Populists see society as divided into two antithetical camps: the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’. They see the people as pure, oppressed and downtrodden and elites as corrupt, aloof and dismissive. Populism is often understood as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ – that is, it merely posits that politics revolves around the people–elite opposition, while the exact content of this opposition, and who is part of the people and the elites, is defined by other, more consistent ideologies that populism usually appears with. In particular, whereas left-wing populists usually define the people–elite divide in economic terms, right-wing populists define it along ethnic and cultural lines. When this thin-centred ideology is applied to foreign policy, it can take different forms. Left-wing populists tend to be internationalists (though they may take some sovereigntist positions on economic policy), whereas right-wing populists tend to be nationalists.
That said, the exact form each party’s approach to foreign policy takes is determined not just by a combination of a ‘thin’ ideology like populism, which prescribes only a very basic perspective of the world, and ‘thick’ ideologies like socialism or liberalism that cue coherent approaches across all policy areas, but also by the existing foreign policy orientation and strategic culture of the country. Populists may oppose some long-established tenets of their country’s foreign policy as part of an attempt to highlight their opposition to the elites who designed them. But they may also support elements of their country’s traditional foreign policy, while distancing themselves from centrist parties by claiming that elites that are in thrall to international institutions and foreign actors have ‘betrayed’ the national interest or the will of the people.
The most established populist family in Europe is the populist radical right, rooted in Western and Northern Europe and often with origins in post-fascist parties. The Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen is the typical exponent of this party family, which also includes the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, the Lega in Italy, and more recently the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The populist radical right is characterized by nativism, with the people defined in ethnic or cultural terms as the virtuous natives threatened by immigration and its elite enablers. But despite this shared ideology, there is diversity in the foreign policy positions of right-wing populists in Europe – and they have evolved over time.
In the 1980s, the RN and the FPÖ were quite pro-US as part of their Cold War anti-communism. But after the end of the Cold War they became more anti-American and increasingly saw the US as a global hegemon that threatened the economic, political and cultural sovereignty of the people. In this context, they opposed NATO and US-led military interventions. In some ways, this opposition to American power is similar to the position of left-wing populists – though the right usually opposes US power in the name of a narrowly defined national interest rather than the alternative internationalism of the left.
However, populist radical right parties elsewhere in Europe have taken different positions in relation to the US. In the 2000s, the Danish People’s Party and the Dutch populist right were concerned above all with Islamic influence in Europe and were therefore supportive of the US-led ‘war on terror’ – in conformity with the Atlanticist strategic identity of these countries. In the 2010s, the consequences of the Arab Spring further complicated the positions of right-wing populists in Europe. Some like the RN maintained their anti-interventionist, anti-US and anti-NATO impulses – for example, it opposed the Western intervention in Libya in 2011. The populist right in France and Austria also expressed pro-Assad positions.
The attitude of right-wing populists in Europe to the US was further complicated by the election of Donald Trump as president. Many right-wing populists saw Trump as an ideological ally. Geert Wilders hailed Trump’s victory in 2016 as the beginning of a ‘patriotic spring’ and Marine Le Pen spoke of a ‘great movement’ around the world. Right-wing populist parties in Denmark and Sweden have also supported following the US under Trump in moving their countries’ embassies in Israel to Jerusalem. But Trump also presented a dilemma for far-right parties that were historically opposed to American power like the RN. His defeat in 2020 may offer them a way out of the inconsistency of the last four years, as they can revert to their anti-US positions with Joe Biden as president while adopting Trump’s anti-institutional rhetoric concerning the validity of the election and the hostility of the elites against him – and, by extension, them.
Parties of the far right have maintained close connections with Russia since the end of the Cold War. These links intensified after 2010 against the background of the euro crisis and Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Much attention has been paid to the way that, during the past decade, many right-wing populist parties have become entangled with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Parties of the far right have maintained close connections with Russia since the end of the Cold War. These links intensified after 2010 against the background of the euro crisis and Russian aggression in Ukraine. In recent years right-wing populist leaders have visited Moscow and signed cooperation agreements with Putin’s United Russia party and Russia has allegedly facilitated the financing of parties like the RN. In policy terms, populist radical right parties in Western Europe view Russia as a necessary and important participant in European security and in some cases as a counterweight to the US.
The AfD typifies these links with Russia. The Kremlin has cultivated relations with various AfD politicians, invited them to conferences in Russia and used them as ‘electoral observers’. The AfD’s elaborate foreign policy positions also reflect a clear pro-Russian proclivity – in particular, it has called on Germany to recreate Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. It sees Russia as necessary for a ‘stable peace order in Europe’ and rejects sanctions. (However, the AfD also recognizes the importance of the US and NATO for European security. It supports increased defence spending and criticizes German elites for neglecting Germany’s security.)
However, far-right parties elsewhere challenge the assumption that all populist parties in Europe are pro-Russian. In particular, in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, far-right parties can be quite hawkish on Russia. The most obvious example is PiS in Poland – but it is not the only one. For example, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), which was a junior partner in the governing coalition from 2019 until early 2021, opposed a border treaty with Russia and described those who supported it as ‘traitors’, played on fears about the infiltration of the Estonian military by ethnic Russians, and advocated increasing defence spending and improving capabilities within NATO (although it also asked for Estonia to equip itself to act unilaterally if allies were not ready to support it).
A similar dynamic can be seen in Sweden and Finland. The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) are also hawkish on Russia and support closer cooperation with NATO – though, like centrist parties, they do not support full membership. The picture is a bit more confusing in Finland. Under its leader Timo Soini, who was also foreign minister between 2015 and 2019 in a government with the Centre Party, the far-right Finns Party was broadly Atlanticist. But in 2017 the party went through a leadership change and some members including Soini left to form a new party, Blue Reform. Although more pro-Russian and pro-Chinese voices have now emerged within the Finns Party, new leader Jussi Halla-aho appears to be continuing to oppose Russia and its actions in the Baltic and Ukraine.
Elsewhere in Europe, the attitudes of right-wing populists towards Russia have been contradictory or unclear. Although Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has made supportive statements of Russia, he is also seen as being pro-American – in particular, he has close links to the Evangelical right in the United States. In 2020, leaked WhatsApp messages suggested that Thierry Baudet, another populist right-wing politician whose new party Forum for Democracy (FvD) was founded on the strengths of his success in 2015 in demanding and winning a referendum against the EU–Ukraine association treaty, had received Russian money, though he denied this. Nigel Farage controversially once said that he ‘admires’ Vladimir Putin although he disagrees with his actions.
Up until 2010, the populist left was primarily centred in Northern Europe and included parties like the Socialist Party (SP) in the Netherlands and Die Linke in Germany. But just as the euro crisis led to the emergence of right-wing populist parties in Northern Europe like the AfD, it also led to a surge of left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe. Some were existing parties like SYRIZA in Greece, which was founded in 2004. Others were new like Podemos in Spain, which emerged in 2014 from the anti-austerity Indignados movement. While the populist right defines the ‘people’ both in terms of a vertical opposition against ‘elites’ and a horizontal opposition against ethnic outsiders, the populist left adopts only the core idea of populism as a struggle between the ‘people down here’ and the ‘elites up there’.
It is often suggested that left-wing populists take a similar approach to foreign policy as right-wing populists. But although some of the foreign policy positions of the populist left overlap significantly with those of the populist radical right, its thinking differs markedly. While the populist left can be anti-American, the focus of its rhetoric is on US imperialism and militarism. In particular, the populist left has opposed NATO and US-led interventions in the Balkans and the Middle East in the last 25 years. But the populist left is not instinctively anti-internationalist; rather, it stands for a different, radical and emancipatory kind of internationalism. It is not opposed to the liberal international order as such (though it opposes elements of the economic order) but rather to the hegemonic position of the US within the order.
In this context of opposition to American power, some left-wing populists in Europe, like some right-wing populists, have long sympathized with Russia, which they see as a counterweight to the US. Perhaps the best example is the Die Linke. It opposes German military deployments abroad and proposes a unilateral withdrawal of Germany from NATO, which it considers to have ‘outlived’ its mission. It aims for a ‘collective security system in Europe’ that would include Russia. The party acknowledges human rights abuses and Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, but tends to see them as a reaction to Western aggression. Die Linke did not condemn Russia for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and leading figures like Gregor Gysi have expressed doubts whether the Kremlin was behind it.
However, while left-wing populist parties are generally sympathetic towards Russia and support some sort of accommodation with it, they are not identical in their approach. For example, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI) party in France, a country with a Gaullist tradition, goes much further than the SP in the Netherlands, a country with a strong Atlanticist orientation. The SP opposes turning NATO into a ‘global aggressive intervention force’ and wants to avoid a ‘new cold war in Europe’ with Russia. LFI, on the other hand, calls for France to withdraw from NATO. Mélenchon has visited Moscow, defended Russian actions and denounced the ‘anti-Russian and pro-NATO hysteria of the EU’.
The relationship between a predominant strategic culture and populism can also work the opposite way – that is, instead of being constrained by the state’s strategic orientation, populists can criticize that orientation as part of their opposition to elites.
Yet the relationship between a predominant strategic culture and populism can also work the opposite way – that is, instead of being constrained by the state’s strategic orientation, populists can criticize that orientation as part of their opposition to elites. For example, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn rejected the UK’s Atlanticism and liberal internationalism. In fact, in opposing NATO and the use of military force against those who ‘transgress the rules of the liberal order’, prioritizing the UN as an inclusive forum bringing in non-Western voices, highlighting global economic injustices, and accepting Russia and China as legitimate interlocutors of a West that in many ways enjoyed unjustified privileges in the international system, he went further than left-wing populists in other Atlanticist countries like the Netherlands.
One of the most successful populist parties in Europe, the Italian M5S, is unusual because it is difficult to classify in left/right terms. The party’s name is a reference to the five issues on which it originally focused: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. M5S is driven by a generalized suspicion of official authority and support for instruments of direct and digital democracy. Italy’s biggest party since 2013 and the senior coalition partner in power in Rome since 2018, M5S has been described as an ‘eclectic’ populist party, with mostly left-wing positions on economic issues and an approach to migration based on ‘national securitization and international humanitarianism’.
M5S’s foreign policy positions have been erratic and difficult to pin down ideologically. On questions of military operations and security policy, M5S was found in its first term in parliament (2013–18) to resemble more a ‘left-libertarian populist party rather than a sovereigntist far-right one’. It opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – one of the few populist parties to do so – but also opposed EU sanctions against Moscow. It presented the US, the EU and NATO as oppressive actors who force Italian elites to neglect the national interest. Some of its leading members have contacts with Kremlin-connected actors. Yet the party’s leading figure, Luigi di Maio, who has been foreign minister since 2019, has also supported Italy’s alliance with the US.