Five years ago Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Foreign Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister), spoke as guest of honor at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo. The speech was canceled after Wallström compared the whipping of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi to «medieval methods». Saudi Arabia reacted strongly, and their foreign ministry called Wallström’s criticism an «obvious interference in internal affairs.»
Later that day, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist stated that Sweden did not want to extend its arms deal with Saudi Arabia. That led to the Kingdom calling its ambassador home. Norway’s closest neighbor thus ended up in a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East.
Wallström received a lot of international support for her criticism, and also from home, as from the magazine ETC’s editor, Andreas Gustavsson. He wrote: «Finally, Sweden has gained a foreign policy backbone.»
But there were also many in both the government and the opposition who criticized her for acting amateurishly and not following diplomatic rules. Former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, for example, wrote: «It is very serious if there is an impression that we are running away from our obligations.» The diplomatic crisis would hurt Swedish industry, which exported around SEK 11 billion annually to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has also cracked down on new democracy movements that woke up after the Arab Spring, as in Bahrain. «Medieval methods?» I ask Wallström:
«Yes, but who was right? We have since seen how the Saudi Arabians took Jamal Khashoggi.»
Populism and nationalism
We live today in a world of populism – as in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Or as Wallström herself points out where we are, a world of autocrats. So how can she still hope for democratic governance?
«I have some hope, but that’s not enough. I believe in the foundations of democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, and assembly. That’s why I also started the Drive for Democracy organization when I resigned as Foreign Minister. I look with concern that international cooperation and human rights are not taken seriously. There is a polarisation and brutalization of the political debate. This is also due to social media, where the worst among us have put it to use and are controlling much of the debate.»
One can wonder if Wallström, after 40 years in politics, is witnessing a new class divide where minorities of the enlightened resist the pressure, or small countries like Norway and Sweden rather choose an outsider with their welfare values. But what about these values internationally in the rise of populism and selfishness?
when we criticized Israel for violations of international law, we were accused of being anti-Semitic. I regard this as deeply offensive and wrong.
«We must fight internationally for our values. Here, Nordic cooperation can show how our societies are rooted in human rights, democracy, and people’s political participation. And education for everyone. But nothing comes of its own accord. Seriously, those I call the «autocrats» are actually elected.»
When I listen to her, I wonder why she is not more pessimistic because of nationalists like Trump and others: «Obviously I’m surprised and sorry. But we who have these values must constitute one counterforce. I have actually spent my entire life on this. At the same time, we need politicians to solve problems caused by difference and inequality.»
Resilience and the EU
Sweden has been called the EU’s best friend. EU is a collection based on consensus, usually veto. It can weaken the EU’s ability to implement, facing supranational problems such as the environment and pandemics. I, therefore, ask Wallström, who has such long experience internationally, whether she believes in a European federation in the future?
«The EU on the road to federalism? No, there is no support for that. You want to keep your nations. But it is true that environmental damage does not respect national boundaries – such as storms, floods, or pandemics as today. Common rules are needed. I don’t think you want a federation, but you realize it’s wise to work together. For example, when it comes to the corona pandemic, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. It affects us everywhere – where we must take the consequences. And the climate is the most important task we have. Here, most have underestimated the situation.»
I don’t think you want a federation, but you realize it’s wise to work together.
As nationally sovereign Sweden has chosen an open liberal strategy when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, unlike Norway’s shutdown of society. I ask Wallström what she thinks about this:
«It is difficult – and perhaps not entirely fair – to directly compare two countries’ strategies. How can the consequences be measured and when? What will be the result when the countries open again? But the differences between Norway and Sweden are probably smaller than the similarities. For example, Sweden’s goal of protecting the old, not overburdened health care in order to take care of seriously ill people, and protecting the health of the population to prevent infection. But a constitutional difference between Sweden and Norway is that we have a system of more independent health authorities. That does not mean that our government has been passive, on the contrary – early they decided on such restrictions as school closures (not for younger children), banning large congregations, travel, and visiting bans for elderly care. Unfortunately, the infection has entered many nursing homes, where the very old and very ill often stay. This is where most deaths have occurred.»
It is precisely in such a situation that I call for the supranational, rules that must be followed for reasons beyond the individual nation. Something like the European Green Deal, a common minimum consensus on health restrictions on today’s biological hazards – without requiring the approval of all countries to be established in the EU.
«It’s going to be very difficult – not to say impossible – to introduce something more supranational to such health issues. But we must stick to what we have and be able to recommend multilateralism and still defend democracy. Otherwise, conservative nationalist forces will exploit this crisis. Implementing the European Green Deal, which means continuing an ambitious environmental policy, is central to the future.»
Oil nation Norway
In such an international community, I can only ask our neighbor about the view of Norway environmentally, where, for many, with the oil, we are an environmental sinner acting on selfish interests:
«I think Norway has a smart population, who know how they want it. And it probably feels safer when you know you have an income and a position in the world. I think you as an oil nation also understand that you have to change your mind, that will be a requirement. But in a democratic way, where Norway respects such values.»
I tell Wallström that I now perceive her as being kind to us, next door. Norway has gained traction on the oil and has been criticized internationally for cutting itself off of the seabed, from what some believe should have been joint ownership:
«Well, we are fighting on the basis of the assumptions we have. There is a mechanism here that Norway respects. But it is also being investigated by the UN Human Rights Council. And Norway has people who can choose their own leaders. You can have an open debate. But you will soon see that a change is necessary for the sake of the climate.»
Walström has a long time in various commissions in the EU, so we ask her if she herself recommends Norway into the EU:
«Yes, but you have considered it again and again. Just like in Sweden, the Norwegian people themselves have to decide how you want it.»
When women join, peace lasts longer.
When Wallström got the post of Foreign Minister in 2014, she announced that she wanted to drive a «feminist foreign policy». In the period 2010–2012, Wallström had also been the UN Special Representative for Combating Sexual Violence in Conflict.
As she says in the documentary The Feminister (read the review here): «Feminist politics means talking and actively agitating for women’s rights, peace and security.» She wanted to fight gender discrimination and faced opposition both nationally and internationally: As MODERN TIMES critic Ellen Lande wrote about Wallström in The Feminister: «We join the beautiful corridors and gilded chambers of power. Surrounded as she is by significant men in high-status suits. She is a female politician who knows how to flow with the flow, and then, at the right moment, to dare to fight against it.» And Wallström says, where the director follows her in the film, around work in this world, that women think more long-term than men. She believes that women are experiencing a backlash worldwide:
«This is again about democracy. If we do not preserve the potential of half the world’s population, we will lose a great deal. With women included in peace talks, several alternatives may emerge. As in Colombia, where Norway was also present. Female representatives insisted that the land issue be included – otherwise, the war and conflict would quickly flare up again. And that survivors and victims of the FARC guerrillas and war had to be heard. Consequently, large hearings were conducted. When women join, peace lasts longer. Unfortunately, women are largely excluded from peace processes – just look at the signatures.»
In The Feminister, Wallström also meets with a number of Afghan women, asking them to overlook the authorities and organize themselves on their own: «Yes, now they are protesting through their own organizations. We try to help them a little and develop the debate. Right now it is scary as the international community is retiring after many years in Afghanistan. We can’t leave them alone. For Afghanistan, negotiations between the US and the Taliban do not have a say in the situation of women. It was just about prisoner exchange. In addition, it should be included in the negotiations that one does not go back on women’s right to work and education.»
But there were also other issues such as sexual harassment, inheritance issues, or having a bank account:
«Exactly! That is why I said when I became Foreign Minister that the policy had to be practical. Rather than just making great statements, I asked all our embassies to follow three parameters: women’s rights, such as whether they can attend school, or drop abortion expenses when they are 14 years old. And legal rights. Secondly, whether they are represented where decisions are made – in parliament, in governments, in large companies, where they are really listened to. And thirdly, the embassies should look at the host country’s resources, whether there is money for the needs of women and girls. Many countries do not have control over how budgets are managed. Our embassies will uncover discrimination. This has produced good results. We also made a manual. Now six countries have done the same.»
We worked to ensure that women’s needs were included in the resolutions that were passed
From the UN to Rojava
Wallström also served as Sweden’s representative on the UN Security Council. How much power did she have to implement her policy on women’s rights?
«I think we succeeded in getting many allies on these issues. For example, Germany said that when they later joined the council, they should continue with the feminist direction. It is, after all, about all the war and conflict situations in which the UN has a role. We worked to ensure that women’s needs were included in the resolutions that were passed – so that there is a difference out there on the ground.»
Wallström talks about her ambassador Olof Skoog; when he went to Mali, «he felt the need to raise his hand in every situation and ask ‘Where are the women included?’»
I ask her about our own Norwegian female foreign minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, on whether she is pushing the same values, as Wallström sees it:
«I think we’ve worked very well together on these issues. We have the same view of how important this is. This is almost something we from the Nordic countries have in our DNA. We believe it is logical, and not just the right policy, but smart policy, to let women join.»
In 3Kurdish Rojava, men and women are equated as leaders in pairs, almost an anarchist regulation. Wallström was going to Turkey to protest the invasion of the Kurds in 2018, but she did not get there. What does she think of such leadership models?
«It’s a good model when you show respect for both similarities and differences in that way. It’s incredibly good. Also, remember how many Kurdish women have made an important contribution to the Peshmerga forces on the battlefield.»
Hamas, Palestine, and Trump
When Jonas Gahr Støre was Foreign Minister, Norway recognized Gaza’s elections of Hamas in 2006. Støre also had talks with Hamas at Abbas’s request, to promote a unifying government with Fatah in the West Bank. But after the election, he remained the only foreign minister to support the outcome. The world, perhaps the autocrats mentioned by Wallström, would not recognize Hamas:
«I think many people have said in retrospect that talking to each other is always an advantage. Often, as in the case of Hamas, occurs a backchannel, a back door. You can reach there in order to create cooperation, help, or provide humanitarian assistance. This is a need. Foreign politicians always prefer dialogue. But this is difficult when the counterpart uses terror as a means.»
When Wallström’s Social Democrats party came to power in 2014, they chose to recognize Palestine as a state. With recognition, she also condemned Israeli extrajudicial executions of Palestinians. She was then actually threatened with references to the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, the man behind the white buses and the UN’s first envoy to Palestine / Israel. She comments on the following:
«It was horrible, the attack that came to me after the support of Palestine. But we are in good company; there are more than 135 countries that have recognized Palestine as a state. We are not alone in this. But if one wants change, one must also dare to be brave. It was an election promise we had made. What I experienced was that when we criticized Israel for violations of international law, we were accused of being anti-Semitic. I regard this as deeply offensive and wrong. Throughout my work, I have worked to combat anti-Semitism. It has been a driving force for me. We are against international law violations, and for a two-state solution. I’m for peace.»
Norway tried to contribute in 1993 with the Oslo Agreement. Many peace attempts have since failed, the two-state solution has not been realized. Wallström gets a little upset, and asks me: «What is the alternative then? Nobody has an alternative.»
I shake my head and mention Trump and Kushner’s «financial» plan this year as yet another attempt:
«The so-called plan the Americans have now put forward is total capitulation. Unfortunately, only the situation for the Palestinians is deteriorating. It’s a very desperate situation.»
I then mention Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was behind an economic planning project with the West Bank. But many believe that Israel and Palestine, after so long, may never be able to resolve this themselves. So what, then, should the international community really grasp – or the UN?
«We in Sweden entered into a partnership with France, where we had a kind of plan of contact with about 75 active civilian organizations from both Palestine and Israel. They made a fantastic effort, but unfortunately, there is less contact between them now. They did not dare or did not have the opportunity to meet. I believe in such matters, to create a new atmosphere, to create hope for something else. But what will the road ahead be, really? At least there is no easy way. We at least try to contribute, with a single straw to the stack.»
Return to Värmland
We end the conversation with a look back at her 40 years in politics. We saw former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speak directly and honestly to people and win recognition. Wallström also comes up with her own opinions. But in a populist world full of disinformation, as mentioned at first, does she still believe that a somewhat more «undiplomatic» tone is emerging?
«As a party politician, you have three tasks: First, you have to describe reality so that people recognize it themselves. And admits: ‘Yes, it is, where you have captured reality as it looks.’ The second is that you must be able to see a ‘there we go’. Imagine a society you think is good to live in, which looks about the same with such values. And thirdly, one must see that one can create change through practical political action. But it seems like it’s harder and harder today. We don’t even agree on the descriptions of reality. We have fake news, and several waging war with disinformation like weapons.»
Wallström withdrew – after too much stress, and with health problems – to Sweden’s Värmland:
«Yes, now I am at least with my husband and in my home. But I have several questions and issues that I still engage with, even if it’s not full-time. I can choose for myself, I am a free woman.»
This article originally appeared in Norewgian via Ny Tid
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