Spreading Feminist Foreign Policy: Interview with Margot Wallström

Kashmiri Muslim women watch the funeral procession of a suspected rebel of Hizbul Mujahideen, in Marhama, Indian controlled Kashmir, December 14, 2016. Dar and another suspected rebel were killed in two separate gun battles with Indian security forces. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

In this interview, Margot Wallström, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden (2014-2019) discusses the increasing backlash to women’s rights and efforts toward inclusion in 2022, why she supports Sweden joining NATO, and how to transform the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda into concrete action, as well as the major challenges presented by militarization and the climate crisis.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You had a revolutionary approach to Sweden’s foreign policy in calling it “feminist”—an approach subsequently adopted by ten countries—though yesterday, the Swedish foreign minister announced the government was scrapping the label. What is lost in this? 

It’s tone deaf at a time when women are making a revolution in Iran. When women are rising up in Afghanistan. We still have to fight very hard to make sure women are around the negotiating table. There is still so much that needs to be translated into concrete policies. It remains to be seen how the government will define what gender equality means, how it will be translated into policies.

I knew they didn’t like it. I think it’s too radical for them. What can you expect from a right-wing government? But if the foreign minister says that it’s only about the label, and he will continue with the things we’ve started, then best of luck. 

Did that phrase, “feminist foreign policy,” serve and represent what you wanted it to do at the time?

I knew that it would be somewhat controversial, and that it could have a negative connotation in some countries. I expected there would be a reaction, and a reaction internally. I could see that some of the more seasoned diplomats would probably gasp for air when I mentioned that we would pursue a feminist foreign policy.

But I also wanted it to be a practical policy. To me, it’s not about identity as much as it is a matter of checking on those three Rs that I used to explain the parameters we would use: rights, representation, and resources.

We know that more women means more peace. That’s the experience. If women are around the table where these peace terms are agreed, we will have more options on the table. So then it’s about describing what is it that we want to do, what is it that we want to change, and why does it belong to foreign policy?

Now, with the war that Russia is fighting against Ukraine—even though we understand that the current so-called peace negotiations are not real—women should be at the negotiating table. They should form a part of the Ukrainian delegation. Women and men experience this war in many similar ways, but also very differently. Many women have had to leave the country, most of them with their children. Or they’ve had to stay and take care of the elderly, or just make things function. But they all love their country as much as men, and they suffer and die for the country as well. If they are not around the table, how can you build a sustainable peace if they feel that their experiences were not taken on board? That they were not listened to when peace was discussed? That should be the default position, not a novelty. Take any of these current conflict or post-conflict situations and women are still very poorly represented.

What changed in your department when you said, “Okay, feminist foreign policy.”

Well, we needed to do some training so everybody understood what it meant. We made yearly action plans with priorities, like one year it was very much about economic empowerment, or we put a focus on reproductive health and rights. Under each of the three Rs, we would try to quantify or identify the priorities. We set up a structure that would support it so that it’s not just a short-term thing. I think that, even if the opposition parties hated that we called it feminist foreign policy, they will continue with most of it. We made it very concrete.

I am also pleased there is already ten countries that are willing to declare openly that they pursue a feminist foreign policy and follow in our footsteps. I didn’t have that as a goal, that we would spread this around the world. It was my take on things. But apparently it has inspired others to follow. I hope the next step for these countries is to integrate it into domestic policy. In Sweden, the government that I belonged to was also feminist. That meant that we had everything from gender-based statistics to making sure that appointments had to be gender sensitive.

The minute you do these things, you also create expectations and accountability, because they will come back to you and say, “you said you were a feminist government, so how could you not have half of the seats on this committee be set aside for women?” You set the standards. I think it’s very, very important to be consistent. For example, we increased the proportion of women ambassadors; I think now it is half or close to half.

Securitization and militarization have become a dominant approach to conflict and peacebuilding. How important is it for the WPS agenda to return to its original anti-military aims?

I really hope that women will continue to ask questions about how resources are being used. Last year, world military spending surpassed $2 trillion. Some say that if you want peace, you need to prepare for war. But I think if you want peace, you also have to prepare for peace. You must build peace. You must invest in political and diplomatic dialogue.

Women have been out of those discussions for too long. Security must be defined much wider—it’s about our common security, and for that, our time perspective has to be much longer. Very often, what women bring to peacebuilding is a time perspective, because their role, traditionally throughout history, has been to think about the children, their futures—hopefully, that is also the perspective of men.

The war in Ukraine seems to have changed a lot of people’s minds around being against more militarization and more spending, especially in Europe. And that includes Sweden’s decision to join NATO. What are your views on this?

In this brutal war, we have to help Ukraine succeed. Almost all the NATO members are now intent on increasing their military budgets—not just small amounts, but really big money. I think we have to redefine security. We have to focus on cyber security, and climate change, which will lead to conflict unless we take action.

Sweden also needs to be able to take initiatives and openly discuss the role and modernization of nuclear weapons even as a new NATO member. I supported that we should join, for all the reasons that you can read. I have explained that. But that does not stop us from working together with other countries who understand the risk of investing in and using nuclear weapons in our doctrines, in our planning.

Instead, we have to defend the multilateral agreements that we have on weapons control, including on nuclear weapons. That’s what I think is the way forward. I think we mustn’t be shy, I think we can together, particularly with the other Nordic countries, take initiatives to discuss those things for the future. Objectively, it’s absolutely the wrong time to spend more money on the military. Instead, we ought to make sure that we have a future together. Making sure our children and grandchildren can continue to live on this planet will require money and investments.

How do you carve out space for other approaches when securitization is so dominant?

The voices of reason often come from women. That’s my simple take: we just have to make sure that women can bring their perspective. It is not necessarily a “better” perspective, it’s a different perspective. As we’ve seen in peace processes where women have a role, they bring more or other issues up, like in Colombia where it was women who said, “How can we talk about peace if we do not include land reform? How can we be effective if we do not figure out what to do with all these former combatants and military people?” That’s why it is so important that women are around the table where peace is being discussed.

You have spent some time in conflict zones talking with women. Have you seen a big gap between what the women need and what the international community thinks they need?

Often, the first thing that they need is acute help and even medical assistance, which is missing in poor countries where there is war. But women also need access to justice, which is more than just the law. It is also everything that comes after war. Think of the experience from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 20, 30 years after the war, women are still trembling when they’re talking about it. Many have not had a chance to go through any sort of legal process to access justice. And they feel that it’s really the perpetrators that are left with everything. They have just very, very bad memories of war and are scarred and marked for life.

Women need to know they have access to justice, that there is a process where you can be included in reparations. Because, why would I go and tell somebody that I was raped, unless I know that it will mean something, that it will change something. And maybe we have enabled them to talk about it, but if we don’t set up a system, a legal assistance that will help them, then they might not think that this is worth much.

We have also discussed how to make sanctions more effective. Because if we really wanted to sanction some of these local warlords, or the people that were involved in many terrible crimes, you would take their livestock away from them, or say that they cannot buy up land or build enormous houses, and that could really change things. How do you get that through a UN sanctions system?

Are there other stories you’ve heard that illustrate this gap?

Another story that I often tell is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 10-15 years ago. We asked the women in a particular village, “so what would you need now?”  And they said “we need a boat. We need a small boat so that we can travel on the river to the village and sell our produce.” And we were saying, “But how can we help them with the boat?” We said, “This was not exactly within the UN budget,” but in the end, and I can’t remember now which UN body it was—UN Women or somebody else—managed to get some money to buy a boat.

And this story covers another truth—we are not always able to come up with what they need the most. And also, we are not good at communicating. But, they were happy with their small boat.

Have you been surprised at how slow it’s going with bringing women into these spaces?

Well, not surprised, exactly. More scared, because now there’s a backlash, even in countries that we thought were at least sort of liberal, along with liberal democracies. And women’s rights are central to the whole issue of democracy. With autocrats, they often start by introducing rules or laws that restrict the freedom of women, or restrict their sexual or reproductive health and rights, which has happened also in the United States. And we can see European countries where the right to abortion, for example, is being questioned.

So there is definitely a backlash, while at the same time, we have women taking to the streets and willing to start a revolution if necessary, like in Iran right now. We also see solidarity between women, like in Iran and Afghanistan.

But respect for human rights and the situation for women and girls is still getting worse in Afghanistan. The latest is that they announced that now women cannot appear at the same time as men on TV. And if they are invited as guests, they would have to cover themselves up. One edict after the other restricts the life opportunities of women and girls. Afghan women also protest of course, but it’s increasingly difficult—they’re simply not allowed to go out.

This kind of oppression of women is totally unacceptable. And the rulers don’t seem to change their policies due to sanctions or anything, because it is not fully implemented. Some of those who are under sanctions can still travel, for example. So, we have to do better.

If they want to make a better Afghanistan, they will not be able to do that without involving women. And what’s happening in Afghanistan, this is not only a women’s issue, it’s a peace and security issue. What do you think will happen with this country if it goes further downhill? More extremism, more violence, and that will affect the rest of the world. We also need to reflect on meeting with other countries, like those in the recent Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, who don’t involve women. How can they discuss trade and economic development without women?

I think many of the Afghan sisters feel that the world can only deal with one crisis and one problem at a time, and today that crisis is the war in Ukraine. Iran has become a more acute situation, with the current demonstrations by Iranian women. As one of them said, “Don’t forget about us, because this is like death in slow motion.”

October 20 marks 22 years since UN resolution 1325 and the creation of the women, peace and security agenda. What do you see as the successes of the agenda, and where does it fall short?

I think it’s about turning it into practical results. Organizations like the UN, the European Union, and others, they can really make a difference. But they have to be consistent. They have to say, we do not come with delegations anywhere without women being there. I think we are moving toward that. Now, if there is only one woman, or only men in a delegation, somebody will point it out and say, is this reasonable? We also have to make sure that the money—whether it’s humanitarian assistance or if it’s posts or refugees—goes to both men and women. There are so many practical things that have to be put in place to be able to follow up and implement.

Sexual violence in war and conflict is still a feature and a phenomenon, unfortunately, including in Ukraine. It has to be built into our systems to prevent this from happening. Though maybe we are better at monitoring and doing something afterward. But by then so much damage has already happened. There are so many factors that we have not really looked at, and some things are very controversial, like pornography.

I would say that to look at the results is maybe more comparing failures than comparing successes. But that’s not entirely true. We have made progress. We have more of the structures. We have more decision-making power which creates opportunities. But I think the implementation is still lagging, as is the leadership or the conviction.

Finally, you are now involved with SIPRI’s Environment of Peace project. In thinking about peacebuilding and environmental restoration, was there anything that you brought forward from your past work on gender?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. There is a phrase in SIPRI’s Environment of Peace report that I’m very fond of—“deliberately inclusive,” meaning, in all processes, we have to look at who the partners are who are affected by any particular environmental project or particular policies. Opening and digging new mines is one example. Who are the people affected by that? And how do we bring them on board, and avoid an enormous backlash and disappointment?

Twenty years ago, when I was traveling as the EU Environment Commissioner, we met with women who could already describe how the harvest season had changed drastically. They were the ones who planted, or who carry produce to the market, for example, so they were the first ones to record those changes in their countries. But they could not put words on why, were not able to see then that this has to do with climate change. Women are so often on the front line—look at the impact of chemicals on fertility.

“Deliberately inclusive” also makes a democratic point. It has led me to believe that one of the future priorities for a feminist foreign policy has to be address the fact that women are more affected and affected in a different way from men by climate change. We have to take that into account and see what we can do about it. If people cannot find food or water to sustain themselves, that can definitely be a source of conflict and social unrest that can lead to full blown wars. Without a women’s perspective, we will not succeed.

Margot Wallström was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden (2014-2019). She has also been European Commissioner for the Environment (1999-2004), First Vice President of the European Union (EU) Commission (2004-2010), UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2010-2012), and Minister for Nordic Cooperation of Sweden (2016-2019). She is a co-founder of both the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan and the EU’s inter-institutional group of women. She now chairs the international expert panel guiding the Environment of Peace initiative at SIPRI. 

Jill Stoddard is Editor-in-Chief and Head of the Global Observatory and Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Eimer Curtin is an editor with the Global Observatory.