Margot Wallstrom, as Sweden’s newly appointed foreign minister, announced in 2014 that her priority would be the creation of the world’s first feminist foreign policy. The concept left some in her diplomatic corps “gasping for air,” she said. Now, having recently completed a hectic five years in office despite numerous global crises, she is confident that her pro-women policy is here to stay.
In the five years since taking charge of Swedish foreign policy, Wallstrom, now 65, has been drawn into major international roles. Among these were the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea, during which she worked with Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, whom the president sidelined and later fired. Sweden, with a diplomatic presence in North Korea since 1971 is the “protective power,” or go-between, in Pyongyang for the United States, Canada and Australia.
Of Tillerson, Wallstrom said in an exclusive interview with PassBlue in New York on Oct. 31: “You could always talk to him. He wanted to learn things, and that’s why he could also listen. So many of these guys, they never listen.” Trump’s “diplomacy” on North Korea has stumbled ever since.
In a show of diplomatic skill and tireless campaigning, Wallstrom had earlier beat back strong challenges from Italy and the Netherlands to win Sweden a two-year elected Security Council seat for 2017-2018, a story documented in the 2018 film “The Feminister.” (Italy and the Netherlands won the second open seat, splitting the two-year term between them.)
On the downside, Wallstrom ran into trouble with Saudi Arabia and Israel over criticisms of their human and political rights records. Diplomatic crises followed. Wallstrom, who recognized Palestine and accused Israelis of abuses, including killings of Palestinians, received death threats from Israelis in 2017, though she was never attacked. Asked if she was fearful, she replied in the film that fear only diminishes a person’s energy.
Wallstrom resigned as foreign minister in September to spend more time with her family — her husband, two sons and three grandchildren. Suffering from a thyroid condition that needed medication, she has relaxed and retreated to her home on a Swedish country lake where, she said, she swims almost year round.
What’s next for Wallstrom?
“Well, of course, my political engagement will continue with me from now on, but I can choose more carefully what I want to engage in,” Wallstrom, a Social Democrat, said. A former UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, primarily concentrating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010-2012, Wallstrom wants to continue work on women, peace and security as well as nuclear issues and climate change. She was the European Union commissioner for the environment from 1999 to 2004.
Wallstrom also wants to stay engaged in a debate growing more acrimonious among feminists globally about a widening, well-funded campaign to repeal laws everywhere against prostitution for both buyers and sellers of sex. The decriminalization campaign has drawn critics among many feminists who work among the poorest and most vulnerable girls and women, not only in developing countries but also in Western Europe, who are trafficked into the sex industry.
“To me it’s so clear: how can we continue to work toward gender equality as long as women can be bought as a piece of meat?” Wallstrom said.
She believes that UN Women, the agency protecting women’s rights (which says it is neutral in the sex trade debate) needs to bring the issue into more open discussion among feminists and others with clashing views of how to deal with the multibillion dollar sex industry.
“I really think UN Women are struggling,” Wallstrom said. “They have to consider how best to deal with the fact that here there are really two camps [on prostitution]. At the moment they are at war, and that’s never a good thing, because it would hurt the whole cause for women, the whole agenda. They have to find a way to move on. This cannot be allowed to overshadow everything else.”
Sweden pioneered what is called the Nordic legislative model, which makes buying — but not selling — sex illegal, putting the law on the side of women who are often victims of violence and sex slavery. Wallstrom has gone out at night with police officers and social workers to study how the policy works in Stockholm, where women are given a hotline number if they need help. She compares that system to the freewheeling situation in Germany and other European countries where prostitution is more or less completely legal and megabrothels flourish.
“The official figure today is that 400,000 women were working as prostitutes in Germany,” she said. “Do you think that they are Germans, middle class women, who think that this looks like a nice job — something that I would recommend to my daughter? Of course not.”
Among the women in brothels, she added, “98 percent come from Ukraine, from Moldova, from Nigeria — from poor countries around the world. They’re all trafficked there, and it’s like hell on earth,” she says, quoting from a 2018 study by Ingeborg Kraus, a scholar in Germany, where prostitution has been legal since 2002.
Wallstrom says that more public attention is needed on “sugar daddies,” who often provide the entry point into prostitution.
“Young girls, they would very much like to have a thousand-dollar handbag or a trip somewhere, and they believe that they will get that from rather wealthy older men they meet on sites that you can find on the Internet. Of course, this is just prostitution in disguise.”
On how she institutionalized her feminist foreign policy and whether she is confident that it will survive her departure as foreign minister, Wallstrom was upbeat in the interview. “Absolutely,” she said.
She built a comprehensive, concrete program for the Swedish ministry and its diplomatic corps, she noted, and its gender equality focus has been emulated to one extent or another in dozens of countries or communities, according to Swedish figures. She explained the formulated policy in detail (in English) in a speech at Lund University in March 2017.
In the interview with PassBlue, she said: “Our whole diplomatic corps, our embassies around the world, they had to understand, what did we mean by calling it a feminist foreign policy. First of all, why does it belong to foreign policy? They say: What do we have to do? What do you expect from the embassies?
“At its center, it was a policy built on solid research and observation, and always with one question in mind: Where are the women?
“Because when they started to ask, How many girls are married away before they are even 15 in their countries?, they were shocked,” she said. “It’s not something that would be announced or used as an explanation to why it’s so difficult to fight poverty. They started to look at the statistics, and one ambassador said to me: We started to ask ourselves how often do we invite women to our embassy? To the meetings? To the lunches? When we listen to civil society, do we make sure that also the women come? Then we started to look and we started to measure or count.
“So it changed their attitudes,” Wallstrom said. “I think what we’ve achieved in Sweden, we’ve set a norm. We have provided a kind of benchmark. We are also made accountable to respecting that norm. Everybody in the ministry has to go through an online training on this issue. So we have the system, and I don’t think there’s a way to go back on that.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.