The Saturday Profile: Sweden’s Proponent of ‘Feminist Foreign Policy,’ Shaped by Abuse

“I have very little time,” she said. “I don’t have time to walk around cocktail parties. I don’t think that is the work of a diplomat.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Wallstrom was aboard a Swedish Air Force plane, on her way to the United Nations General Assembly. She had traveled all night from Kabul, Afghanistan, and the seats, upholstered in cream-colored leather, were deep and comfortable. An attendant laid out cloth napkins and scattered them with tiny sprigs of wildflowers in preparation for dinner. A book of poetry sat beside her.

But what she wanted to talk about, with a sense of real urgency, was pornography. She urged her companions to commit a few hours to surfing it online, as she has, to better understand “where this kind of hostile, misogynist view of women comes from.”

Sexual violence is a topic that fascinates and repels her. As a government minister (she held three portfolios before becoming foreign minister), she helped write a prostitution law that shifted criminal responsibility to the buyer. She spent years as a United Nations special representative for sexual violence in conflict, listening to the stories of women raped by soldiers in Congo and Sierra Leone.

That period shook loose her memories of Benny, the older, married party activist whom she lived with in her 20s, which she first recounted in a 2013 biography.

“It has, of course, followed me and shaped me,” she said. “With the #MeToo campaign, almost every woman recognizes that something has happened to her that we thought then was kind of natural, that we look at differently today. Why did we stand it? Why did we accept to be talked to like that?”

For a moment she let her mind dwell on that last meeting, when Benny, who had been drinking, held a knife to her throat. “He felt so desperate,” she said. “I did not want to talk to him anymore, I wanted him to leave. It was really the last sort of expression of: ‘I decide. I am the one.’ It was a demonstration of power.”

After escaping that room, she was different, less naïve. Within a few months, just 25, Ms. Wallstrom had won a seat in Parliament. Five years later she married a carpenter named Hakan, as calm and quiet as Benny was combustible. She raised two sons and buried a third in infancy, an experience so painful that it made her, she said, “kind of fearless.” Even when her job required her to spend days listening to women’s stories of abuse, she rarely spoke to anyone of Benny.

“It’s more subconscious, in the way I can understand these women,” she said. “I understand the feeling of helplessness. It’s such a degrading experience, anything like this, where you are under the power and control of somebody else.”

Photo

Ms. Wallstrom at a Barents Euro-Arctic Council meeting in Arkhangelsk, Russia, last month. Credit Alexander Shcherbak/TASS, via Getty Images

Ms. Wallstrom raised eyebrows, in 2014, by announcing that Swedish foreign policy would from that point forward be focused on feminist principles, and waves of international press coverage followed.

Sweden’s stance has become more visible with the rise of Mr. Trump; this summer, when the United States discontinued aid to family planning groups that provide abortions, Sweden offered to countervail the American policy by replacing any lost funds. Canada’s new liberal government this summer adopted Ms. Wallstrom’s idea, announcing a “feminist international assistance program.”

But at home, she is criticized by some senior diplomats and security analysts, who say her activist positions have at times jeopardized Sweden’s trade and security interests. She announced her arrival with Sweden’s official recognition of Palestine, and has since then been regularly snubbed by officials in Israel. In 2015, she denounced Saudi Arabia’s record on gender rights and freedom of speech, prompting Riyadh to recall its ambassador.

The risks were not trivial for Sweden, which the previous year had exported $1.3 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia. The leaders of 31 of Sweden’s largest businesses, including Ericsson and H&M, arrayed against Ms. Wallstrom, signing an open letter warning against damaging the relationship.

She recalled the letter with bitterness, even two years later. “Nothing happened. Zero happened,” she said. “I hope it was a lesson for them, because they were such cowards. I was upset. I was angry.” Asked who prevailed in the standoff, she answered, without hesitation, “I did.”

Her critics say the damage was mitigated by behind-the-scenes backpedaling on the part of the government, including a conciliatory letter from King Carl XVI Gustaf to King Salman.

“Idealism is very important in Sweden,” said Katarina Tracz, director of the Stockholm Free World Forum, a research center. “But if you look at actual policy, it seems like realist interests prevail.”

Another collision took shape this summer, when Ms. Wallstrom endorsed a United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons, which would curtail future cooperation with nuclear powers, including NATO. The American secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, sent a letter warning against ratifying the treaty. She did not appreciate the intervention.

“Unfortunately, NATO and the Americans expressed themselves very clearly,” she said crisply. “I think they should refrain from that. We will not let ourselves be pushed around by anyone.”

Sweden has delayed a final decision on whether to ratify the treaty. Jim Townsend, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, described the tension between Ms. Wallstrom and her counterparts in the defense establishment as “the shootout at the O.K. Corral.” He said she represented an old strain of political thought in Sweden, one that is gradually being replaced.

Ms. Wallstrom, for her part, flashes with anger at the idea that Sweden will back away from the treaty. She also noted, with some satisfaction, pending legislation that would prohibit Swedish arms sales to countries with poor human rights records, like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. She describes herself readily as a pacifist.

“You know, if you ask me, I would have preferred that we did not have any weapons production and export at all,” she said. “That would be the ideal, because we would never end up in this dilemma. But I have accepted, as part of our nonaligned military policy, that this is part of it. When I entered politics, I knew that this is part of what I had to accept.”

After leaving New York, Ms. Wallstrom returned to the house that she shares with her husband, beside a lake around 190 miles west of Stockholm. There she slept for 10 uninterrupted hours, before resuming her regular, heart-stopping immersion in the frigid water of the lake.

She has watched, from a distance, as women shared stories of past harassment and abuse, at times wondering aloud whether she should do more to share her own. That day with Benny changed how she saw the world, she said, perhaps in ways she was not even aware of.

“I guess we say you are shaped over a period of 20 years,” she said. “You get your basic values in life, the things you value the most, what you are sent with, as luggage in life. That was already with me.”

“Of course, I changed a lot,” she said, and paused. “I can also see myself in that young girl.”

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