Karin Aggestam on Sweden's Feminist Foreign Policy

Sep 28, 2016

In 2015, the newly formed Swedish government not only declared that it was going to be a feminist government but its foreign minister, Margot Wallström, announced that it would be adopting a feminist foreign policy. What does this mean, both in theory and practice, and how are these policies working out? Lund University's Professor Aggestam explains.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello and welcome to another episode in our Ethics & International Affairs interview series, sponsored by the Carnegie Council.

My name is Adam Read-Brown and I'm the managing editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, which is now in its 30th year and is published by Cambridge University Press.

With me today is Professor Karin Aggestam, here to discuss some of the topics from her essay "Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy in the Making: Ethics, Politics, and Gender." This essay, which Professor Aggestam co-authored with her colleague Professor Annika Bergman-Rosamond, appears in the Fall 2016 issue of the journal.

Welcome, Professor Aggestam. Thanks for joining us.


ADAM READ-BROWN: Professor Aggestam is speaking with me from Sweden where she is a professor of political science and holds the Pufendorf chair at Lund University. She is also an honorary professor at Queensland University; and visiting professor at Monash University in Australia. She has been the director of Peace & Conflict Studies at Lund University, and a senior associate member at St Antony's College at Oxford University. She is currently the lead author for the International Panel on Social Progress. Her research interests include conflict analysis, gender, peacebuilding, international negotiation, and hydropolitics. Among her most recent books are Gendering Diplomacy and International Negotiation [forthcoming as of September 2016] and Rethinking Peacebuilding: The Quest for a Just Peace in the Middle East and the Western Balkans.

With that introduction, let's get right into our discussion.

Professor Aggestam, your essay for Ethics & International Affairs is, as the title would suggest, about Swedish feminist foreign policy. At the outset, you explain how in 2015 the newly formed Swedish government not only declared that it was going to be a feminist government but its foreign minister, Margot Wallström, announced that it would be adopting a feminist foreign policy.

Could you start, for those unfamiliar with Swedish politics, by giving us a little lay of the land? How did this come about, that the new government declared these policies? Was this an issue that the Social Democrats, the winning party, had campaigned on?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes. The thrust for gender equality has been a central issue for many years in Swedish politics. Adopting a feminist platform and using a feminist terminology in politics have actually gained ground in the last decades in Sweden. For instance, a recent survey showed that every second Swede actually has a positive attitude towards feminists.

But I would still say that there are three major background factors that can explain the adoption of a Swedish feminist foreign policy. First, Sweden has the longstanding quest to address gender equality. It is also intimately related to the history, evolution, and legacy of the Swedish welfare state. And also, on an international dimension, it correlates with Sweden's self-identity as a humanitarian superpower. So all the political parties in Sweden have an emphasis on gender equality in their programs, although not all of them are using feminist terminology. For instance, the Conservative Party, the Swedish Democratic Party, and the Christian Democratic Party avoid this feminist terminology but would still freely support gender equality.

A second factor, and more importantly in the recent election in 2014, was the fact that we saw a new party being formed, called the Feminist Initiative. This party pushed the issue of gender equality to the top of the agenda for all the other parties having to position in debates much more strongly and vividly than before on this issue.

Thirdly, and most importantly also, is that the Social Democratic Party was determined in gaining government power to pursue a more independent and leading role in international affairs, again as part of the self-described image of Sweden as a humanitarian superpower. So you could say that the launching of a feminist foreign policy fitted very well as part of that ambition, where the government stated, and I quote, that it wants to become "the strongest voice for gender equality and full employment and human rights for all women and girls."

And then, in addition, having Margot Wallström coming in as the foreign minister, recently returning from the United Nations, where she had been working in the last few years as the UN special representative on gender-based sexual violence and conflict, without a doubt, made excellent timing for the launching of a feminist foreign policy.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Shortly after this announcement was made, questions started coming. First and foremost: "What is feminist foreign policy and how is it going to be enacted?" Starting with the "what," what in your view constitutes a feminist approach to foreign policy and how has the Swedish government defined such a policy?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes, that's precisely the conundrum that we seek to explore and that we explore in the article: What is the content, what is the practice, of feminist foreign policy? It's not all clear because we have to think on the one hand in theory and on the other hand in practice.

In theory, a feminist approach to foreign policy signals a commitment to feminist ethical principles of inclusion, human security, empathetic cooperation based on cosmopolitan norms, global justice, and peace. Part of that commitment is also to make gender conflicts of interest visible on the international arena.

Since the launching of the Swedish feminist foreign policy, this question that you raised has also been constantly raised both domestically here in Sweden as well as internationally. It is important to underline that the policy reframing very much to a large extent interacts with contemporary international discourses on human security by asking the question "security for whom?" As such, it works with a broader and more inclusive notion of security, which of course then includes women, girls, and other marginalized groups. It also seeks to promote, in contrast to traditional foreign policy, a more gender-sensitive dialogue across borders and between groups subjected to violence, repression, and conflict.

We have seen, because of these constant questions, that the Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström spends a lot of time when she travels abroad giving talks around the world for interested audiences describing what the content of the feminist foreign policy is. In a nutshell, she often portrays this as part of a feminist toolbox in foreign policy which contains three overarching principles, the so-called "Three R's," that is often being referred to.

The first one of the R's zooms in on resources. It means that the feminist foreign policy should work towards a more gender-sensitive and equitable redistribution of global income and natural resources.

The second pillar, you could say, is zooming in on rights. So it means pursuing a feminist foreign policy is to advocate and promote women's rights as human rights, including women's protection from sexual and gender-based violence.

Then, the third pillar is representation. The Swedish government is actively trying to promote women's representation and participation in politics in general but in peace processes in particular. This is the area where we have seen the Swedish government's attempts have been very visible in the last year, in particular coming forward with a few ideas.

ADAM READ-BROWN: That's great. I feel like the Three R's are really nice because everyone needs anything new to be distilled to the simplest possible terms to be able to remember it, something catchy.

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes, exactly.

ADAM READ-BROWN: So I feel like those Three R's are nice because that can be a sort of bullet-point list as you start to unpack this.

So that's the "what." Then, in these first two years or so, what have you see as some of the major representations of how feminism has actually informed the policies of the Swedish Foreign Ministry?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Again to note, it is still very much a feminist foreign policy in the making.


KARIN AGGESTAM: And as you mentioned also, it is very recent, in the last one-to-two years. So, as such, it's very difficult to talk about results and outcomes. Instead, maybe it's more appropriate to depict the feminist foreign policy presently as something quite incremental and the reframing processes that are still going on.

But we could say that it has zoomed in as a sort of takeoff into policy action. I mean the Swedish government has focused on representation and pushing the international agenda-setting by actively and coherently trying to apply gender-sensitive lenses to all international affairs, and also mobilizing in different international institutions for international policy action in the state. It can also be seen as the representation of normative entrepreneurship in the international arena, again by being guided by a feminist framework of cosmopolitanism and human rights.

But in practice, the government has also generated a policy document where they have singled out five prioritized areas for policy action for the next three years. These areas can be seen sort of as the test cases for a feminist foreign policy.

The first area is promoting the rule of law. This again, in relation to peace-building, has been and continues to be central.

The second area is combatting gender-based sexual violence, and this taps into Foreign Minister Margot Wallström's previous experience within the United Nations.

The third area is addressing sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is an area which is already seen, but also being targeted, as a highly controversial area to work in, not only in the Global South but also among EU Member States. Here it is being described as pursuing a headwind agenda. That is, this is seen as a controversial and difficult area to work with but extremely important as part of the feminist foreign policy.

The fourth area is the economic empowering of women.

Finally, the last area concerns advocating for sustainable development.

ADAM READ-BROWN: These areas that you're describing, you note in the article that there is this tension between the pursuit of some of the things in this list, these ideals that are rooted in feminism, and then the pragmatism of needing to operate within certain global realities where you have entrenched power structures and institutions. Could you elaborate on this and what some of these tensions are and how they have manifested themselves or continue to manifest themselves?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes. Already from the outset there are high expectations regarding the feminist foreign policy. It is also being under the loop and being scrutinized to see if it actually also lives up to expectations.

Obviously, we can see here that there are great risks that a gap between expectation and implementation may appear, and has actually appeared also. However, it is important to keep in mind that all practice of foreign policy is mediated through a variety of policy options and compromises, some of which might be inconsistent with the explicit ethical ideas of feminist principles that underpin a feminist foreign policy. So we need to keep that in mind when we talk about this expectation/deliverable gap that may appear at times.

To make an illustration of this tension, recently the Swedish government faced a harsh critique in a report compiled by a large number of civil society-based organizations that criticized the government for failing to live up to its feminist foreign policy during the recent migration crisis here in Sweden and in Europe and elsewhere. In 2015 Sweden received 160,000 asylum seekers. But since then, Sweden has imposed heavy restrictions and border controls, which have different repercussions for women and men, which this report then highlights. So, for instance, women often lack ID documentation that is required to enter Sweden. So the Swedish government authority imposed strict family reunification policies, which means that many women are stuck in refugee camps in the Middle East while the men have already reached Sweden.

What is important to keep in mind is that nearly 70 percent of all the asylum seekers that came to Sweden last year are men. So it's this expectation that they should be able to bring their families, the children and their spouses. With these restrictions, this will not be possible. So we have this discrepancy that the civil society-based organizations highlight.

Also, the government has redirected nearly 30 percent of its development assistance budget to the Global South in order to manage the migration influx. As a consequence of that cap, several specific development programs that target women and children in the Global South are at risk of losing donor assistance from Sweden.

These are some of the points and problems that the civil society-based organizations have criticized the Swedish government for, and related to that, this indicates a failure to live up to its feminist foreign policy. This is a very concrete example of this tension between the ideal and pragmatism and the mediation that you have to do between different interests in foreign policy.

ADAM READ-BROWN: That's interesting. So that's criticism coming from one side, where the government is being criticized for not living up to the feminist ideals. And then, there has also been, if I'm not mistaken, the criticism that you also mention in the essay regarding a completely different area of policy, canceling an arms deal with Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses. There you seem to get criticism from the other side saying, "This is foolish and this hurts us on the international stage. This is foreign policy run amok." So there seems to be not only the tension between the ideals and what is actually able to be executed, but then, when some of these ideals are acted on, there is criticism from the other side.

How do you see that interplay pulling at the government's policies?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes, it is a very difficult question. I think it's important to recognize that there always exist mixed motives for action. The question is, of course, the extent you practice self-sacrifice and how you are willing to forsake narrow commercial/political interest, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, which some argued for, when they are in conflict with feminist principles.

There will always be probably different outcomes in many cases, depending on these mixed motives and how you balance and how you make compromises and tradeoffs between these ideals and other interests.

ADAM READ-BROWN: We mentioned the arms deal with Saudi Arabia briefly. But some of these criticisms that I think I had alluded to in my previous question about having harmed the country on the international arena and making it a less reliable ally, trade partner, etc.—do you see these criticisms as having any weight?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Well, pursuing a feminist foreign policy obviously involves confronting gender injustices in various economic, political, and social spheres. It also means that some powerful groups are likely to perceive this as a threat towards losing their privileged position.

The case of Saudi Arabia that you mentioned is one such example, where we can see this inconsistency of policy practices in the Swedish feminist foreign policy coming to the forefront by the fact that Sweden is, on the one hand, one of the world's leading arm exporters and then, on the other hand, proclaiming a feminist foreign policy which strongly advocates a preventive diplomacy and support for international action that seeks to prevent and address root causes of conflict.

In March, when the Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström vented a public critique of Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record and harsh treatment of Saudi dissidents, Saudi Arabia reacted swiftly and strongly by recalling its ambassador and accused the Swedish foreign minister of criticizing Islam. It also had wider regional repercussions in the Middle East, where several states in the Arab world followed suit, making different diplomatic harsh statements, including the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that Sweden had taken the lead in recognizing Palestine. Also, Foreign Minister Wallström's keynote speech at the Arab League was canceled at the last minute.

It's interesting to note in the midst of this diplomatic crisis the EU Member States kept a noticeable low profile and distanced themselves from the Swedish position, while at the same time the financial and diplomatic sectors in Sweden criticized the government, as you pointed out, for jeopardizing trade relations. But still, the arms deals were not renewed with Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Wallström did not, in this case, back down.

Now, in hindsight, we can actually see that diplomatic and trade relations have been mended and are more or less fully restored. So the critique and the criticism that was raised by some political figures and also financial groups were warnings that by the end of the day, and the way also the government dealt with it afterwards in, I would say, a diplomatic fashion, they were able to mend relations without backtracking on the critique that the foreign minister had expressed earlier.

ADAM READ-BROWN: So, in essence, you're saying that this is an example where the criticisms really were not fully warranted because they were able to navigate the issues that arose?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes, exactly, precisely.

And also, the government and the foreign ministry did take their concern seriously. So, for instance, the Swedish Foreign Ministry has now established a trade council in order to facilitate and enhance trade relations between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. So it's not by saying that we, by criticizing the poor human rights record in Saudi Arabia, would then sever all trade relations with the country.

So again, this could also be seen as a sort of combination of both a principled stance while in practice also pursuing mixed motives and some pragmatism.

ADAM READ-BROWN: I want to turn to another specific policy: the recognition of Palestine as a state. As you have said, there are mixed motives behind any political decision, and so to attribute a decision such as this solely to the practice of feminist foreign policy may not really give the full picture. Nevertheless, I am curious how you think we should understand this decision. Does this fit neatly into the practice of feminist foreign policy? If so, how so? Or is this more related to historical relations between Sweden and the Palestinians? Or were there other factors?

KARIN AGGESTAM: I would say that with or without the proclamation of a feminist foreign policy the Swedish recognition of Palestine was on the agenda for a new Social Democratic Party coming to government. So with or without a feminist foreign policy it was about to come.

This decision is well-situated in a longstanding tradition of the Social Democratic Party being actively involved in peacemaking in this particular conflict. This is going back to Olof Palme's era, being one of the first European leaders to recognize the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in the 1980s, and also later on, the late Foreign Minister Sven Andersson was actively involved in facilitating back-channel negotiations, which resulted then later on in the PLO's adoption of the two-state solution. So this is sort of the legacy that the Social Democratic Party had to decide to return to. And again, to recognize Palestine was also part of this government's endeavor to act as a humanitarian superpower, taking the lead on some critical issues in international politics.

But it should be noted also that doing and pursuing and acting on this recognition also created some resentment in Brussels, since Sweden is a Member State of the European Union and therefore obliged to coordinate its foreign policy actions with other states. In addition, Sweden also apparently miscalculated the reactions from other Member States because they were also hoping in Sweden that the recognition would be followed by other countries in the European Union.

So to your question if the recognition fits with the feminist foreign policy, it's both a yes and a no. It's yes in the sense that the Swedish government wants to balance the gross power asymmetry that exists in this conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians by giving support to the weaker side, and also in its quest to promote peaceful dialogue as a third party, as a mediator.

But it's also a no because the Israeli government completely rejected the Swedish initiative and action, seeing the act of recognition of a Palestinian state as being completely detrimental and nonconducive for dialogue and for peacemaking. Instead, it actually has undermined diplomatic relations and trust between Sweden and Israel, and Israel has complained that Sweden actually lacks empathy for its security concerns. This is also seen where Margot Wallström, the foreign minister, wanted to and expressly decided to visit Israel, but until now has not been officially welcome to visit Israel.

So it's problematic. It's both a yes and a no in this regard.

ADAM READ-BROWN: As with so many things, I suppose, in both life and in international politics.

I want to at this point zoom out a little bit from just talking about Sweden. One of the foundational works on feminist international relations is Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches and Bases, which you cite in your essay. Enloe wrote this book over a quarter-century ago. In a recently revised edition from just a few years ago, in the introduction she notes, and here I quote: "Despite the remarkable activist engagement that has generated today's multistranded transnational women's movement, many journalists (and the editors who assign their stories), foreign policy experts, and policy decision-makers remain oddly confident in their dismissal of feminist ideas."

I'm curious how you see this and how is it that the world of IR (international relations) has remained so resistant seemingly to these ideas over the intervening decades since Enloe's book was first published? Or maybe from a slightly different perspective, have you in your career seen a lot of progress in where we were a couple of decades ago and where we are now?

KARIN AGGESTAM: Well, I think it's a very important question to raise because it's certainly a paradox. On the one hand, the Swedish feminist foreign policy is strongly informed and embedded in international discourses emanating particularly from and related to UN Security Council resolution 1325, the agenda on Women, Peace and Security.

We can also notice—and this is progress you could say, in a way—that many countries have adopted national action plans on gender equality and many international organizations pursue gender mainstreaming. This is all positive.

At the same time, we for sure can notice this resistance to adopt feminist ideas. That actually goes back to the first question that you raised about using the "F" word. Using and adopting feminist ideas is also an expression, and a resistance towards adopting feminist studies is an expression, of how ingrained patriarchal structures and resistance to change are in the global gendered international order.

But I think we have to also have this kind of long-term perspective. I mean, to struggle for gender equality is a long-term engagement. I think that Foreign Minister Wallström captured this well when, being asked why going this extra step of saying that you define the foreign policy as a feminist foreign policy—her response, and I quote her here, is: "It's time to become a little braver in foreign policy. I think 'feminist' is a good term. It's about standing against the systematic and global subordination of women." I think that using feminist ideas more explicitly also includes a readiness and a commitment to put it at the top of her agenda.

I think that even though we have seen great progress, and as also Cynthia Enloe notes, in the international discourses and transnational women's movement and many others, the resistance is there because it is still not always at the top of the agenda.

So by saying the Swedish government has not only launched a feminist foreign policy—it also says that it's the world's first feminist government—it means a commitment to use gender-sensitive lenses throughout all the work and in all political spheres. That's a huge commitment that we would not see maybe to the same extent in many other countries.

At the same time, it should be noted that the response from other countries, Western countries and also Nordic countries, as our neighboring country here Denmark would say, "Well, we pursue very similar policies. It's only that we are not using the feminist terminology. But in practice we would like to describe it more or less as the same type of action in this field."

ADAM READ-BROWN: Right. But they're not using, as you say, the F word.

KARIN AGGESTAM: No. I think that if we look at the international discourse to date, to counter this dismissal of feminist ideas the alternative seems to be to rely on a more instrumental reasoning among practitioners and in the policymaking world. So we hear a lot about smart policy when you include women and by inclusion you promote a durable and sustainable pace.

But there's also risk with this kind of instrumental reasoning, because then there is this tendency of essentializing that women per se are always peaceful, which is not always the case, as we know. So there are certain risks with this instrumental reasoning in the present international discourse. But I think it has been a way of avoiding the adoption of the feminist terminology.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Having followed the progress of the current government in Sweden in these very nascent stages of this new policy, how do you see this continuing to evolve?

And then, the other part of that is you've already mentioned the reactions of at least some of the neighboring countries. But I'm curious if you've seen favorable reactions from other countries in such a way that indicates that maybe there is the possibility that this type of diplomacy has broader appeal, maybe actually getting to the F word, not just these instrumental policies.

KARIN AGGESTAM: Yes. Only to give one specific example, I think Canada is an interesting country, where you today have a prime minister who defines himself as a feminist, and as a proud feminist.

Again, the Swedish feminist foreign policy is situated in a contemporary international discourse base and a commitment to the women, peace, and security agenda. It also builds from previous foreign ministers and foreign policies, like in the United Kingdom, where former Foreign Minister William Hague was actively engaged also in various international arenas, trying to mobilize and galvanize international action to end sexual violence and conflict. Also, the former foreign minister in Australia, Julie Bishop, was actively and highly profiled as promoting gender mainstreaming in international institutions.

I would also argue that Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as U.S. secretary of state, worked very actively for the empowerment of women in the Global South and, importantly, also framed the status of women as a matter of national security. By doing so, it's also signaling a push in gender issues high up on the foreign policy agenda.

So again, Sweden is taking a lead by defining it as a feminist foreign policy, but it's also embedded in the last decade of very active promotion of this broad agenda.The Swedish Government has taken several international initiatives that have also been quite well-received by several countries in the Global South and fit also well within the broader international discourse on women and peace and security.

One of these initiatives that I would like to mention is the launching of the Women's Mediation Network together with some of the other Nordic countries. Now, women's inclusion and participation in peace processes is a prioritized area for the Swedish government as part of the feminist foreign policy because, despite the significant inroads that women have made in a number of public political spheres, still when we look at political representation, gender equality globally is very poor. And if we look at the diplomatic arena, 15 percent of all ambassadors are women. Also, international organizations and institutions continue to suffer from a poor track record of appointing women to senior diplomatic positions.

So the Swedish government has then pushed this issue of peace negotiation because here the statistics are even worse when it comes to underrepresentation of women. The UN Women's report a couple of years back is often quoted, that highlights that less than 3 percent of all chief mediators are women, 9 percent of peace negotiators are women, and 4 percent are signatories to peace agreements.


KARIN AGGESTAM: So the Swedish government has therefore singled out that peace mediation is a very important area and described it as "the weapon of inclusion"—I should quote Margot Wallström again here—because "chief mediators are centrally placed to secure women's participation and empowerment for peacemaking." That's why this mediation network has been very central for the government to pursue, and that was launched at the end of 2015.

Another important international campaign, together with UN Women also, is the HeForShe campaign. That's a very important campaign because the struggle for gender equality is not only women struggling themselves but to underline the important role that men have in this struggle and in promoting gender equality. The HeForShe campaign is trying to engage senior political leaders, prime ministers and presidents, to commit to this agenda on gender equality. That was the second initiative that has been well received also internationally.

ADAM READ-BROWN: As you note there, the importance of including men in this, that it is not just a women's issue.

KARIN AGGESTAM: No, it's not.

ADAM READ-BROWN: In the article you at some point note—I think this is a quote from another scholar—that "feminist foreign policy isn't just about counting women; it's about making women count." So this is something that men need to play an integral role in.


ADAM READ-BROWN: But I was interested—you know, you were mentioning some of the male world leaders, Trudeau and others, who have self-identified as feminists—but it's also worth noting that we're at a point in history where—you mentioned Hillary Clinton—we have the potential where three of the world's most powerful countries—Britain, Germany, and, pending an election, potentially the United States—could all be led by women. There's the possibility that we could wind up with a woman UN secretary-general.

How do you view these high-level personnel changes—not all of them are changes—but how do you view this as influencing or informing a conversation about feminist foreign policy?

KARIN AGGESTAM: On a symbolic level, it's very important to see women in these leading global and very powerful positions. But again, it's not only about counting women or promoting tokenism, but actually, as you were mentioning in the beginning, to make women count. That gives an indication that it's not only about symbolism but it's also about substantive representation whereby women's political interests are integrated into policymaking and where outcomes matter. Women per se do not represent the feminist foreign policy, and I think that would be a mistake to see it in such a way. We have had before also women in high political positions and that does not necessarily always correspond with feminist ideas.

At the same time, it certainly would make a huge difference if a woman holding such an important position with an interest, commitment, and engagement to pursue gender equality, and of course empowerment, and ultimately peace and security—to be in such a powerful position to exercise and push for such an agenda would of course greatly enhance a feminist foreign policy if that would be a woman or a man convinced that this is also part, a very essential part, of how we can reach a sustainable peaceful order.

ADAM READ-BROWN: On that note, I'm sorry to say that our time is up and we do need to stop here.

Once again, I'm Adam Read-Brown and I've been speaking with Professor Karin Aggestam, whose essay "Swedish Feminist Foreign Policy in the Making: Ethics, Politics, and Gender" appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. That essay as well as much more is available online at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on Twitter, @EIAJournal.

Thanks for joining us, and thank you, Professor Aggestam, for this wonderful discussion. I know I learned a lot. It has been a pleasure. Thank you.

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