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


    • 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.
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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.

To allow right-wing populism to continue to advance is to succumb to fear.

The struggle to prioritize threats is not exclusive to the West. In the Middle East, countries are trying to figure out who should be contained. Among the frontrunners are the Islamic State (ISIS), Iran and Israel.

For Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, the answer is clearly Iran. For Iran, the answer is Israel – despite high tensions with Saudi Arabia. The West, too, has opinions on the matter: the European Union is convinced that ISIS should be the top priority. A few months ago, the U.S. might have agreed, but President Donald Trump, despite citing the eradication of ISIS as a major policy goal, may also be prepared to fight in Israel’s corner to contain Iran.

In Asia, too, countries are finding it difficult to sort the dangers they face. Should they focus on a North Korean regime that is as volatile as ever, and that recently launched a ballistic missile toward the Sea of Japan off its eastern coast? Or should they be keeping their eyes on China, which has gradually expanded both its regional influence and its Revanchist claims?

For Japan and South Korea, North Korea seems to be the top priority. But for Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore, it is difficult to discern whether North Korea actually poses a greater threat than the giant and increasingly nationalistic China. This is to say nothing of other acute risks, such as strains between two local nuclear powers, Pakistan and India.

When it comes to prioritizing today’s threats, there are no easy answers. But unless we find them, we risk repeating some of history’s great mistakes.

The French philosopher Paul Valéry believed that history teaches nothing, “for it contains everything and furnishes examples of everything.” But, at this point, it is difficult not to make historical comparisons, particularly in Europe.

In the late 19th century, surging nationalism underpinned an era of revolutions and civil wars. In the 1930s, the rise of populism in Europe opened the way for disaster. Many Europeans, fearful of the “reds,” were prepared to compromise with the “brown shirts.” It didn’t take long to find out the true threat the Nazis posed.

Here, the lesson is clear. Rather that attempting to prioritize the threats we face – compromising on one goal to advance another – we must tackle them all at once. As the assassinated prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, used to say, we should “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process, and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.”

The battle against Islamist terrorism is important, but it should not overshadow – much less undermine – the imperative to protect our democracies from the threat of right-wing populism. To accept, for example, the victory of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election, arguing that it is at least better than allowing radical Islamism to proliferate further, is to ignore the lessons of history. It would also ignore reality.

ISIS, like Nazism, may be born of a culture of humiliation and driven by a spirit of revenge. But it does not possess anything like the industrial and military resources of Germany in the 1930s. ISIS is not the “modern Nazism” we should fear; it is the terrorism that, in the spirit of Mr. Rabin, we should fight.

The peace we should pursue, meanwhile, is within our own countries. To allow right-wing populism to continue to advance is to succumb to fear –  one which obfuscates clear-headed analysis of our interests and values. It is to compromise with the brown shirts for fear of the reds.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the E.U., a model of reconciliation, peace, and prosperity, inspired countries from Latin America to Asia. Today, Europe, along with the once venerated U.S., is a model of fear. And it is scaring others. If Europeans cannot develop enlightened and lucid solutions to the threats they face, who can?


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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