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Fika and Feminism: Part 2

Why didn’t Sweden’s feminist foreign policy work for defense?

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: Laicie Heeley

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  • It took two years, after holdups from Turkey and Hungary, but Sweden has officially joined NATO. A move not everyone in Sweden is super psyched about. But this country’s history isn’t quite so peaceful as it might seem. So, can a peace-loving nation with a war-loving legacy keep the peace… when someone starts a war[...]

It took two years, after holdups from Turkey and Hungary, but Sweden has officially joined NATO. A move not everyone in Sweden is super psyched about.

But this country’s history isn’t quite so peaceful as it might seem.

So, can a peace-loving nation with a war-loving legacy keep the peace… when someone starts a war in its backyard?

And how does feminist foreign policy really play out when defense is center stage?

Listen and subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Pocket Casts, or wherever you get your podcasts to receive a new episode every two weeks.


Dr. Patrik Höglund, historian and maritime archaeologist; Dr. Brian Palmer, Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor, Uppsala University; Dr. Annick Wibben, Professor of Gender, Peace & Security at the Swedish Defence University; Margot Wallström, former Foreign Minister of Sweden

Additional Resources:

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, New World Encyclopedia

The Vasa Museum

Vrak – Museum of Wrecks

Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Conference on Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy, Federal Foreign Office of Germany

Handbook on Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, Government of Sweden

Sweden ends weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, Associated Press


The story goes like this… 

It was the early 1600’s — the time of pirates and scurvy. 

[Pirate sounds–swords clashing]

A young King Gustavus Adolphus sat on the Swedish throne.

Even as his cousin Sigismund, the King of Poland, claimed he was the rightful heir.

And around about 1625, Sweden’s King caught word that his cousin in Poland was building this huge ship. 

One with two rows of gun ports, rather than the traditional one. 

And Gustavus wasn’t about to be shown up. 

Laicie: Look at all those cannons. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean. 

The ship that Gustavus commissioned in return was called The Vasa.

And it stands today in Sweden, a tower of timber and ornamental wood carvings extending over 200 feet long.

The museum itself is also enormous, built to house and preserve the massive ship.

Patrik: It’s supposed to be like a stable climate, moisture, otherwise the wood will… pfft.

It’s a fitting tribute to a King that would come to preside over Sweden’s “era of great power.” 

Even if he didn’t really like to admit that the country might have been a little… expansionist.

Patrik: If you listen to the king, it was not aggressive. It was a matter of fear all the time. So you need buffer zones. Of course, that’s an argument of an aggressor.

That’s Patrik Höglund, the historian and marine archeologist who agreed to show us around the museum. 

Patrick also curates Stockholm’s museum of wrecks, and as he talks, it’s obvious how much he loves this job which is seriously very cool. 

It kind of makes me wonder why I didn’t decide to be a marine archeologist.

Patrik: When we were swimming there there’s a big lion looking at you, like, ooh! So you realize, oh shit, they left the sculptures.

Patrik is bursting with energy as he tells us the Vasa’s story, which remains today as a reminder not just of Sweden’s warring past, but of the dangers of hubris.

Patrik: Vasa was the first in a series of big ships, really big ships, at the time. In the late 1600s, this was like the standard size of a warship. But in the 1620s, it was really big. If this had sailed, it would have, you know, beaten almost any ship.

But it didn’t sail. 

Because on a sunny day with a bit of a breeze in 1628, the Vasa set out on its maiden voyage… and immediately everything went wrong. 

Clip of a children’s video describing the Vasa story in Swedish

[00:02:50] Patrik: There’s a, you know, a mountain ridge in the southern part of Sweden, and then it’s a, a valley that came gust of wind… healed over one, healed over twice, and then sank.

That little gust of wind caught the sails, the ship tipped, the gun ports filled with water and… it was gone. It sank to the sea floor well within sight of everyone on shore who had gathered to watch it depart on its first journey — including the reportedly livid King Gustavus Adolphus. 

Patrik: And some 30 people died. Probably 150 – around 150 were on board. 

The ship just wasn’t designed properly to hold all those cannons the king insisted on and… that resulted in one giant fail.

But despite the expensive and tragic failure of the Vasa, Sweden became a major exporter of ships and weaponry. 

Patrik: in the late 1600s, a lot of the iron guns used on ships came from Sweden. On Dutch ships, on English ships, on French ships, they came from Sweden. You can still find them on wrecks. In, you know, like, South Africa, Swedish guns on the ship.

A role it still plays today. 

BBC news clip: Sweden would sell 4 Swedish-made Gripen Jets. That would expand Budapest’s fleet of Swedish-built fighter jets.

Even as the rest of the Vasa’s story has been rewritten. 

Patrik: When I was a kid, it was very, talk about peace, peace, peace, peace.If you have a warship in a museum, you don’t want to present it as a warship. Sweden was very, what do you call, mixed emotions, by this great power era, wars, warships. ‘No, it’s not, uh, we’re a peaceful nation.’ But now, the last two years, it has actually switched. 

Suddenly this era of great power? It’s served to shed light on a history that Sweden has long buried. But… one that never really disappeared. 

So, can a peace-loving nation with a war-loving legacy keep the peace… when someone starts a war in their backyard? 

And how does feminist foreign policy really play out when defense is center stage? 

I’m Laicie Heeley, and this is Things That Go Boom.


News montage about NATO:

Sweden is to join NATO after 200 years of neutrality. 

Sweden becomes the second Nordic nation in the past year to join NATO.

And the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It took two years, after holdups from Turkey and Hungary, but Sweden has  officially joined NATO. 

It was also about two years ago that Sweden elected a right-wing government and discarded its feminist foreign policy. So, it would seem like those two were connected. 

But Sweden’s accession to NATO actually started with the government that introduced feminist foreign policy. 

That’s Margot Wallström’s party — the Social Democrats.

Brian: People interpreted the Social Democrats decision to support NATO membership as an electoral strategy move. That they will remove this issue–of possible NATO membership–from the election debates because the conservatives could have tried to make it a central issue. 

This is Dr. Brian Palmer, a professor at Uppsala University and he was our gracious guide during our time in Sweden.  

He sat down with us in Uppsala to help unpack this story. 

Brian: Some people saw that as a brilliant move by the Social Democrats. Now they will win easily. It didn’t turn out that way.

They lost. But the accession to NATO continued… a transition that might have been helped along in public opinion by the leadership at the time. 

Brian: the Prime Minister of Sweden was a woman. The Prime Minister of Finland was a woman. Neither of these women who were prime minister, gave off an aura of needless aggression and machismo. In fact, quite the contrary. They seemed remarkably calm and levelheaded and the kind of person you would want to have around in a crisis.

Fast forward two years, and along with a new administration, Brian says that overall, Sweden seems to have moved toward a growing sense of machismo. 

And that its distrust in outsiders and fear of attack, in some cases…seems to be purposely cultivated. 

Brian: One cold day in December I was on my way to my office in Uppsala and the route takes me by the main library of Uppsala University. And I could see already from a distance, there was a shipping container, as if from the back of a truck. And, and as I got closer, I saw that there was a sign, a large sign, next to the container in Swedish, that translated, ‘What happens in the meeting between a student room and a hand grenade?’

It was an interactive exhibit from the Swedish Defense Forces. And it was designed to get students thinking about the potential for war on the home front.

Brian: And we went into this not quite pitch dark space, and there was a very large screen. Flashes that seemed to indicate bombs exploding. And, for me it was, it was like a strobe light, in an old-style disco.

Brian: Rather, annoying. And extremely high-volume sound, of explosions, of artillery fire, and there were also smells that I guess were pumped into the air or just put in the air by some means of burnt material. As if you’ve ever visited the apartment of someone after there’s been a fire, and they’re trying to salvage any unharmed belongings, it was exactly that kind of smell.

Brian: And this went on for maybe a couple of minutes. Quite unpleasant. Some louder sounds of explosions at the end. And, then things quieted down a bit. And, on the screen one would, when I could see, a student room in ruins, the furniture busted up and everything on the floor in a random mess.

Brian: And then the young woman in her soldier’s uniform said we could go out now. What did you think of this exhibition? And I was honest that I thought it was rather annoying– that I had to cover my ears because of the decibel levels at parts. And that I thought that a Russian invasion of Sweden was the least of our worries, but had she thought about the risk that the war in Ukraine– particularly if the NATO side has maximalist goals of humiliating Russia and taking back every square kilometer of stolen territory – could provoke a nuclear war, which would be easily the death of everyone in Sweden, through the war itself or the resulting nuclear winter.

Brian: And and she admitted that she had not thought about such things and didn’t actually know what nuclear winter was. So there we were with two very, different visions of the biggest risks that Sweden was facing: a land invasion by Russia or a nuclear war that would be a catastrophe for Swedes and just about everyone else on the planet.

The truth is that Sweden has never been entirely neutral. In fact it’s one of the largest arms exporters per capita in the world.

And when feminists tried to leverage those arms deals to advance human rights, it didn’t go great.

Brian: It, it was Margaret Wallstrom who dared to criticize the human rights record of the Saudi Arabian government and not least the treatment of, of women in Saudi Arabia while she was foreign minister.

DW clip: Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm after Sweden ended a decades-long arms deal with Riyadh. 

Brian: Saudi Arabia replied that they would change their mind about certain lucrative contracts where they were going to be exporting Swedish weapons. The conservative government doesn’t want any more situations like that and would rather just keep quiet about human rights. Or speak in platitudes that no one can really disagree with. 

But even Margot’s feminist foreign policy was, in some ways, a weak barrier in the march toward a military mindset in Sweden. 

That’s after the break. 


Laicie: Are you worried about Russia invading Sweden? 

Girl 1: Yes

Laicie: Are you? Yes? Really? Do you worry about it a lot?  

Girl 1: Not so. 

Laicie: Not that much? 

Girl 1: No. 

Girl 2: Hey!

Laicie: Hi.

 Laicie: You’re worried about Russia? Invading? 

Girl 2: Yes. Russia is – (speaking in Ukrainian and laughing)

In the end, Sweden decided to join NATO because of Russia, so we wanted to know how worried Swedish people really were about a Russian invasion. 

But the only folks we found who were that concerned… were this group of teenagers from Ukraine.

That said, it’s a little late to go back now. So Dr. Annick Wibben helped us begin to unpack what this decision might mean for a feminist foreign policy. 

Laicie: Is a feminist foreign policy compatible with NATO membership? Is this a question for Sweden?

Annick: Yes, well, I mean, haha, Sweden does no longer have a feminist foreign policy. So in that sense, I guess we’re off the hook.

Annick is a professor for gender peace and security at the Swedish Defense University.

Annick: On the other hand, Germany, for example, has been a member of NATO for a long time and has a feminist foreign policy. And, if we want to go there, has been reacting also because the other big conflict that’s going on right now that’s in the news, of course, is the full-scale invasion – shall we just use the same terminology? – of Gaza. 

Last September, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock remarked that “Russia’s horrific war” was quote “above all affecting women, the elderly and children,” and explained that these impacts fell under the “rights” component of Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy. She added that “We need to call those who infringe upon and violate rights to account.” 

Fast forward to the war in Palestine, and Baerbock and Germany have been criticized for their inconsistent response.

Protestor:  As feminists, we must demand a ceasefire in Palestine right now.

Baerbock: I will address this difficult question.

Annick: And so then the reactions have been quite different. How do we compare this? Shouldn’t there be some consistency in foreign policy? If a population is being attacked by a much stronger neighbor, isn’t this kind of the same?

Annick: And then we can talk about NATO and we can talk about sort of internal NATO politics. Some NATO members are not even close to having some sort of feminist foreign policy or human rights-respecting policy internally or externally. So, yeah. Is it in general compatible? It could be potentially, right? But I don’t actually think it currently is.

Some have argued that NATO’s women, peace, and security agenda should be an indication that the alliance is actually compatible with a feminist foreign policy. Annick says that assumption depends a whole lot on the country, and policy, that you’re talking about. 

Annick So I think that what we see is, the interpretations, multiple, of the women, peace and security agenda, multiple, and of feminist foreign policies, again, multiple–So then we get this sort of broader mix of things, and at some level, we can say, yes, they’re all broadly in the same direction. But then we really have to look much more specific at what they do. So, for example, the interpretation of women, peace and security that is propagated by NATO, right? It’s also, sort of a question of like, are you applying it internally into the armed forces. Are you using a sort of gender-sensitive approach when you’re going into the field?

Annick: And on all those things, there is some Progress, if you want to call it that. But on the other hand, on a much more sort of what I might call critical feminist reading or, you know, sort of the cherry picking which of the parts of the agenda you take on, it hasn’t been that great.

Feminist Foreign Policy covers a lot of ground, which can make it hard to measure its success. 

And the finer details of implementation are mostly not spelled out. So, it can be easy for any one country to interpret the policy… loosely. 

Annick: So one of the things that we know about the Women, Peace and Security agenda is that the protection pillar. That one is usually quite strong. We’re going to protect women from violence and da da da but the prevention pillar which is really the most important because, I mean, after the fact, it’s kind of usually a little too late, but what are we doing to actually prevent conflict, prevent sort of the impact that we know, the gendered impact, that we already know is happening in conflict–Tthat pillar has been, not just in nato, but more generally been  the weakest, I would say in the women peace and security agenda. 

Laicie: And with regard to Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. Was it particularly strong in the security agenda?

Annick: Yeah, Sweden is an interesting case because we have a real bifurcation of the strategic cultures, I would say, of sort of the foreign ministry foreign policy approach versus the defense. So one of the things that’s interesting about Sweden is that at the same time that the former Swedish government introduced feminist foreign policy there was also an increase in funding for the armed forces. 

Sweden’s overall defense budget has been growing steadily since 2015, which is when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. 

And this year the country added 700 million additional crowns, nearly doubling its defense budget since 2020. 

Annick: So, there has been a re-militarization at the same time. And now we still have the remilitarization and we don’t have the feminist foreign policy anymore. So, one could say that, you know, the sort of more traditional security thinking has quote unquote won. I mean, the interesting thing is that those two strands of or strategic thinking, really? Yeah, never shall they meet.

Laicie: Okay. I have to ask about Sweden joining NATO. 

Margot: Yeah, yes.

Margot Wallström told us that when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, and Finland announced that it would join, it changed everything. And so, she also changed her mind about NATO.

Margot: because that set our whole security policy and us in a completely new reality. I believe that we can continue to discuss also the role of nuclear weapons, for example. I will insist on that. I know that it’s difficult, but we will have to do that.

Margot says that Sweden can determine what kind of NATO member it will become. And that including more women in NATO decision-making will naturally influence the alliance’s priorities and outcomes. 

Laicie: Is it a necessary element of feminist foreign policy that the military be, I don’t want to say devalued, that’s too strong a word, but placed in some sort of more equal measure with the other elements?

Margot: No, but this is again a matter of how you construct this and how you cut it because, if you think about women’s rights, you start with making sure that women can be part of decision-making also. That women are there to decide on the priorities. And, of course, very often women have somewhat different priorities and may be less militaristic than men. But it is not a given model. Other than that, women and men should enjoy the same opportunities and rights. And they have a right to be part of the decision-making and form and shape their societies.  And some women, of course, they accept that there has to be defense, or they want a bigger defense industry or whatever. But women must be there where the decisions are being made.

This take feels a little bit incomplete. Put women in the room and see what you get. 

But you can’t predict someone’s ideas or attitude based on their gender. And, in many cases, the expectation that women will naturally promote peace it just doesn’t hold up.  

Centuries of male ownership over war-making have led to structural limitations and cultural assumptions that are near impossible for many women and men to overcome.

Former Under Secretary of Defense in the US Michele Flournoy? She coined a term for this. She said that many women put on a “consensual straightjacket” when they enter national security. 

Basically, that they put on a hard or more hawkish exterior in order to be taken seriously.

And this is perhaps the missing piece in Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.

See, Sweden has always used military strength to defend itself and its interests. 

But it also learned a long time ago that narrowing in on one perspective is dangerous.

Before the disastrous failure of the Vasa, King Gustavus was actually warned that the ship was unstable… but he didn’t listen. 

While it might seem like bringing more women into the room will automatically create a diversity of thought. That’s not the whole story. 

Limiting the policy to gender actually makes it near-impossible to analyze things like war and peace in a meaningful way. You end up with a policy that just puts more female generals and diplomats in place, for example, and doesn’t ask whether the military is receiving too much money at the expense of the diplomatic corps.

But having more feminists in the room, whether male or female, could add an additional perspective to Swedish decision-making … and, perhaps even prevent a more traditional security mindset from making mistakes that cost lives. 

But then … Sweden isn’t the only country with a feminist foreign policy. So, we wondered if anyone else was doing it better.

Laicie: Anybody doing it really well?

Laicie: No. Not yet. Maybe we’ll get there.

Annick: There have been some moments, I would say, where it’s been great, and then there, yeah, overall. It needs work. But … what doesn’t?

In our next episode we look more closely at the work feminist foreign policy needs in a very different country: Mexico. 

And we talk to some of the women fighting for change.

Marcela: And it was really touching just –exactly because to put a feminist symbol here. It’s a feeling of justice, our own justice. 

Things That Go Boom is distributed by Inkstick Media and PRX.

And if you like what we do, you can find more at

This episode was produced by Nikki Galteland and me, and edited by Amy Drozdowska.

The music for our show is written by Darien Shulman, and Robin Wise is our engineer.

A big thanks to everyone who welcomed us in Sweden, but especially to Dr. Brian Palmer who went above and beyond in helping us to report these last two episodes.

And thanks, as always, to the supporters and foundations that make our work possible: the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund, as well as Inkstick’s supporters, including the Colombe Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Jubitz Family Foundation. 

We’ll see you in two weeks!

Patrik: You can only do two dives per day because of decompression sickness. 

Nikki: How deep is it?

Patrik: Secret. Oh, you’re a Russian spy. 


Patrik: … No, it’s between 25 and 35.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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