Margot Wallström’s steadfast joint pursuit of human rights and feminism has antagonised the Arab world and started a debate on the issue of morality in nuanced national foreign policy.
In a few short months, Sweden’s minority government has also angered business leaders at home. Ms Wallström’s proposals, and the criticism they have drawn, has exposed a struggle over Sweden’s identity and whether it should become what some politicians call a “moral great power”, or prioritise security and an export-led economy.
After Sweden cancelled a defence co-operation accord with Saudi Arabia last week over human rights concerns, the Arab League condemned Ms Wallström, who has been Minister for Foreign Affairs since October, and blocked her from giving a speech in Cairo. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm; hundreds of millions of krone in business are threatened.
Ms Wallström, a former EU commissioner, promised a “feminist” foreign policy when her Social Democrats formed the coalition government last October. Since then, she has described the flogging of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi as “medieval”, winning praise from many commentators for standing up to the kingdom.
Women in Politics 2014: Females in Parliaments across the world
Women in Politics 2014: Females in Parliaments across the world
1/9 4th: Sweden
Swedish European Affairs Minister Birgitta Ohlsson pictured at the EU headquarters in Brussels. After Nicaragua, Sweden has the highest number of women in cabinet, with 56.5 per cent of Swedish ministers being female. 157 of the 349 seats in the single parliamentary house are held by women.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
2/9 Afghanistan: 41st
Leading Afghan women's rights champion, author, lawmaker and former presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi talks during an interview with AFP in Kabul. Not well known for its women's rights record, Afghanistan beats the UK. Of the 249 seats in the Afghan lower house, 69 are held by women. 28 of its the 102 seats in its upper chamber are taken by women.
3/9 64th: UK
Home Secretary Theresa May leaves Downing Street in London, England. 147 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons are held by women, compared to 182 of 778 in the House of Lords.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
4/9 1st: Rwanda
Rwanda Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources Dr Agnes Kalibata, speaks at the African green Revolution Forum. 39 per cent of ministers in Rwanda are women, holding 51 out of 80 seats in the lower house. 10 of the 26 seats in the upper house are taken by women.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
5/9 China: 61st
Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong pictured at the People-to-People Exchange at Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, China. Outdoing the UK by three places, women hold 699 seats in the country's 2987-member-strong single house.
Feng Li/Getty Images
6/9 US: 83rd
Republican Senator Susan Collins speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, DC. Hold its ranking joint with San Marino, only 79 of the 432 lower house members are women. 20 members of the 100-strong upper house are women.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE
7/9 France: 47th
French minister Aurelie Filippetti attends the Opening ceremony and the 'Grace of Monaco' Premiere during the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival. Sharing its ranking with El Salvador, 151 members of the 577-member-strong lower house are women. Meanwhile, female members hold 78 of the 347 seats of the upper house.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
8/9 Italy: 31st
Italy's Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge poses as she arrives for a lunch at the French embassy in Rome. 198 women of a possible 630 seats in the lower house are filled by women. 92 women hold seats in the 317-member-strong upper house.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
9/9 South Sudan: 45th
South Sudan's Water Minister Jemma Nunu Kumba at the 10-nation Nile River forum in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The world's newest country has 88 women in its lower house of 332 members. Of 50 seats in its upper house, women hold 5.
EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images
“I won’t back down over my statements on women’s rights, democracy and that one shouldn’t flog bloggers,” she said, referring to the sentencing of Mr Badawi to 1,000 lashes. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
But Sweden is the world’s 12th biggest arms exporter. Its economy depends on brand exports from Ikea to H&M. With Russia also testing Sweden’s air and submarine defences, this may be the wrong time to put human rights front and centre in foreign policy, Ms Wallström’s critics say.
Sweden has a history of neutrality. But under the previous centre-right government it forged closer links with Nato, participating in military missions in Afghanistan and Libya, something Ms Wallström has promised to tone down.
The Saudi defence accord had helped Swedish firms to make 4.8bn krone (£383m) between 2011 and 2014. Signed in 2005, it had been due for renewal in two months.
“Much of what Sweden exports of high technology requires the various types of long-term commitments,” Ms Wallström’s centre-right predecessor Carl Bildt wrote in his blog. “There is a real risk … [the cancellation] will hit Swedish interests, not only in Saudi Arabia itself.” But the Saudi row may not have been Ms Wallström’s doing, and has brought accusations of diplomatic miscalculations by the squabbling coalition government.
“This is foreign policy played for a domestic gallery and it gives a strong impression of political mismanagement,” said Fredrik Erixon, director of the Brussels-based ECIPE think-tank.
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who worked for nearly two decades as a welder in the defence industry, was in favour of a revised Saudi deal. But this was vetoed by left-leaning Social Democrats and the Green Party, the junior partner that keeps him in power.
With signs that Mr Löfven would give in to the Greens, more than 30 business executives published an open letter saying breaking the deal would “jeopardise Sweden’s reputation as a trade partner”. They included fashion retailer H&M’s main owner Stefan Persson and Investor chairman Jacob Wallenberg. “Social Democrats have traditionally been pragmatic in foreign policy,” said Anna Wieslander, deputy director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “So this may be about government personalities and coalition wrangling.”
It was not the only controversy. Ms Wallström’s first diplomatic move was to recognise the state of Palestine, prompting Israel to recall its ambassador and angering the United States.
Ironically, this championing of rights may have damaged Sweden’s ability to punch above its weight and its ambition to win enough votes to be a rotating member of the UN Security Council. “The Swedish brand, as a reliable partner who you can talk to, has been badly hurt,” said Sven Hirdman, a former Swedish ambassador to Moscow.