This article examines the implications and solutions to the twin problems of Russian interference and right-wing populism in the US and Europe.
In 2016, right-wing populism woke up a sleeping world. Frustration about economic, political, and cultural marginalization created an unlikely alliance of union workers, suburban moms, and heartland residents who pushed Donald J. Trump to the American presidency. His victory sprang from the same forces that delivered the victories of Brexit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Czech President Miloš Zeman, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. In America, the populist story was about cracking down on political correctness in schools, illegal immigration from Mexico, and jobs fleeing overseas. In Europe, the nationalist narrative concerned opposing rampant refugee immigration, Islamization, and the interventionist European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As America and Europe rewrote their identities as more politically and economically isolated from the world, transatlantic relations deteriorated and were compounded by President Trump’s harsh rhetoric about NATO and his vacillating policies in Europe and the Middle East.
In response to President Trump’s deep unpopularity, right-wing populism in the West recently begun to wane. These unconventional parties lost presidential and parliamentary races since November 2016 in the Netherlands, Bulgaria, France, Finland, Austria, and the UK—populists’ polling fell precipitously after President Trump’s January inauguration. Many of these polling declines led to losses—some were rather embarrassing. The right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) won no seats in the British Parliament, and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron beat right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen by over 32 percentage points to become France’s President. These electoral trends have coincided with NATO’s resurgent popularity: many Western countries’ approval of the alliance matches right before the Great Recession. With the notable exception of Germany, NATO countries pledge to defend their ally upon a Russian attack. Even in May, supermajorities in European countries retained faith in US military support.
The transatlantic relationship and sustainability of the European project are still threatened. Russian President Vladimir Putin desires the weakening of international European institutions so he can grow political and economic influence beyond Russian borders. The election of right-wing populist parties is in his interest because these groups are more open to an alliance with Russia and suspicious of US and European foreign policy. Since invading Georgia in 2008, Putin has used sophisticated and well-funded hybrid warfare techniques to achieve his goals, staking his ideological claim on the Wild West of the Internet through paid pro-Kremlin trolls and fake news websites like Sputnik and RT, hacking emails and election databases in multiple countries, and funneling money into right-wing populist parties in Europe. Although Russia is best known for illegally annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine in 2014, the country has also used its monopoly on oil and natural gas to pressure European countries into adhering to his policies.
Russia has achieved some long-term success in turning the newest generation from the West: YouGov found in 2017 that 75% of young Western European respondents believe the EU is an economic rather than cultural alliance and one-fifth wanted their country to leave the EU. Most troubling, a majority of young respondents in Poland, France, and Italy believe that democracy is not the optimal version of government. Putin has made progress on this front because he realizes that the key to placing empires and countries on the trajectory to failure is internally dividing people about what their society should do and stand for. There is also a moral dimension to this problem: at a time when ISIS barbarically executes people and genocides occur in Iraq, Syria, and Myanmar, it is saddening to see faith in the system that best upholds rule of law and human rights decline when countries need the West most.
While the US, Europe, and Russia remain in a logjam, this is not your parents’ Cold War. The megatrends of globalization and technologization beget economies that evolve faster than people and a new cosmopolitan class with incredible cultural, political, and economic power and loyalties that transcend geographic boundaries. As social media displays the gap between them and everyone else in the aftermath of a traumatic world recession, people turn to what they view as the most effective way of breaking the system and reclaiming their identity as valued individuals in society: right-wing populism. Russia’s role in this narrative is to magnify the voices of the populists and hasten the election of officials friendly towards their interests. So the solution is twofold: disincentive Russia’s desire to carry out its hybrid warfare and rewrite the social contract to mitigate globalization’s negative effects, which enable this brand of corrosive populism in the first place.
To win the war for the soul of Europe, the US must engage in a multipronged approach. Congress should pass HR.175/S.94, which responds to Russian hackers and their allies, sanctions Russian investments of over $20 million on oil and natural gas, creates a $100 million State Department office to counter and educate on fake news across the Western Hemisphere, supports independent local language media in Europe, and requires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to write annual report on Russian fake news agencies in US. It should also pass S.722, which includes sanctions on Russia, and refuse to enact the proposed 2018 State Department budget, which cuts the Europe and Eurasian Affairs overseas program by $20 million.
To fight the distrust in others and the world order that produce populism, it is important to heed the calls of these concerned and suffering people. The populist politicians are wrong, but their voters are right—political corruption is present, stymieing economic growth and producing social unease. Making education and public office more accessible to women and the poor will add underrepresented voices to the tables while granting current and future generations social uplift. Paid family leave, disruptive new economic actors like Uber and Lyft, and encouraging local bipartisan civil society groups foster a system that strengthens families, encourages entrepreneurship and flexible work schedules, and removes acrimony from politics. With a cohesive and morally grounded approach to Russia and our own domestic foibles, the US and Europe can Make Atlanticism Great Again.