When a new, left coalition government came to power last fall, its Green Party members insisted that the relationship with Saudi Arabia conflicted with Sweden’s values, as well as with the image it wants to project abroad. Political commentators on both the left and right asked the obvious question: How did providing arms to a country that subjugates women fit with the bold idea of a “feminist foreign policy?”
Margot Wallström came under fire from Saudi Arabia for her comments on the country’s treatment of women. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty
Last month, Saudi Arabia abruptly cut ties with Sweden, recalling its ambassador and announcing that it would issue no new visas to Swedish business travelers. The cause, according to Saudi Arabia, was some remarks made by Margot Wallström, the foreign minister of Sweden.Wallström, a sixty-year-old Social Democrat who has spent almost her entire career in politics, was appointed foreign minister last fall, when Prime Minister Stefan Löfven took office. She immediately announced that she intended to pursue a feminist foreign policy and went on to explain, in a talk in the U.S., that “striving toward gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development, and security-policy objectives.”
On February 11th, Wallström, speaking before the Swedish parliament, stated what may appear to be a few facts about Saudi Arabia: she said that women are not allowed to drive, that their human rights are violated, and that the country is a dictatorship in which the royal family has absolute power. Like representatives of several other European countries, she also criticized the public flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi and later called it “medieval.”
Wallström, whose government recognized the State of Palestine last year, had been asked to deliver a speech at an Arab League summit in Cairo in late March, but Saudi Arabia intervened, and Wallström was disinvited. On March 9th, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden, saying that Wallström had “unacceptably interfered” in the country’s internal affairs. The United Arab Emirates followed suit a week later. Due to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic wrangling, Wallström was also condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council (which consists of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E.), The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes fifty-seven countries, and the Arab League itself. Finally, Saudi Arabia leveled a more serious charge against Wallström: that by commenting on the punishment of public flogging, the Swedish foreign minister had criticized Sharia law and Islam.
In the midst of an escalating diplomatic crisis, the Swedish government was due to decide on another issue that concerned Saudi Arabia, a very sticky one. Sweden is not only one of Europe’s largest per-capita donors of foreign aid (its foreign ministry likes to describe the nation as “a humanitarian superpower”) but also one of its largest per-capita arms exporters. Even with strict laws meant to prevent exports to countries involved in violent conflicts or suspected of committing human-rights offenses, some loopholes made it possible for Sweden to retain Saudi Arabia as a long-standing and lucrative arms client. In recent years, though, the relationship became increasingly uncomfortable for Swedish public officials; in 2012, the defense minister was forced to resign when public radio revealed a secret plan to build a weapons plant in Saudi Arabia.
Sweden’s Social Democrats have historically taken a pragmatic view of the government-subsidized arms industry and its often-opaque dealings abroad. But when a new, left coalition government came to power last fall, its Green Party members insisted that the relationship with Saudi Arabia conflicted with Sweden’s values, as well as with the image it wants to project abroad. Political commentators on both the left and right asked the obvious question: How did providing arms to a country that subjugates women fit with the bold idea of a “feminist foreign policy?” The day after Wallström was supposed to have appeared in Cairo, on March 10th, the government announced its decision not to renew a bilateral arms agreement with Saudi Arabia. No official explanation followed, but the subtext was clear both in Sweden and to Riyadh (which had likely received some advance notice): Saudi Arabia was no longer viewed as an acceptable buyer of Swedish weapons.
This was Wallström’s “feminist foreign policy” in practice, and it did not sit well with some of Sweden’s most powerful industrialists, who stood to lose significant income from a break in relations with Saudi Arabia. It seems likely that the government also became concerned about sparking a wider conflict with the Arab world. One week later, a delegation of Swedish officials travelled to Riyadh, carrying letters from Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and King Carl XVI Gustaf, to try to soften relations, explaining that Wallström had not intended to criticize Islam and offering official regrets for any misunderstanding. The Saudi ambassador to Sweden is now set to be reinstated. Wallström’s political opponents came down hard on what they saw as a clumsy performance. Still, the Swedish foreign minister refused to back down, referring only to a misunderstanding, and stressing that no apology for her specific remarks had been, or would be, issued.
When Wallström announced her feminist foreign policy last fall, she was met with a few smirks and some confusion even within her own diplomatic corps. How would this benefit, rather than just complicate, Sweden’s relations with the rest of the world? Robert Egnell, a visiting professor at the Georgetown Security Studies Program and an advisor to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, explained that, to foreign-policy traditionalists, “a feminist perspective would be idealistic, naïve—and potentially even dangerous—in the realpolitik power struggles between nations.” Within the diplomatic community, where words are carefully chosen so as not to offend, “feminism” is usually avoided, as it risks being perceived as inflammatory and indicative of a stand against men.
“If the term bothers you, you can call it gender equality,” Wallström told me in a telephone interview in late March, when I asked if it would have been more strategic to choose another word for what she seeks to achieve. “I think feminism is a good term,” she said. “It’s about standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.”
Wallström, who was formerly a European Union commissioner, also served as the first United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She told me that, in that role, she observed how often crimes against women in conflict are overlooked or ignored, how foreign aid routinely fails to take into account the needs of women and girls, and how seldom women are allowed to participate in peace negotiations. Those experiences stuck with her—as did the often all-male composition of U.N. delegations assigned to solve conflicts. A decade after the U.N. adopted Security Council Resolution 1325, which speaks to the necessity of including women in peace agreements, ninety-seven per cent of military peacekeepers are still men, and less than one in ten participants in peace negotiations are women.
Like Hillary Clinton, who has often argued that “women’s rights are human rights,” Wallström has embraced the concept of “smart power” as articulated by the American political scientist Joseph Nye: that is, when a country invests in solving global-scale problems, such as health and economic development it will benefit that country in the end. For example, as one of the European countries receiving the most Syrian asylum seekers, Sweden would do well to address refugee issues beyond its borders. Women’s rights is another such global issue, and Wallström has found common ground on the topic with some foreign colleagues, from across the political spectrum, such as the U.K.’s First Secretary of State William Hague, from the Conservative party, who, during his tenure as Foreign Secretary, stated that “the full social, economic, and political empowerment of women is the great strategic prize of the twenty-first century.”
Wallström also cites a growing body of research showing that women’s security is directly related to both national and international security. In the 2012 book “Sex and World Peace” a team of four researchers (Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett) present data indicating that the more violent a state and its citizens are toward women, the more violent that state is likely to be over all, both internally and in its dealings with outside world. “In fact, the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated,” Hudson wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy.
Politicians rarely see women’s rights as having a direct impact on problems of war and peace. But according to this school of thought, a foreign policy that strives to address global gender inequity should in fact be on the agenda of any politician concerned with global security. Particularly at a time when the overwhelmingly male foreign-policy establishment, including international organizations such as the United Nations, appears to have run out of ideas for how to manage or even approach violent conflicts, a more gendered perspective on foreign affairs may in fact be a pragmatic strategy. The authors of “Sex and World Peace” go so far as to suggest that, in the future, “the clash of civilizations” will be based not on ethnic and political differences, but rather on beliefs about gender.
Sweden hardly constitutes a threat to anyone, but Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic show of force against the small Scandinavian country may indicate that it would prefer for Wallström’s ideas not to spread beyond Stockholm. As for other countries, they likely will not want to follow Sweden’s example of angering the world’s largest oil exporter and one of the most important players in the Middle East. But there is an obvious double standard in how Western leaders stress the importance of both human rights and women’s rights but mostly fall silent on these issues as soon as immediate economic interests and political alliances are at stake.
Wallström plans to continue her experiment of not only championing women’s rights but also putting actual policy behind them, calculating, presumably, that Sweden can afford to do this. Most recently, she has proposed that the E.U. appoint a special representative for women’s issues.
“It’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy,” Wallström told me. “Does anyone seriously mean that Sweden should apologize for what we say about democracy and human rights? We’re not backing down from that.”