The surge of populist right-wing parties in Europe has now damaged the standing of the continent’s most important leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Worse, the rise of movements fueled by nationalistic and racist programs signals that a core ethos of the European-American alliance vital to global stability for seven decades is threatened by extremist politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are many tangible factors in the lurch to the narrow nationalism reflected in Britain’s vote to quit the European Union, the defeat of Merkel’s conservative forces by the three-year-old Alternative for Germany party in a key state election last Sunday, and the earlier rise of such movements in Poland, Hungary, France and elsewhere.
These factors include a backlash to economic dislocation caused by globalization, the floodtide of refugees coming from Syria and other failed states on Europe’s southern periphery, and the terrorist outrages committed by the ISIS and other jihadists.
But there is an intangible factor as well that merits close attention in this turbulent U.S. political season. It is the waning of the cohesion and steadying influence brought by the large U.S. military, commercial and cultural commitment to a vulnerable Europe since 1945 — the steady weakening of an American ideal of engaged internationalism that was absorbed into the intellectual bloodstream of post-war Europe as the Old and New Worlds joined to rebuild a devastated continent and confront a clear Soviet menace.
That internationalist ideal was clearly imprinted on the still-war-damaged Europe I first saw in 1961 and which I was to study and work in, or frequently visit, since.
The United States was, after all, originally a nation that proudly stated as its purpose the absorbing of the world’s “tired . . . poor . . . huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It supported with troops, defense spending and active public diplomacy the spirit of a broad internationalism that was the opposite of the European chauvinistic hatreds that had triggered two world wars. The founders of what is today the European Union saw the United States as a model for the community they wanted to build.
The European idea of a certain America helped discourage the breeding of bitter nationalistic politics and anti-immigration stances, as did of course the memories of the recent conflagrations.
This is not to claim that the United States itself ever fully lived up to the ideal that, for a time at least, helped Europe find its way. American disasters abroad, running from Vietnam to Iraq, and continuing racial and social strife at home, have left the United States in no position to lecture other nations in moralistic terms or tones.
That is to my way of thinking Europe’s misfortune as well as America’s. This year’s stomach-turning U.S. presidential campaign threatens to remove us as a model for anybody else’s politics. By the standards set by Donald Trump, the Alternative for Germany’s fear-mongering nativism is politics as usual, not an evil to be quashed.
The right-wing party finished ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in elections for the legislature of the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a northern state known for its shipyards and quiet beaches and for being the chancellor’s political home base.
The AfD — its initials in German — won 20 percent in the state, and is polling around 14 percent nationally. The incumbent Social Democratic Party maintained its leadership of the state legislature, making Merkel’s defeat largely symbolic. But that will handicap her ability to fill the appalling leadership vacuum that exists today in Europe’s major capitals.
Meanwhile, Trump would have us believe that the American ideal is fading globally solely because of President Obama’s “weak” foreign policy. Obama’s strategic retrenchment and initial benign neglect of Europe did contribute to the problem. But the long-term redistribution of economic power globally, to America’s detriment, and the American public’s fatigue with distant wars and entanglements weigh much more heavily on history’s scales than do Obama’s policies.
In any event, Trump’s remedies would only accelerate the erosion of alliance cohesion. The enthusiastic wheeler-dealerism he promises to establish with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a hero to France’s Marine Le Pen and other European ultra-rightists who subscribe to notions of racial and national superiority — will force politically volatile European nations to scramble to strike their own bargains with Russia.
Count on a European stampede toward Moscow — and an even more precipitous swing to the nationalistic right in European politics — if Trump is declared the winner here in November. That moment would also mark the final burial of that American ideal of internationalism that helped to make Europe a more prosperous and peaceful continent for the second half of the 20th century.
The Washington Post Service