What Is Happening to the West?

As the NATO summit kicks off, how to think about the rise of the far right and the backlash to centrism in Europe.

Angela Merkel and other world leaders walk toward the camera.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders arrive for the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
Tatyana Zenkovich/Getty Images

This week, President Donald Trump is in Europe meeting with his NATO counterparts before rendezvousing with Vladimir Putin in Finland. The combination of an American president who seems to disdain democracy and admire the Russian leader, the ongoing specter of Brexit, and the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism all over the continent have understandably made many people frightened about the future of what is grandly called “the West”—not to mention the military and political alliances that have helped ensure its stability.

Now, therefore, seemed like a good time to talk to Adam Tooze, the author of numerous works of European history and the director of the European Institute at Columbia University. (His forthcoming book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why historical parallels to the 1930s are so flawed, how center-right parties helped abet the rise of the far right, and why Trump is less of a threat to Europe than people think.

Isaac Chotiner: If you look back at European history, how would you define and locate this European moment?

Adam Tooze: I’m not sure that I find the efforts to locate our current moment in relation to previous moments of dark drama, like 1914 and the 1930s, terribly compelling. Obviously, the present is the product of the historical past, but the sorts of tendencies that I think are at work in Europe today are those we’ve seen at work since the 1970s, broadly speaking: challenges of globalization in all its many facets, the central question of the nation and its possible alternatives. That’s really the context in which the current situation belongs, which obviously is not one that a left liberal centrist like myself would ever have wished on Europe, but I don’t see it as being dramatic in the way that, say, the 1930s were, which is one of the more common analogies right now. That’s really to compare mice and elephants. The 1930s was an existential crisis. I think we’re a very long way away from that at this moment. What we are seeing is the malfunctioning, the breakdown potentially, of the party system that dominated European politics for many decades.

Everywhere I look—from Brexit to Hungary to the rise of a populist government in Italy to Marine Le Pen making the final round in France to what’s happening in Germany right now—it all seems to fit under a similar rubric, which is the rise of right-wing populism. Do you think it’s helpful to put all of these events under the same rubric?

I’m not very compelled by the populism argument. I mean, I think at this point it’s become so much of a meme that it’s beginning to act into the world. Some of the protagonists do identify themselves as populist and they’ve been labeled as such, and so that labeling and that self-identification is beginning to exert effect. What I would agree with is to say that Europe, like the United States, has been subject to some common shocks, and the common shocks one might think of as being things like the financial crisis or the spectacular derailment of Western policy in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Western Asia, and that then creates flows of people and challenges that all these different countries and the EU, NATO, organizations like that, have to deal with.

When those sorts of entities are exposed to those kinds of common shocks, then what you see is national fault lines, national fragilities, manifesting themselves across all of those countries at the same time.

The Brexit disaster is completely predictable given the ambiguities of the relationship of right-wing Brits—and indeed left-wing Brits—to the EU. Now, that’s a completely different phenomenon from reservoirs of extreme nationalist public opinion in Hungary, which draw their historical inspiration from memes and themes of national persecution, which go all the way back to World War I and the dramatic aftermath of World War I. Modern Hungary is a shadow of what it once was, and has been throughout the 20th century, and at certain moments, nationalist politicians in Hungary can mobilize that.

And that isn’t the rhetoric of what we call Italian populism, which in fact has two distinct strands. One is the League, which is a previously regional party, which emerged out of Northern Italian resentment against everything south of Rome, and on the other hand the Five Star Movement, which is an unforeseen type of politics, which is much more modernist in a kind of freaked-out … it’s positively Californian, right, in its belief in tech, and the mechanisms of popular referenda. They then form a coalition, given the logic of European politics, with the League, which allows them both to govern, whilst in Britain the Tories are clinging onto power with the help of the most right-wing parties in Northern Ireland. Both of these are responses to the shocks that Europe has suffered since 2008. Do they add up to the same political phenomenon? I don’t think so, in any reasonable kind of way.

It seems like maybe a way of understanding this—and I think this would also apply to Trump—is that in all these different countries, these forces to one extent or another have always existed, even if the forces themselves are somewhat distinct. Then a common crisis or crises in the world allows them to reach a certain level of electoral success that in normal times they would not.

Yes, and those crises in the world aren’t acts of God or earthquake-type phenomena. Those crises are the result of policymaking by previous generations of people in power. If you want to understand the crisis of the Republican Party, I think a lot of people would agree that there were two big shocks. One is just the disastrous war on terror and the impact in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then the other was the 2008 crisis. Of course, the Republican Party leadership is going to think they’re innocent in generating those two, right? There’s a key element here of failure on the part of elites to just govern effectively. You know, if people are voting for things like Five Star or people are voting for nationalism, for Fidesz in Hungary, they quite rightly consider the preceding incumbent to have just done a shockingly bad job. It isn’t that people have necessarily moved to more extreme positions, but that their willingness to hand power to [those who style] themselves as the centrist, moderate, kind of rational, reasonable politician is just undercut by reality. I mean, why would you trust people to govern, given what a terrible job they’ve done?

A key further element is that in almost all these situations, the right-wing, xenophobic nationalists were always present in all of these societies, but it was contained and to a degree silenced and channeled and stifled by effective elite leadership on the part of centrist right-wing or centrist conservatives. If you think about the Republican Party, they’ve been winning votes since the late ’60s and early ’70s with the Southern strategy, which is basically white resentment against civil rights, and at the same time pursuing a strategy of opening towards global trade. Now, those two things are not really consistent with each other in ideological terms, but if you can somehow square the circle and hold that bracket, you can mobilize majorities. When you fail, then this thing will come apart.

So let’s talk about how responsible politicians should deal with things like the EU or migration. One is to make a case that migration is helpful economically and that it’s not going to necessarily drive up crime, that we can deal with it as a society, that it’s a humanitarian thing, which it seems like Angela Merkel tried do for a while. The other is what everyone in European politics now including Merkel seems to do, which is basically try to win over right-wing or center-right votes by saying, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to get tough on security,” basically trying to approach the far-right position, and dim their appeal. That made sense to me politically, but now my feeling from watching the past several years is that European politicians have basically sold out too much, and now the entire rhetoric on all sides is that migration is dangerous. Once everyone is sort of talking that way, you actually provide fascists and right-wingers more of an opening.

I accept that as a reasonable first take at one level. I think, though, that you are missing something. Everyone can see this rift that you’re correctly identifying, and so I think the key issue here is the word control.

Why Merkel would resist your characterization of her position is that she would say, “I am in no way giving up on the stated position that we have obligations to protect people’s human rights, and that we will honor the asylum commitment that the German constitution requires us to make. Furthermore, I do not retreat from the position that this society needs an influx of migrants, and I will not retreat from the position that diversity per se is a desirable thing for societies to exhibit, and that within society it must be recognized explicitly and valued, because otherwise you exist in a state of denial and then you create antagonism. But,” and this is the crucial thing, “at all times, we must exert control.”

In other words, “We must govern this process, and what we failed do in ’15 was not … you know, we didn’t make a wrong decision, but what we showed was our inability to actually control the flow, and it’s the loss of control that is what really panicked people, created fear. It was fear that the irresponsible populists then pandered to, and so by restoring control and drying up the psychological swamp, this swamp of fear that the populace operated. It looks as though I’m conceding to them, but what I’m actually trying to do is to shift the weather and trying to change the environment such that we can have a rational conversation about this.”

There isn’t a good fix for this problem, so the question is: Do you apply whatever difficult compromise you apply in a context of panic, fear, antagonism, stigmatization, and frankly just post-truth nonsense, or do you try and create the conditions in which one can have a reasonable conversation about what is a profoundly difficult choice that society has to make?

Isn’t the problem, though, that the conditions sometimes will violate international law or necessitate treating migrants poorly, or stopping the free flow of people in the EU?

Yes, absolutely. So then you have to make a series of lesser decisions about how dramatic the situation is. I think what Merkel decided in the fall of ’15, given this nightmarish situation in Syria, was that at this moment, right, you had to take this risk.

Her kind of whistling in the dark, rhetoric of confidence and self-confidence, “We can do this,” was part of a project of trying to say, “Look, let’s just keep calm and carry on and ride out what is a historic storm. This is not something that anyone could foresee. These are not normal conditions, but we have got to do something exceptional under these circumstances.” She was breaching the EU. She was breaching the Dublin agreement in deciding to do what she was doing, and she knew that, I think.

Do you have some hope that, with these new refugee deals and the mainstream parties getting tougher, that at some point the conversation can be restored and the appeal of the right-wing xenophobia can be battened down a little bit?

That is the strategy they’re pursuing, and we have to understand that strategy, because otherwise you do, I think, face this dichotomy that you started us off with by saying, you know, either you wholeheartedly embrace this or you slide towards the fascists. I think that the strategy that the centrists are currently pursuing … and, you know, to be fair to them, it is after all what Brexit was demanding as well: take back control. And control is not the same as fascism, right? Control, a policy of being able to say in a sovereign decision or a proactive decision that, “We think we would like this number of foreigners under these terms, and with due respect to our international obligations, this is the number.”

My concern was just that maybe even that kind of rhetoric in the long run plays into the hands of the fascists, but I see what you’re saying.

My take is that fascism is really a politics of fear rather than control, and certainly the version that we’re seeing right now is just all about fear. It’s all about crisis. The longer we stay in a state of disturbance, the more those parties figure that they can get votes, and so the efforts at control are crucial.

How much do you think European elites and Europe experts see Trump as a threat—an American president who seems to actively dislike Europe, actively dislike the European Union, and actively like the leader who a lot of people consider the biggest threat to the integrity of Europe, Vladimir Putin?

It’s an interesting question. I think threat is a strong word, and one of the problems that Anglophone observers of the EU have is that they just totally underestimate the structure and the stability and the very vastness of this system, and so they’re constantly speculating about things that might break it up or threats that might challenge it and undermine it and tear it apart. You know, this kind of rhetoric of emergency is commonplace.

Now, Trump is, you know, a spectacular shock. In the history of the EU, there’s never been an American president who just didn’t get it, I mean fundamentally didn’t get it. It’s not clear, even to this day, that he understands that bilateral relations between European states and the U.S. don’t really exist anymore, and any important issue, everything, goes through the EU. But I think most European elites think of it as an opportunity, frankly, to in some sense mobilize public opinion around an anti-Trump rally.

He is so unpopular, you’d have to be a pretty bad politician not to want to take advantage of that right now, which is another thing that the Trumpists don’t understand. That once you reach a certain level of unpopularity, then everybody gains from not cooperating with you. Right now, if any European politician were to sell out to Trump or to appear to sell out to Trump, it would be a death warrant. Trump doesn’t pose a threat to the EU. He’s just, you know, an incredibly hostile piece of the environment that the EU has not had to deal with before.

I don’t personally think of Putin as a threat to the EU. Putin would work, I think, perfectly happily with the EU if the EU had been more cooperative with him. That’s not saying I think Putin’s a good actor in the system, but I don’t think Russia is pursuing a strategy of trying to systematically divide the EU. That’s not their game. They want to be able to cooperate in mutually cooperative ways with the Europeans, and it’s quite difficult for them to do it given the nature of their system and the hostility that engenders on the part of many Europeans. It’s probably doomed to frustration, and that will then breed antagonism between the two sides.

I think Trump actually does envision the world without the EU, and it’s completely unreal. I don’t think that’s the game that the Russians are playing. I think they want influence and they want leverage, but they’re not in the business of dismantling. They would love to be able to exert influence. They actually have, I think, a pretty good grasp of what the system is.

I was going to end this, but someone just texted me that Boris Johnson resigned, so it clearly never ends.

Oh, right. I mean, the disintegration of the Tory party is at least on a par with the situation of the Republican Party as a vehicle of government, right? I mean, it’s amazing. I don’t have any particularly wise words about that, but it’s a shame on a once-great political organization.