If populists are heterogenous and do not enact radical changes when they are in power, is there anything distinctive about populist foreign policy at all? One common thread is the way that populist parties in Europe, which are nearly all Eurosceptic, seek extra-European connections as ways to counterbalance the EU. But they do so in different ways: some populist parties on the right and left see Russia as a useful ally against the dominance of the EU and the US; others like SYRIZA turned to China and Russia and the US for support in their negotiations with the eurozone; and Atlanticist populists like PiS in Poland seek to strengthen links with the US in pursuit of security and as an alternative to European integration.
It is often claimed, or simply assumed, that populists in Europe are pro-Russian, but, as this paper has shown, that generalization is too simple – right-wing populists in Scandinavia and Central and Eastern Europe can be even more hawkish on Russia than mainstream parties. Many populists do support the idea of a multipolar world, albeit for different reasons – the populist right due to its emphasis on national sovereignty, the populist left due to its critique of American power and neoliberalism. Moreover, whereas some right-wing populists seem to oppose the West as such, others seem to want to reinvent it along cultural or civilizational lines – what has been called the ‘alt-West’.
On other issues like China, it is difficult to see any kind of pattern in how populist figures, movements and parties in Europe approach foreign policy. Populist parties of the right in Western Europe like the RN in France and the Lega in Italy tend to view China as an unfair economic competitor that contributes to the deindustrialization of these countries. Scandinavian right-wing populists have also expressed strong concerns about China in recent years. But some populists in Central and Eastern Europe like Fidesz welcome Chinese investment and influence. Yet other populist parties see China in more geopolitical terms. For example, Die Linke has called on Germany not to follow the US in ‘antagonizing’ Beijing.
Nor are all populists in Europe opposed to the liberal international order. The populist left may think the liberal economic order is ‘rigged’ – a view they share with many serious analysts including theorists of the liberal international order. At times this can push the populist left close to the populist right’s emphasis on sovereignty, though they usually emphasize popular rather than national sovereignty. Yet the populist left’s ‘thick’ ideology also contains elements that are understood as ‘liberal’ – in particular, left-wing populists are generally internationalists. Many left-wing populists do not oppose the liberal international order so much as want to reform it – in particular its ‘neoliberal’ economic element.
The populist left may think the liberal economic order is ‘rigged’. At times this can push the populist left close to the populist right’s emphasis on sovereignty, though they usually emphasize popular rather national sovereignty.
However, although it is not possible to generalize about the way all populists in Europe approach foreign policy, it is nevertheless possible to identify several types. On foreign policy issues, populist parties in Europe differ above all in two ways. First, they differ in ideological terms. Their ‘thick’ ideologies – whether on the left or the right – substantially influence their approaches to foreign policy. Second, populist approaches to foreign policy differ in terms of the dominant strategic culture of the state they operate in. Based on these two fault lines, we can identify three different types of populist foreign policy approaches in Europe: Atlanticist nationalists and continental nationalists on the right and anti-imperialist internationalists on the left (see Table 1).
Right-wing populists in Central and Southern Europe – like Fidesz, RN, La Lega, the FPÖ and the AfD – can be thought of as continental nationalists. They are critical of NATO and Western militarism, using rhetoric that sometimes resembles that of the left, and tend to be pro-Russian. However, they were also pro-Trump, who they saw as a defender of national sovereignty. To the extent that they adopted a pro-American profile, it was largely a reflection of the ideology of the previous US government – and thus we should expect them to revert to anti-Americanism under Joe Biden. In other words, their Atlanticism depends on the ideology of who holds power in Washington. They have no shared position on China: some like Fidesz are open to a vision of Eurasian integration as a sovereigntist alternative to Euro-Atlanticism but others are hostile to China.
Right-wing populists in European states with dominant Atlanticist security traditions – like PiS in Poland, UKIP in the UK and Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands – can be thought of as Atlanticist nationalists. Although they were particularly supportive of the US under Trump, who they saw as reinventing the West along cultural or civilizational lines, their support pre-dates him. In other words, they are principled rather than opportunist Atlanticists. (A partial exception here may be Nigel Farage’s opposition to Joe Biden’s election in the US, although this is attributable to his personal connection to Donald Trump rather than any kind of ideological anti-Americanism.) There are some differences between them on Russia – right-wing populists in the Netherlands and the UK are equivocal about Russia in comparison to PiS in Poland – but in general Atlanticist nationalists are much more hawkish on Russia than continental nationalists. They also share a hostile attitude to China.
Left-wing populists in Europe – like Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece – can be seen as anti-imperialist internationalists. They distrust NATO, military interventions and the US, although their attitude to the US is also influenced by who holds power in Washington and generally deteriorates under Republican presidents. Die Linke may be the most consistently anti-Atlanticist, although it has never been tested in government, as opposed to SYRIZA, whose positions changed substantially over its years in power. Anti-imperialist internationalists are generally sympathetic to Russia, though sometimes critical of its human rights abuses, but they differ on China.