In 2022, Kristina Lunz, a leading voice in the fight for gender equality in international politics, published her bestselling book, The Future of Foreign Policy is Feminist. Margot Wallström, the former Swedish Foreign Minister, celebrates Lunz’s manifesto as “a bold vision for a sustainable future” that “brilliantly exposes the brutal patterns of male dominance at the global level.” Wallström herself implemented a Feminist Foreign Policy for Sweden in 2014, proclaiming that “it’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy.” Despite her announcement initially being met with scepticism and reluctance, several like-minded states have followed suit. In 2017, Canada announced a Feminist Development Policy. Spain launched its Feminist Foreign Policy in 2018, followed by France and Luxembourg in 2019, then Mexico in 2020 and most recently, in March 2023, Germany. But what exactly is a Feminist Foreign Policy? What advantages can its application bring to international affairs? And most crucially, will it ever be adopted at a global level?
Defining Feminist Foreign Policy is a challenging task, given the lack of a cohesive and agreed-upon definition due to the multifaceted and fragmented nature of feminism itself. However, there is a general consensus that a Feminist Foreign Policy takes a gender-sensitive approach in all domains of foreign policy, ranging from the security to the development domain. The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy goes even further than that claiming that a state shall “define its interactions with other states, supranational organisations, multilateral forums, civil society and social movements in a way that prioritises – across all foreign policy areas – feminist peace, climate justice and the eradication of inequalities.” It would thus serve to protect the rights of marginalised and vulnerable communities by “disrupting colonial, racist, patriarchal, sexist and exploitatively capitalist structures.” Although the achievement of long-term, gender-based peace and justice is not only desirable but also necessary, the crucial question that remains is: how can it be achieved through Feminist Foreign Policy? And is there perhaps a discontinuity between discourse and practice? The Swedish case gives us an idea of how it could work and which challenges might arise.
Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, which ended abruptly in 2022 with the new liberal-conservatve foreign minister Tobias Billstrom, was based on three Rs: rights, representation and resources. It aimed to promote the full enjoyment of human rights for women, including sexual and reproductive health rights, as well as economic rights, empowerment and freedom from gender-based violence, particularly during conflict. It also envisioned greater participation of women in conflict resolution processes and post-conflict peacebuilding, domestic politics and all other areas of society. Finally, the third R, resources, foresaw that substantial financial and human resources shall be dedicated towards implementing a Feminist Foreign Policy.
Sweden mainly pursued its Feminist Foreign Policy through norm-entrepreneurship and digital diplomacy. It actively promoted the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Furthermore, the Swedish Foreign Ministry, Swedish embassies, and prominent politicians such as Margot Wallström, Isabella Loövin and Ann Linde utilised digital platforms like Twitter as well as public diplomacy initiatives to draw attention to the issue of gender equality in international relations. Nevertheless, the question as to whether the three Rs, and the means used to implement them, are enough to enact a strong Feminist Foreign Policy that goes beyond rhetorical commitment remains.
Although Sweden’s pursuit -of a Feminist Foreign Policy is commendable, valid criticism has been levelled against the government for continuing to deliver arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the country’s lack of respect for human and women’s rights. This undermines and raises questions about Sweden’s normative credibility. Domestically, Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy has also been rightly criticised for its binary understanding of gender as male and female, its disregard of the LGTBQ+ community and its overly white, western and liberal nature sidelining the concerns of women of colour and lower income individuals. A Feminist Foreign Policy must be representative for all citizens and should thus be intersectional in nature, taking into consideration factors such as race, class, and a broad, non-binary understanding of gender.
The application of feminism to foreign policy is novel, unfamiliar and thus for many, radical. It is safe to say that a Feminist Foreign Policy marks a normative reorientation of traditional foreign policy approaches, and is guided by norms and human rights rather than militarism and hard power. Naturally, it will give rise to opposition by those whose hierarchical power and position Feminist Foreign Policy seeks to renegotiate and challenge. Some international players are more conservative than others and less receptive to the quest for gender equality. In line with this, the Swedish scholars Malena Rosén Sundström and Ole Elgström found that diplomatic representatives from Eastern and Southern EU Member States noted that applying the concept of feminism to foreign policy triggers opposition domestically because “it carries negative connotations and is a controversial concept, also among politicians and state officials.”
It seems to be the case that Feminist Foreign Policy conflicts with deeply entrenched patriarchal norms that continue to dominate international politics. However, the fact that these norms structure international relations today does not mean that they cannot be dismantled tomorrow.
Written by Annkathrin Rest; Edited by Katharina Joó
Photo credit to: Karl Magnuson, Unsplash