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Sweden’s subtly radical ‘feminist’ foreign policy is causing a stir

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom talks to journalists in Stockholm on March 19, 2015. (Claudio Bresciani/AFP via Getty Images)

On the face of it, the unexpected cancellation of permits for a flat-pack-furniture store might not seem like a matter of geopolitical importance. However, while the Swedish Foreign Ministry has played down the situation, multiple accounts suggest that the opening of Morocco's first Ikea store was unexpectedly blocked as punishment for Sweden's foreign policy. Many in Morocco believe that Sweden is planning to soon become the first Western nation to recognize the independence of Western Sahara, a disputed territory claimed by Morocco.

Stockholm's involvement in a long-standing territorial dispute in North Africa might surprise outsiders, but Swedish foreign policy has thrown up a variety of surprises over the past year. Since Stefan Löfven, leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SAP), became prime minister last October, Sweden has pursued a subtly radical, “feminist” foreign policy — a policy that has placed it at odds with a number of foreign powers.

“We hope that we can make the parties a little less unequal,” Foreign Minister Margot Wallström told CNN at the time. In response, Israel recalled its ambassador and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman chided that the Middle East is “more complicated than a piece of furniture from Ikea,” which was founded in Sweden. Wallström shot back: “I will be happy to send Israel FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble. He'll see it requires a partner, cooperation and a good manual.”

A second key moment came in March 2015, when Wallström was unceremoniously booted from a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo after her public criticism of Saudi Arabia's handling of human rights issues. Again, the situation escalated quickly, with Sweden scrapping a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Stockholm, while the Arab League issued a statement condemning Wallström.

After the new government took office, Wallström explained Sweden's new stance as part of a broader “feminist foreign policy,” but at first it wasn't totally clear what that meant. The Web site of Sweden's government now says that “equality between women and men is a fundamental aim of Swedish foreign policy” and that Sweden has a duty to ensure that “women and girls can enjoy their fundamental human rights.” Speaking to the New Yorker’s Jenny Nordberg in April, Wallström expanded on this definition, explaining that a feminist foreign policy meant “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women,” adding that it was “time to become a little braver in foreign policy.”

Some experts say that, although still important, the feminism tag doesn't fully describe the moves Sweden has been making over the past year. “Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is still in the making,” Fredrik Wesslau, director of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains. “It’s not the overarching concept underpinning Sweden’s foreign policy, but it is an important concept.”

Another, perhaps overlooked thread over the past year may be the wistful memories of Swedish diplomatic history, according to Ulf Bjereld, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg and a SAP supporter. “For many years, there has been a pressure inside the Social Democratic Party for a more progressive and independent foreign policy,” Bjereld explains. “Some members of the Social Democratic Party look at the foreign policy of Olof Palme during the 1970s and 1980s as an ideal.” As prime minister, Palme adopted a policy of non-alignment toward major powers and support for independence movements in developing countries. He was assassinated in Stockholm in 1986; the killing remains unsolved.

Löfven’s and Wallström’s foreign policy isn’t necessarily a complete break from the past, however. Issues such as the Western Sahara and the fight for a Palestinian state have long been supported by significant numbers of Swedes, and Swedish policy was built on consensus even under previous center-right governments. Katarina Tracz, director of the Stockholm Free World Forum think tank, says the shift was really within rhetoric and a desire to distance itself from previous administrations.

Despite threats of boycotts and protests outside the Swedish Embassy in Rabat, the spat with Morocco hasn't made major headlines within Sweden — Sweden’s parliament first called a motion to recognize Western Sahara in 2012, but it was vetoed by the then-center-right government. Relatively few Swedes view it as a major issue, and opposition parties have kept a low profile on it. In statements, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry has denied that it has any immediate plans to recognize Western Sahara, saying instead that it is planning to review its policy internally.

Other issues have been far more contentious, however. Ahead of the troubles with Saudi Arabia, 31 Swedish business leaders published a statement in the DN Debatt newspaper urging the government to maintain good ties with that Sunni kingdom. “Sweden's reputation as a trade and business partner is at stake,” the statement read. “In a very real way, this is about Sweden's credibility as a contractual partner,” Carl Bildt, Wallström's predecessor as foreign minister, told Defense News. “That credibility is important to a relatively small country like Sweden. This whole situation is unfortunate.”

Some experts argue that Sweden was losing political leverage with these moves rather than gaining it. “Sweden has definitely taken a back seat in the Israel-Palestine conflict since now one of the parties — Israel — won't listen to it,” said Per Jönsson, a Middle East expert at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

Tracz sees the dispute with Morocco as a knock-on effect of the Palestine decision. “There's no certainty now about how Sweden will act,” she says. “Certain countries are starting to get nervous about what Sweden will and will not do.”

A more abstract issue might be imagining what exactly an independent foreign policy looks like, or how a feminist foreign policy could be applied to bigger geopolitical problems such as the conflicts in Ukraine or Syria. Stockholm's policy has placed it at odds with some major Western powers, which could cause complications in the future. Importantly, there has been growing public support in Sweden for NATO membership, for instance, in large part because of concerns about Russia. The SAP has historically argued against joining NATO, but some significant voices in the party have become open to cooperation with it. Another factor is the Löfven government's desire to gain a non-permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council in 2017.

Despite these complexities, there are many supporters of Sweden's new foreign policy. Robert Egnell, an associate professor at the Swedish National Defense College, says that changes being made to processes at Sweden's Foreign Ministry “are likely to continue having an impact on the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy in the coming years” and that Sweden's talk of a feminist foreign policy has found sympathetic ears in other countries. “I'd say that there is a greater chance of Swedish leadership than isolation,” Egnell adds.

If nothing else, the new policy has got people talking. “For all my years in this business, I have never met such a strong international interest for Swedish foreign policy as during this last year,” Bjereld says. “You can, of course, discuss if this is good or bad — but it is clearly a change.”

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Correction: This post has been amended to reflect that the Swedish Embassy in Morocco is in Rabat, not Marrakesh.