Many are horrified by the ascent of protectionist, isolationist, and nativist ideas on the political right – and rightly so. Fewer have noticed, however, that developments on the political left also bode ill for those who want to see the world’s liberal democracies united against their common enemies, including aggressive authoritarian regimes and Jihadists.
Over at Vox.com, Zack Beauchamp ponders the atrophy of Democratic thought on security and foreign policy. The left in the United States, he says, has “far fewer exciting ideas to offer” on foreign than on domestic policy. Beauchamp blames it on the lack of think tank firepower in Washington—driven, in turn, by liberal donors’ priorities.
A quick look across the Atlantic belies that diagnosis. Europe’s left has seen an even more dramatic decay in its foreign policy thinking, placing itself firmly, as they say, on the wrong side of history. Catalyzed also by the rise of the nationalist right and by Mr. Trump’s election, European foreign policy discussions, which were once about trade-offs, nuances, and technicalities, have grown into a deeper clash over basic principles that guided the Western world since Second World War.
Take France’s Socialists. For all his faults, François Hollande’s presidency displayed a far firmer grasp of the realities of the MENA region and of Europe’s Eastern neighborhood than the Obama administration. The Socialists, however, were obliterated in this year’s elections. Not only did they lose ground to President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist movement, but more worryingly also to the far left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 19.3 percent of all votes in the first round of the presidential election.
The new leader of France’s left wants to pull out of NATO and join the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, led by Venezuela and Cuba. In January, called the idea that Russia would be a threat to world peace “a lie and an act of propaganda,” adding that “it’s the United States that it is the troublemaker.”
In addition to new radical alternatives, traditional center-left parties are changing, too. In the United Kingdom, Labour’s leader is being advised by a bona fide Stalinist, Seumas Milne. Jeremy Corbyn himself was once a paid contributor at Iran’s propaganda network, Press TV, called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” (though he later regretted it), and blamed Russia’s war against Ukraine on “the US drive to expand eastwards.” While foreign policy is not at heart of the country’s current debates, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) is unlikely to recapture the center under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez.
Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) were never particularly far-sighted about foreign policy but the past couple of years have solidified their position as the prime Putin Verstehers in Europe in European politics. The issue is not so much the fact that the former Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder is actingas a paid agent of Moscow, but rather the appeasement mentality towards Moscow displayed by Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister. And on top of that, add the “clear no to the two-percent target” by the party’s leader, Martin Schulz.
While it is extremely unlikely that Schulz unseats Angela Merkel as chancellor, an SPD-led government, particularly if joined by the extreme-left Die Linke, would be destructive for NATO and expose Europe to further aggression from Russia.
None of this is normal. Democratic succession of center-right and center-left governments in Europe should not be about redefining the basic parameters of the transatlantic alliance and defense against external enemies. Even though Europe’s social democracy, just like America’s left, has long had a difficult relationship with hard power, until recently only few left-leaning voices in Europe would underplay the seriousness of the threats the West faced, including by Jihadism–or treat NATO with disdain.
Security is the most important job that the government—any government—has. It comes before gay marriage, before school lunches, and before universal healthcare. If Europe’s left fails to understand that simple logic, it is unfit to govern. And conservatives, by the way, should take no pleasure in that: a vibrant competition of ideas within a commonly agreed framework is vital for democracy. The sooner our friends on the political left come to their senses, the better.