The Woman Who Created Feminist Foreign Policy
One Restless writer looks at the legacy of Margot Wallström
When Margot Wallström announced her resignation as Sweden’s Foreign Minister on 6 September it escaped the notice of most of the world’s media.
Cabinet resignations and re-shuffles have been commonplace recently in many of the world’s major economies. No one in the UK could be blamed for forgetting who the Secretary of State for Justice is this week and let’s not even get started on the retention rate in the US administration. So it is not unusual that Wallström’s announcement barely registered in the world news, coming as it did from Sweden, a country of just 10 million people.
But what was missed in Margot Wallström’s resignation is that her legacy is likely to be much more significant than most ministers. Wallström led the world’s first government department to practise feminist foreign policy (FFP), and other countries are now following her example.
According to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, FFP is “a framework which elevates the everyday lived experience of marginalised communities to the forefront and provides a broader and deeper analysis of global issues. It takes a step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most marginalised.”
Four countries – Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico – have so far embraced FFP to varying degrees.
In 2014, Sweden launched its FFP, which the Swedish Government defines as “applying a systematic gender equality perspective throughout the whole foreign policy agenda”. The Government’s FFP handbook recognises that although “gender equality is an objective in itself… it is also essential for achieving the Government’s other overall objectives, such as peace, security and sustainable development.”
Sweden was a groundbreaker in this area and at the policy’s inception no other world leaders were rushing to follow Wallström and Sweden’s example. It was not until three years later that the rest of the world began to pay attention.
Canada has stopped short of implementing a feminist foreign policy of its own, but has clearly been influenced by Sweden’s efforts. In 2017, the Canadian Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Development in Justin Trudeau’s self-proclaimed feminist government announced Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. This policy focused on international development initiatives to promote women’s rights through poverty alleviation measures.
The following year at the meeting of the G7, a group of seven of the largest economies in the world, Trudeau was enjoying his rotation as president of the group. He used the occasion to discuss broadening Canada’s foreign policy approach to make it more feminist.
This year France holds the G7 presidency, and in May the French Government hosted a summit on women’s rights and gender equality at which it announced an intention to adopt feminist foreign policy.
More recently, at the Global Citizen festival in September, Mexico became the latest country to announce that it would be adopting a feminist foreign policy. Martha Delgado Peralta, the Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights said: “From mandating gender equal appointment of ambassadors, to commiting to advance the rights of girls and women through our engagement in the United Nations and other international forums, we firmly believe that our committment to a feminist foreign policy will positively impact the lives of women and girls in Mexico and around the world.”
Although these are promising steps, there is a large gap to bridge between this commitment to change and the implementation of a radically different foreign policy which moves away from centuries of established practice. Mexico’s new commitment will need to be monitored carefully to ensure that FFP is implemented next year as planned.
In Canada, the shine has largely come off a government that promised the world, there is also reason to be somewhat sceptical about whether a true feminist foreign policy will be implemented.
So as Wallström leaves office, what is her legacy?
Before Wallström became Sweden’s Foreign Minister, no states were practising feminist foreign policy and no governments were talking about it. Now, in addition to Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico are actively exploring FFP and political parties in the UK have pledged to adopt either FFP or a feminist development policy if they are elected.
Of course, there are still significant barriers to the widespread adoption of FFP. Sweden remains the only state to truly put it into practise. None of Canada, France or Mexico have actually adopted FFP – all have merely expressed an interest in doing so.
Even in Sweden the future of FFP is uncertain. Wallström was the Government’s main proponent of FFP and the continuation of the policy depends on good stewardship. Ann Linde, Wallström’s replacement as Foreign Minister, has committed to press on with the policy approach but if the political make-up of the Swedish Government changes in the near future there are no guarantees about the continuity of its aims.
Regardless of how the policy fares in the future, Wallström’s legacy is that she was a groundbreaker. In the foreign policy realm where creative thinking is discouraged and decisions are based on antiquated norms and assumptions about the world, progress depends on a pioneer who is willing to make a bold statement and show that change is possible. With the precedent set by Wallström, and now five years of policy implementation to build upon, other governments know it can be done and can have the confidence to adopt a feminist foreign policy themselves.
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