2024 is an exceptionally important year in European history. Not only is it the “Super Election Year”, as it has been dubbed by political watchers, but it also marks ten years since Sweden was the first country to promote a feminist foreign policy. Intended to empower women and promote gender equality, feminist foreign policy brings the question of gender into all parts of foreign policy. It is meant to be a more comprehensive approach that encompasses fields like defence and security, trade and development, and diplomacy. Feminist foreign policy aims to strengthen the position of women in all these fields. The policy shift has gone through a decade of scepticism, successes, and drawbacks. Yet, as the political balance in Europe shifts ever further right, it also becomes necessary to re-evaluate the status of and possibilities for feminist foreign policy.


In 2014, Europe was no isle of the blessed. While it was before the refugee crisis, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the ever-growing political divides experienced today, the European Union (EU) was already experiencing low voter turnout, a rise of support for Eurosceptic parties, and dealing with the political implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But in the realm of foreign policy, 2014 was also a notable year for an entirely different reason. Feminist foreign policy was first introduced by the self-proclaimed feminist government of Sweden. In an effort to effect long-lasting policy changes and promote the role of women and gender equality, it was the first time that such an approach to foreign policy was officially adopted.


Since then, more than a dozen countries have followed Sweden’s lead and implemented or have pledged to implement a feminist foreign policy. Among the countries that are actively pursuing a feminist foreign policy are a number of European states including France, Spain, Luxembourg, and Germany. While Sweden was the first to pursue this policy shift, it also became the first to undo it, choosing to no longer actively pursue a feminist foreign policy in 2022.


For the new Swedish government elected in 2022, it was not the nature of the foreign policy that was the reason for its abandonment, rather the linguistic connotations the term carries. Tobias Billström, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced after the 2022 election that the country would no longer pursue their feminist foreign policy, stating that “we’re not going to use the expression ‘feminist foreign policy’ because labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content.”


Feminism is generally still not regarded as a diplomatic term. Feminist foreign policy is viewed as a radical departure from decades of male-dominated foreign policy, met with scepticism and opposition because of the political connotations associated with feminism. Feminist foreign policy’s greatest obstacle may be the misconceptions of what it represents.


Nevertheless, feminist foreign policy perseveres. While progress on feminist foreign policy slides in Sweden, its evolution has continued in other European capitals. Numerous governments have published handbooks on their conduct of feminist foreign policy, establishing guidelines to work by and highlighting focus areas. In March 2023, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office under Minister for Foreign Affairs and advocate of feminist foreign policy, Annalena Baerbock, published the “Guidelines for Feminist Foreign Policy: A Foreign Policy for All” . The document sets out nine guidelines focusing on the empowerment and visibility of women and marginalised groups, gender-sensitive and gender-targeted humanitarian assistance, the filling of legislative gaps, as well as inclusive climate diplomacy and economic policy.


Spain, a country that outperforms most other EU Member States when it comes to gender equality, published its “Feminist Foreign Policy: Promoting Gender Equality in Spain’s External Action” guidelines in 2021. Dividing their feminist foreign policy approach into five guiding principles, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focuses on coherent and structural change in institutional culture, leadership commitment, inclusivity and alliance-building, ownership, and intersectionality and diversity. Their instruments, too, are all-encompassing: from mainstreaming the gender approach to bilateral, regional, multilateral, and finally public diplomacy, Spain has committed itself to a holistic approach to female empowerment.


One of the most resonant voices in the field is co-founder of the Centre of Feminist Foreign Policy and author of The Future of Foreign Policy is Feminist (first published in German in 2022), Kristina Lunz, . Speaking about feminist foreign policy, she highlights its focus on equality, non-discrimination, and aim of taking the competitiveness out of international affairs to instead promote collaboration, while critiquing the patriarchal structures and status quo of war and violence perpetuated by today’s political systems.


Yet it seems that much of Europe is still stuck in these structures. With EU Member States’ attention focused on the outcomes of the super election year, many states’ political agendas are shifting quickly away from feminist foreign policy issues such as gender equality and female empowerment to securitisation and safeguards against the rightward shift that has been plaguing the EU. Feminist foreign policy is in danger of being put back on the shelf, to be revisited on a sunnier day.


The current political challenges in Europe should not preclude feminist foreign policy. Instead, feminist foreign policy should be used as an asset to tackle these challenges. An all-encompassing “Feminist Foreign Policy for the European Union”, proposed by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy in 2020, could support and strengthen the EU Gender Action Plan drawn up in 2010 (and by now in its third cycle: GAP III, 2021-2025). But even if more single European states dedicate themselves to the pursuit of feminist foreign policy, the proven benefits of female involvement in international politics would ensue: sustainable peace, objection to militarisation and opposition to the ever-increasing cycle of conflict.


Even though feminist foreign policy has stuck around for a decade, it remains to be seen what its state will be in another ten years. With the rise of right-wing politics, feminist foreign policy stands to lose a lot. Instead of being implemented by more countries, it is at risk of being abandoned by those few who follow it, as Sweden has shown. 


This should not happen. In these times of crises, feminist foreign policy can serve as a more peaceful foreign policy tool that can create a more cooperative world. The notion that feminism or feminist foreign policy might be balance-disrupting must be forgotten: they are balance-creating. The time for feminism will only be over once gender equality has been met. If the rise of instability in recent years has shown anything, it is that there remains a strong need for feminist foreign policy.

Written by Marlene Palan, Edited by Sergio URIBE HENAO

Photo credit: Florian Klauer, Unsplash