VIENNA — Margot Wallstrom, a former Swedish foreign minister, clinched her reputation in 2014 for boldly coining the concept of the world’s first “feminist foreign policy.” While having left active politics only five years later, in 2019, she remains firmly behind the policy and defends it passionately today.
“The feminist foreign policy is needed more than ever,” she told PassBlue in an exclusive interview in August on the margins of the European Forum Alpbach, a yearly conference on European policy held in a mountain village in the Austrian region of Tyrol. Wallstrom, 68, was both her country’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2014 to 2019. She was also the first UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict from 2010-2012; she now chairs the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan, an organization founded in 2021 to help ensure the application of a “gender perspective” to Afghan social and economic challenges, its website says. Wallstrom lives in Hammaro, in west-central Sweden.
For Sweden, its feminist foreign policy means that gender equality and women’s rights are integrated in every foreign policy decision and activity, be it on multilateral, region, national or local levels. The work is organized around the three Rs: rights, representation and resources, and it continues to be carried out by the government long after Wallstrom originated it. For other countries that have since proclaimed a feminist foreign policy, or FFP, the shorthand, the role that it plays depends entirely on a given nation. The range of governments that say they carry out such policies include Canada, Spain, Chile, Libya, Germany, France and Mexico.
In today’s increasingly militarized and polarized world, a pro-women approach is essential, even amid the war in Ukraine, Wallstrom said. “Autocrats are often the first ones to restrict women’s rights,” she said. But she also pointed out that even liberal, democratic countries can step backward, such as the recent decision by the United States Supreme Court overturning abortion rights. (The US doesn’t have a formal feminist foreign policy but it has a Gender Policy Council, established in the White House by the Biden administration.)
“Women have to push back,” Wallstrom said.
“In this context I often like to quote Laura Lisswood, a US lawyer and the co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders,” Wallstrom added, referring to a network of former women prime ministers and presidents. “Lisswood famously said: ‘There’s no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It’s just a thick layer of men.'”
Wallstrom is adamant that women always need to be part of every peace negotiation around the world, despite the barriers they must climb continuously to have access to such talks. “It should be our default position — not a novelty,” she said. “Those peace agreements where women are around the table last longer.” Should serious peace talks between Russia and Ukraine ever arise, it is imperative that women be included, Wallstrom added.
She pointed out that Russia’s war against Ukraine illustrates how differently men and women experience conflict. “Women have to flee on their own with their children, or they are left alone to care for the elderly because their men have to fight for the country,” she said. “But women also suffer and die and love their country as much as men do.”
She is also especially worried about the horrendous accounts of sexual violence against women in the war as well as the increase in trafficking of women, saying: “How come we have not been able to prevent that? All of the people who flee should be able to get help via electronics, like apps or emergency numbers to call. All tech companies should provide solutions so that not a single person will be trafficked.”
While Wallstrom said she felt confident that her launch of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy — which faced skepticism at first not only at home but also abroad — has inspired other countries to pursue the same policy, she sees “major shortcomings” in how well women’s rights are being carried out globally.
The implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security — which guarantees women’s equal participation in peace talks and similar efforts — is slow and still very much about “comparing failures.” In many nations worldwide, women are excluded from important negotiations, which poses a threat to global peace, she said.
Wallstrom began her career in politics as a member of the Social Democrat party in Sweden’s parliament. Besides her dual role as deputy prime minister and foreign minister, she has also been Minister of Civil Affairs, Minister of Culture and Minister of Social Affairs. In addition, she was a member of the European Commission, first responsible for environment (under Romano Prodi, an Italian politician who was president of the Commission at the time), and later as vice president of the body, responsible for inter-institutional relations and communications strategy (under José Manuel Barroso, a Portuguese politician).
When asked why she entered politics, Wallstrom said that her upbringing played a critical role. “We were not a political home at all, but we were brought up with very sound principles, including taking care of others,” she said. “For example, my mother often kept a seat at our table at home in case someone was in need.” Her parents enshrined in her a feeling of what was right. “Rattvisa,” a Swedish word that roughly translates into “fairness” or “justice,” would become Wallstrom’s guiding principle.
She is particularly proud of her two grown sons, whom she describes as modern men that believe in gender equality.
Farther afield in current geopolitics, Wallstrom said she had been particularly troubled by the crackdown of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. She helped launch the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan to try to help women regain their status as equals in that society. The organization specifically helps Afghan women connect with policy makers globally to increase support from the international community, ever since the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021.
The forum “is a connection and solidarity initiative,” Wallstrom said. “We wanted to be a matchmaker, to make sure that the voices of Afghan women are heard in the UN and EU, by governments, policymakers and media.”
The US government, she said, should ensure that the Afghan assets that it froze after the Taliban takeover are used for the good of the people, including women, in Afghanistan. The US recently announced the creation of a fund worth $3.5 billion to disperse money toward humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. The fund, based in Switzerland, is structured so that payments will be kept out of the hands of the Taliban.
Since their takeover, the Taliban have stripped women and girls of their most basic rights, ending girls’ education past primary school and banning women from most jobs. The Taliban have also reintroduced draconian laws such as prohibiting women to travel without a man accompanying them and forcing them to cover their faces. Many women are also subjected to physical violence.
Wallstrom said that she considered the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (Unama), based in Kabul, the capital, as vital, since it continues to work in the country. “They meet with the Taliban regularly,” she said. “It is, of course, crucial that they meet with and listen to the women too.” (The new head of the mission is Roza Otunbayeva, a former president of Kyrgyzstan and diplomat. She heads to Kabul soon.)
Wallstrom is also closely following the events in Iran, where mass protests are taking place in reaction to the death of a civilian, Mahsa Amini, 22, after she was arrested by the morality police for violating the country’s dress code, which includes women having to wear a hijab head scarf.
“What is going on right now in Iran is nothing else but a women’s revolution,” Wallstrom said in an email to PassBlue in September. “Their fight, their bravery and resolve is inspiring.” The rest of the world, she added, “must show solidarity and take action.”
“We must stay informed, use social media to spread their messages, demonstrate, ask governments, the UN, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to speak out and press for changes in the laws,” she suggested. “It is interesting to see how Iranian men also take to the streets to demonstrate against the regime.”
Besides being a passionate advocate for women’s rights, Wallstrom is an ardent supporter of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. The topic was a major focus during her time as foreign minister.
“I support Swedish NATO membership,” she said, referring to the recent major shift in Swedish foreign policy as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. “But I do believe that we need to simultaneously continue our important work in Sweden on nuclear nonproliferation.”
Wallstrom said she was worried about the countries that possess nuclear weapons that have not implemented their commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NPT obliges them to engage in disarmament. “Instead, the nuclear weapons states are modernizing and upgrading their nuclear arsenals, ” Wallstrom said.
On the opposite end of the disarmament spectrum is the ever-increasing group of countries that have become states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a legally binding agreement that totally bans nuclear weapons.
Wallstrom said that it was pivotal to reduce the antagonism between the two camps and organize a dialogue between them. Sweden and the other Nordic countries should help to get this started, she added. The total ban of nuclear weapons should always remain the long-term goal, in her opinion.
She is also alarmed about the recent “change in rhetoric” about nuclear weapons in Russia’s assault on Ukraine. “There is increasing talk about so-called tactical nuclear weapons, as if they were useful in any way,” she said. This is wrong, she added. “We already have enough nuclear weapons to kill the entire human population.”
President Vladimir Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in a speech on Sept. 21, saying that “this is not a bluff.” Most analysts think that in the most likely scenario, Russia could use a tactical nuclear weapon that has a smaller — yet catastrophic — explosive power. In another speech on Sept. 30, in which Putin formally announced the attempted “annexation” of four regions in eastern Ukraine, he said that America’s use of nuclear weapons during World War II had set a “precedent.”
“The United States is the only country in the world that has twice used nuclear weapons, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and setting a precedent,” Putin said.
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Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, covering diplomacy and international organizations for more than 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the EU Observer, The Washington Post and Austrian daily newspapers such as Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung. http://www.stephanieliechtenstein.com
I enjoyed reading this article but really wish the reporter would have asked about the future of feminist foreign policy under the new Swedish government.