When Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström announced last year that her government would pursue a “feminist foreign policy,” the idea “met with considerable derision,” she says. “We call it the giggling factor.” And where the response was not quiet laughter, it was often confusion, including in Washington. “No one knows what this means” for Sweden’s approach to conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war, a Foreign Policy headline declared in December.

Margot Wallström

So a few days ago, Wallström filled a hall at USIP to explain. A feminist foreign policy seeks the same goals as any visionary foreign policy: peace, justice, human rights and human development, she said. It simply acknowledges that we won’t get there without adjusting existing policies, down to their nuts and bolts, to correct the particular (and often invisible) discrimination, exclusion and violence still inflicted on the female half of us.

“I do not want anyone to ever say again that there are no competent women around to involve.” –Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström

Whether the day’s work is planning aid programs or hiring diplomats or drafting treaties or running peacekeepers’ checkpoints in a war zone, we need to do it differently, changing the habitual practices that have allowed women to be ignored, silenced, abused or even attacked, the minister said.

Wallström acknowledged that Sweden’s coinage of a “feminist foreign policy” has received “a fair share of skepticism, to put it kindly,” comparing the response to men’s dismissals of suffragettes campaigning a century ago for women to have the right to vote. She takes strength, she said, from the progression described by India’s independence leader, the Mahatma Gandhi: “‘First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’”

While bloggers and critics have posited that a feminist foreign policy must mean surrendering or minimizing the use of military force or other “hard power,” Wallström cites Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye in saying that “the tools of foreign policy can, in varying degrees, be hard as well as soft. The situation at hand determines this.” As an example, her government announced last fall a decision to increase Sweden’s military budget amid the growing tensions between Russia and the West.

Discrimination against women not only accompanies, but enables threats to peace and security within and between countries, Wallström said.

“Striving toward gender equality is therefore not only a goal in itself, but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development and security policy objectives.”

In a panel discussion with Wallström, Donald Steinberg, a former deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said he has found that men’s eyes “glazed over” when he cited human rights or morality as reasons for preserving women’s rights amid international conflicts. He has learned, instead, to explain to men in authority that their peacekeeping missions were doomed to fail unless women amid the conflict were involved in its resolution.

Women’s rights: A national security issue

“We who are advocates in this area have not done a good enough job” at showing the connection between women’s rights and the United States’ national security, said Steinberg, who now is president of the development organization World Learning.

“To me, the real arguments are that societies that protect women, that involve women in these processes, that focus on girls’ education, are more stable,” he said. “These are countries that do not traffic in drugs and people and weapons. They don’t send refugees across borders or across oceans. They don’t harbor terrorists or pirates. They don’t transmit pandemic diseases. And, perhaps most importantly in this town, they don’t require American military force or troops on the ground.”

Advocates need to “connect the dots for people, to say this isn’t an agenda that … is mostly about rights or fairness or equity. It is about national security interests,” Steinberg said. “Then I think we can make much more progress.”

While the United States has applied no feminist brand to its policy, a decidedly more feminist approach has evolved within USAID and the State Department in the past decade, said Steinberg and Catherine Russell, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. After years of growth in the number of women in key positions at the State Department, “most of [its] assistant secretaries are women,” Russell noted.

U.S. diplomats understand that “their peace negotiations will be more successful, their economic efforts will be more successful, if women and girls are included from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought,” she said.

After years of pushing for a focus on women within both the Swedish and U.S. foreign policy establishments, Wallström and Russell said a current task is now to institutionalize the practice -- not only within their own departments but within international bodies, notably the United Nations.

The U.N. has formally pushed for women’s rights and participation for years, especially since 2000, when the U.N. Security Council passed its first resolution (UNSCR 1325) pushing governments to see and prevent the particular violations of women and their rights that take place amid conflicts. Still, “to this day, there still hasn’t been a peace negotiator who has led a peace process that the U.N. was involved with, that was a woman,” said Wallström.

“Of 585 negotiated peace agreements negotiated from 1990 to 2010, only 92 contained references to women,” she said. “From [19]92 to 2011, fewer than 4 percent of signatories of peace agreements and less than 10 percent of peace negotiators were women.” Yet the numbers of capable women diplomats are many and growing. “I do not want anyone to ever say again that there are no competent women around to involve,” Wallström said.

Wallstrom’s appointment as foreign minister is her fourth cabinet position in Sweden. She also has held senior posts in the European Commission and served from 2010 until 2012 as the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Wallström, who was invited by the Gender and Peacebuilding Center at USIP, has worked with the Institute often. She spoke in 2013 at the at the inaugural Sheikha Fatima lecture on women as peacebuilders, and in 2010 as part of a USIP conference on the experiences of women in war.

James Rupert is a senior writer/editor at USIP.

Related Publications

Russia Has Relaxed its Rhetoric on NATO’s Nordic Expansion

Russia Has Relaxed its Rhetoric on NATO’s Nordic Expansion

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

By: John Drennan;  Mary Glantz, Ph.D.

Russia for years has warned that it would take military steps, among others, to counter any eventual decision by Finland or Sweden to join NATO. Yet since the Nordic countries declared that intention in mid-May, Russian officials’ changing rhetoric suggests that the Kremlin will seek to avoid any real confrontation over prospective NATO expansion.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Putin’s War Backfires as Finland, Sweden Seek to Join NATO

Putin’s War Backfires as Finland, Sweden Seek to Join NATO

Thursday, May 26, 2022

By: A. Wess Mitchell, Ph.D.

Only three months into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the geopolitical ripple effects are being felt across the European continent. Motivated by Moscow’s aggression, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, ending decades of both states’ respective non-aligned status. Finnish and Swedish NATO accession would boost the capabilities and defensibility of the alliance. Their joining NATO is a rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has bristled over the alliance’s post-Cold War expansion and used it as a pretext for his Ukraine incursion.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Conflict Resolution and Preventive Diplomacy

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The USIP Professional Training Program offered a one day seminar in conflict management skills for participants in a State Department International Visitor Program whose purpose was to acquaint participants with American perspectives on preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.

Type: In the Field

Education & Training

View All Publications