplomatic if it is to be transformative.” ♦