Foreign Policy as State Identity and the Case of Sweden

Swedish flag and woman pumping fist

Foreign policy. A concept you’re familiar with, but could you define it?

Let’s ask some international relations scholars what they think foreign policy is.

“Those actions which, expressed in the form of explicitly stated goals, commitments and/or directives, and pursued by governmental representatives acting on behalf of their sovereign communities, are directed towards objectives, conditions, and actors — both governmental and non-governmental — which they want to affect and which lie beyond their territorial legitimacy” — Walter Carlsnaes

“The sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations” — Christopher Hill

As these quotes show, foreign policy is as much about action and behavior as it is about static, written policy positions. Who are the actors in foreign policy? Are they limited to states? Or do these actors extend to civil society groups, multinational corporations, international organizations, or even individuals? The people “doing” foreign policy is still an influential debate in the field.

What is clear, and more agreed upon, is that foreign policy is the expression of a state’s identity and interests. A state’s identity is an abstract concept that is difficult to conceive of without explaining

  1. what it does
  2. what it is not

Foreign policy studies are more concerned with the first feature than the second, but the second is not totally irrelevant.

Why We Have Foreign Policy Analysis

Foreign policy analysis allows us to understand the motivations for state behavior by studying and scrutinizing the policy decisions they make concerning their relations with the rest of the world. These motivations are closely linked to preferences and interests. Interests are the drivers behind state identity.

Here’s a simpler version of that with arrows:

Identity → Interests → Preferences → Policy → Behavior

As not-quite a sub-field of international relations, foreign policy analysis tends to be a bit closer to the “real world” than other, more abstract disciplines. Studying foreign policy lends itself neatly to questioning real events. Why did Britain decide to leave the EU? Why did Russia annex Crimea in 2014? Has there been a shift in US external relations under the Trump administration and if so, what does it mean?

Theoreticians may try to answer those questions, but queries like these are the loci of practical and practiced foreign policy analysis.

Grounding Feminist Foreign Policy in the “Real World”

A foreign policy approach that has caught that’s emerged in the last several years is feminist foreign policy. We can take this version of foreign policy and ask: What does feminist foreign policy actually mean in practice? What kind of state identity contributes to the pursuit of a feminist foreign policy? How does such an approach shape state identity in turn (because identity is a two-way street when it comes to foreign policy)?

A great example to help us answer these questions is Sweden — the original example. Sweden announced its feminist foreign policy in 2015, followed by the proclamation of its feminist government in 2014. Was this decision based on its previous interests? And does it influence Sweden’s foreign policy identity in new ways? Before diving into the case of Sweden and feminist foreign policy, let’s look first at how identity is constructed via foreign relations.

Foreign Policy as National Identity

The key to identity is interest and preference formation. How do states generate these interests? Are they developed through exposure to external factors?

Two important concepts for understanding state behavior related to identity are the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness.

The logic of consequences is based on rationality, saying states will maximize utility using cost-benefit transactions. They will rationally choose the best option.

The logic of appropriateness says states don’t always choose what appears to be most beneficial on paper. Sometimes they act according to what is expected of them, adhering to a certain identity in foreign policy. If a state sees itself as a great power rather than a middle power, it is more likely to act like a great power — building up its military and economic resources rather than forming alliances with other states.

External interests and preferences, therefore, follow from this identity. They also influence the domestic national identity in turn — they are mutually reinforcing, constituting each other.

Domestically, the base of social and political action is collective identity, generated by social exchange and interaction. Citizens draw upon this collective identity to reproduce culture and politicians draw upon it to legitimate their policy decisions. As a result, preferences are determined. Foreign policy imparts these preferences to other states, demonstrating what is integral to identity and what is not.

Here are some more arrows to better explain the link between domestic identity and foreign policy:

Social exchange and interaction → a society’s collective identity → culture and policy positions → preferences → foreign policy

Now that we know how foreign policy is an expression of national identity, let’s turn to feminist foreign policy and the case of Sweden.

What is Feminist Foreign Policy?

What is feminist foreign policy? Debates still emerge as to what exactly it means, and which actions it entails. However, the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, a Germany- and UK-based think tank, says this:

“A feminist foreign policy is a framework which elevates the everyday lived experience of marginalized 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.”

This definition reflects what is intrinsic to gender analysis — questioning gendered assumptions to reveal structures of power. With that in mind, what are the gendered assumptions present in foreign policy?

Foreign policy, like other areas of international relations, is replete with gender stereotypes. These stereotypes associate power and violence with masculinity and men. Femininity is excluded from power, and often relegated to “soft” areas like social policy, education, health and welfare, or environmental sustainability.

These attitudes contribute to a hierarchy, a network of social power relations based on gender. A hierarchical structure like this leads to fewer women in leadership roles, fewer women in the military, and normalized violence against women. A feminist foreign policy would ideally seek to address these issues.

Women, Peace and Security and Gender Mainstreaming

There are two important things to note here. First, feminist foreign policy is very closely related to the Women, Peace and Security agenda which was launched by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000. This policy framework promotes gender equality in international peacekeeping efforts, and combats violence against women in conflict.

Second, feminism in policymaking is not new. In the last 25 years, gender mainstreaming — the incorporation of a gendered perspective in all policy programs to ensure equality — has become a norm. Gender mainstreaming is emblematic of liberal feminism, which emphasizes a neutral approach to gender. It also underlines women’s political and civil inclusion (suffrage, women in politics, equality before the law, etc.) without questioning gender hierarchies that are embedded in most political institutions. It is equated to an “add women and stir” recipe that simply tries to make men and women equal without questioning where men’s power comes from.

Sweden’s Radical Approach to Foreign Policy

Some critics claim that Sweden’s declaration of a feminist foreign policy is just an expansion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda on which it already worked extensively. However, by going beyond the traditional gender mainstreaming approach to policymaking — explicitly by using the word “feminist”, Sweden has done something radical.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy doesn’t follow the typical add women and stir method. It aims to critically analyze power structures that privilege men in its international development and global conflict resolution programs. In other words, the Swedish policy is a “ transformative agenda that aims to change structures and enhance the visibility of women and girls as actors [emphasis added]”. Language about power, transformation, and intersectionality make this policy bolder than its predecessors.

Why did Sweden launch this policy? More to the point — what does it say about Sweden’s identity?

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom
Margot Wallstöm was the Swedish Foreign Minister who inaugurated the country’s Feminist Foreign Policy in 2015. Attribution: photo by Socialdemokraterna shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license via Flickr.

Sweden’s Identity is Tied to Feminist Foreign Policy

Feminist foreign policy is a critical take on policymaking — there are undoubtedly normative dimensions. Sweden’s take is framing gender equality as an ethical responsibility to promote human rights. This perspective is instrumental to Sweden’s national identity, both inwardly and outwardly.

Domestically, Sweden has a history of egalitarian norms that support a gender-equal society. Traditionally, the country leaned more toward liberal feminism, valuing women’s economic independence as the base of gender equality — this is associated with the “Nordic model.” Within the last few decades, however, a more radical feminist stance on women’s rights reform took hold as a result of political advocacy and mobilization. The feminist foreign policy of 2015 and the feminist government announcement preceding it in 2014 were situated in this political climate.

Sweden wasn’t the first country to conceive of a gendered perspective in foreign policymaking — just the first to call it feminist. Hillary Clinton fought for women’s rights promotion as a security issue while she was US Secretary of State; Julie Bishop did the same as Foreign Minister of Australia; and William Hague called attention to sexual violence in conflict as the British Foreign Secretary.

Was Sweden following a global trend or setting a new trend itself? A little of both, actually. The Swedish national identity based on gender egalitarianism developed despite of and in response to shifting international norms. Its domestic context was, however, more accepting of a radical shift in the definition of global gender equality. This re-defining propelled the launch of its feminist foreign policy.


Arguing that Sweden displays a normative commitment to women’s rights promotion both domestically and internationally, Annika Bergman Rosamond says there is a link between the two policy spheres. This perspective sees feminist foreign policy as an expression of Sweden’s national identity and interests. Domestically, its preferences toward women’s roles are shaped by its norms.

Spreading these norms to the rest of the world is in Sweden’s interest because it believes there is an ethical obligation to do so. Sweden, therefore, acts in accordance with its identity as a human rights promoter and further shapes this identity through its actions on behalf of its feminist foreign policy.

Sweden isn’t the only country to have a feminist foreign policy anymore. Canada, Mexico, and France have all also declared feminist priorities in their foreign relations and international development policies. It would be interesting to analyze what adoption of a feminist approach says about each country’s identity as well — even though each of these countries has a feminist foreign policy to some extent, it shapes and is shaped by each of their national identities differently.



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Courtney Withrow

Courtney Withrow

Writer and Blogger. International Relations, Travel, Culture. Based in Brussels, Belgium.