At a rally in Florida this month, President Trump sparked an international uproar when he seemingly cited a terrorist attack in Sweden that never actually happened. Trump later clarified that he was alluding to a segment he’d seen on Fox News regarding Sweden’s immigration policies, which isn’t much of a defense, but the damage was already done. His comment became a punch line on late-night television and social media. Even the Swedish embassy in Washington piled on, tweeting that it looked forward to “informing” the president.
Yet the widespread mockery of Trump’s flub, while entertaining, somewhat overshadowed the particularly relevant context in which it occurred. Trump was attempting to defend his deplorable Muslim travel ban by invoking the need to “keep our country safe.” And he was doing it by calling attention to a country, Sweden, whose unconventional approach to foreign policy and security issues underscores the senselessness of the agenda that Trump and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, are advancing.
When it comes to national security, Trump’s ostensible strategy is rooted in jingoism and outward displays of strength. Aside from Bannon, whose unusual role on the National Security Council is a matter of grave concern, Trump has surrounded himself largely with generals (including, until his resignation, Michael Flynn) who enable him to project an image of military might. His policies and statements often seem to be driven by an archaic and self-defeating notion of “toughness”: immigration raids, the border wall, support for torture, even his all-caps tweets. “If we don’t get tough and we don’t get smart — and fast — we’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said in a campaign speech on terrorism. “There will be nothing left.”
In contrast with Trump’s machismo, Sweden, which recently began a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council, has adopted what Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom calls a “feminist foreign policy.” This approach puts the pursuit of gender equality at the center of nearly all of Sweden’s foreign policy initiatives, from pushing for more female negotiators in peace talks to supporting international development programs for women and girls. In one case, Wallstrom even pulled out of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia over concerns about women’s and human rights.
Some have charged that a feminist foreign policy is naive, but for Sweden it’s strategic. As Wallstrom said in a 2015 speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “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.” And in December, Wallstrom called on Trump to make gender equality a U.S. priority. “Without it, he will not be able to make America great again,” she said. “It is smart policy. It is not just the right thing to do.”
Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that supporting women’s rights leads to more security. “Over a decade’s worth of research shows that women’s advancement is critical to stability and to reducing political violence,” Valerie M. Hudson and Dara Kay Cohen recently wrote in the New York Times. “Countries where women are empowered are vastly more secure, whether the issue is food security, countering violent extremism or resolving disputes with other nations peacefully.”
For Sweden, of course, taking a different approach to engaging the world is nothing new. Sweden has long maintained a policy of military non-alignment, although there is now a serious debate within the country about whether to join NATO. Likewise, there is a long history of Swedish leaders emphasizing the link between inequality and security. For example, former prime minister Olof Palme warned in 1980 that “growing economic and social differences between and within nations pose a direct threat to world peace.”
Obviously, the United States has different security concerns, but Trump, Bannon and many other U.S. leaders could still learn from Sweden’s example. Instead of walling our country off, they should realize that bluster and fear-mongering are no substitute for real security; that if we don’t address the root causes of the threats we face, new threats will always continue to emerge; and that investing in women and girls does much more to keep us safe and promote peace than does spending even greater amounts on weapons designed to cause mass devastation.
Despite his desire to look tough, Trump’s policies are ultimately fueled by fear. What takes real courage, however, is to reject the failed thinking that has long dominated U.S. foreign policy and embrace a different way of thinking about our security. As Wallstrom has said, “It’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy.” If Trump can’t do that, perhaps the women who are rising up and leading the resistance against him will.