Pro-Trump, But Not Pro-America: Europe’s Populists Are Divided

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The efforts of Richard Grenell, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Berlin, and Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon to strengthen the European far right have a certain logic to them: A changed America is looking for different allies. This search, however, will have to be highly selective: Some of the continent’s populists and nationalists aren’t just anti-liberal and anti-immigrant, but also fundamentally anti-American.

There are two issues on which the Trumpists need to sound out their European friends (and they won’t necessarily get straight answers): attitudes toward Israel and views of the U.S.’s rightful place in the world. 

Some years ago, the Israeli issue was a reliable fault line between pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. European nationalists. “One’s view of America usually reflects one’s view of Israel, and vice-versa,” Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian political scientist and student of anti-Americanism, wrote in 2004. “It is easy to believe that many on the European Right are anti-American because America is perceived as pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli.”

Applying this test today will yield some easy positives. Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, is staunchly pro-Israel, and his political ideology owes much to U.S. conservatism with its traditional support of the Jewish state. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s current interior minister and the leader of the nationalist League party, recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, considers Israel a bulwark of the West, and is a proponent of Italy’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Krastev’s correlation works for them.

These days, however, it’s politically difficult to be openly anti-Semitic like Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has often been accused of anti-Semitism: Campaigns he has run against his nemesis, financier George Soros, have used thinly veiled anti-Semitic tropes. He is, however, outwardly a great friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Hungary, even the once openly anti-Semitic (and anti-American) Jobbik party has turned pro-Israel in order to get more votes. 

In Austria, the Freedom Party has a long history of anti-Semitism. Its current leader, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, has posted anti-Semitic pictures on Facebook. Now, however, his rhetoric is staunchly pro-Israel, and he is another supporter of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The strength of a potential ally’s nationalism is perhaps a better litmus test for anti-Americanism today than the attitude toward Israel. To some far-right parties, the U.S. is way too high-handed and meddlesome.

“Our Europe stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, not from Washington to Brussels,” Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (the former National Front), has declared. Being pro-Russian isn’t a disqualifying feature in Trumpists’ eyes, and Salvini manages to be both an opponent of Russia sanctions and a proponent of U.S. leadership. But if Le Pen has no problem with standing next to Bannon at a rally, she does have one with U.S. leadership; during last year’s presidential election, she proposed quitting NATO’s military structure “so that France is not dragged into other people’s wars.” She’s not interested in a dominant U.S., but rather in an isolationist one.

It’s similar with German nationalists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who like the economic prosperity the U.S. helped Germany to achieve but resent how the U.S. bent the country to its will as an occupying power. “If being part of the West means for us being tied forever to U.S. interests,” AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland has said, “if ties to the West mean eternal military ties to the U.S., then I have great difficulties with it.”

A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows the U.S. is more popular with Europeans — and generally with foreigners — who associate themselves with the political right. But the further to the right, the more a yearning for full sovereignty and a rejection of U.S. leadership define the attitude. Parties like the AfD, the National Rally, even Salvini’s Lega see their countries balancing between the U.S. and Russia rather than following either; one of their problems with the European Union is that it has leaned too far toward the U.S., pulling the member states with it.

That worldview on the European far right will undermine Bannon’s attempts to unite it for the sake of increasing influence in the European Parliament after the 2019 election. Even though the far-right parties will take whatever financial and technical support he, or any American sponsors he lines up, can offer them, they will not be reliable allies even for a U.S. led by ideologically close politicians.

Grenell likely has a better idea than Bannon: He’s looking for allies inside Germany’s and Austria’s center right. The right flank of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party is almost as far removed from her liberalism as the AfD, but there, pro-American attitudes are deep-seated and sincere. Someone like Health Minister Jens Spahn can be a strong ally to a Trump-led U.S. if he wins the party’s leadership after Merkel is gone. Going too far right in search of support is a mistake for Americans of any political stripe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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