Fighting populism

The Threat of Threats

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The battle against Islamist terrorism is important, but it should not overshadow the imperative to protect our democracies from the threat of right-wing populism, the author argues.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Brexit vote, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and rising support for European nationalist parties show populism is on the up.
    • The United States and European Union have both said that tackling Islamic State is a priority.
    • Addressing Russian imperialism, Chinese nationalism and Middle East instability are also high on the West’s agenda.
  • Audio

    Audio

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ISIL fighter holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
Populism is a bigger threat to the West than Islamic State, the author argues. Source: Reuters

“Tell me what you fear and I will tell you what has happened to you,” the psychologist D.W. Winnicott wrote in the early twentieth century. It sounds straightforward, until one considers how much has happened since then – and how much there is to fear.

The sheer diversity of the threats facing the world today evokes the tragic farces of Italian Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello, a forerunner to the theater of the absurd. In the West, some focus on religious extremism – in particular, the terrorism supposedly being carried out in the name of Islam.

Others point to Russia, warning of a new cold war, already apparent in Eastern Europe and the cyber realm. Still others, highlighting the rise of virulent right-wing populism in the United States and parts of Europe, declare that the real danger lies within.

Even those who recognize all of these threats struggle to prioritize them – which is vital to addressing them. If, say, Islamist terrorism is the principal threat, then it might make sense for the West to align itself with Russia in the fight against it.

But what if right-wing populism, which the Kremlin actively supports, is the biggest menace? In that case, aligning with Russia could prove destructive for Western liberal democracy. In fact, exaggerating the threat of Islamist terrorism, while downplaying the threat of right-wing populism, could well play directly into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands.

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