The Rise of Populist Movements in the United States and Europe: Joint Challenge, Joint Answers Needed

The largest political challenge facing Europe and the United States at the moment is also the largest challenge currently facing the transatlantic relationship. Populist movements put the very core of our democracies into question, i.e., the strong institutions that our founding fathers and mothers designed to create broad political participation—and broad legitimacy. In the past few years, populist movements have reached a level of prominence on both sides of the Atlantic that makes them impossible to ignore (not speaking of the huge political mistake it would be to do just that).

With Donald Trump becoming the 45th U.S. president, populism has reached a new level of influence. The most powerful man in the world is also the most successful populist the earth has seen, winning the largest price democracy has to offer, the presidency of the United States, the wealthiest and most influential country in the world. His ticket was a platform of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In his foreign policy he wants to put “America first,” thus breaking with America’s long-standing role as benevolent hegemon that provides security and humanitarian relief across the planet.

Donald Trump’s success as well as his agenda is mirrored by the rise of right-wing populist movements and parties across Europe. Just like Trump puts America first, his European counterparts from French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to Hungarian president Viktor Orbán claim to put their countries first. And to them, representing (or running to represent) member states of the European Union, putting one’s nation first means downgrading the role of the European Union, as Orbán does, or rejecting the European Union (almost) altogether, as Le Pen does. While the United States is not embedded in an entity anywhere comparable to the European Union (which of course is unique within the global system of nations), it has been strongly grounded in a union of likeminded spirits. Not a federation but a community of shared values and beliefs: the transatlantic relationship.

No matter whether a populist force has succeeded to take over the reins of the country’s fate, as is the case in the United States, or whether it is “only” trying to get there eventually, as is the case in France and other European countries, the problem is the same: The rise of populist movements forces the established political parties to respond. Dealing with populism takes time and energy, and even when the strategy succeeds and a populist takeover is fended off, there is a political price to pay: countries focusing heavily on domestic politics, trying to win back hearts and minds—understandably so, but often at the cost of international engagement.

In the end, it matters less whether a president is pursuing an agenda of “my country first” or whether a president is “only” reacting to rising nationalist sentiments at home. Fact is that transatlantic relations face the danger of being moved to the backburner. This would be an enormous mistake, however. Just when relations across the Atlantic become more difficult, the more important it becomes to strengthen these very relations. More cooperation, more dialogue, more exchange must be the answer to the populist surge. Anything else would mean defeat, and we would risk losing more than our strong ties, we would put our democracies at risk.

Now is the time to stand up for open societies, for freedom and liberty. Now is the time for a new effort to deepen and strengthen transatlantic ties. If the official channels are blocked, we must work to unclog them. At the same time, we must look to enhance cooperation on levels beyond the intergovernmental relationship. Society to society, peer group to peer group, person to person is the way forward, just as city to city or state to Bundesland. The neglect the transatlantic relationship is likely to suffer during the (at least) four years ahead of the Trump administration must be compensated by even stronger cooperation on other levels. After all, it is the people that make up a democracy. It is in our hands to create the change we want.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Henriette Rytz

German Bundestag

Dr. Henriette Rytz is a foreign policy advisor to Cem Özdemir, member of the Bundestag and head of the Green Party Germany (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen). Before joining his team, she worked as a researcher at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik / German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin-based foreign policy think tank. Henriette has published widely on questions of foreign policy, U.S. domestic politics, and immigration and integration, including a book that came out in 2013 (“Ethnic Interest Groups in US Foreign-Policy Making: A Cuban-American Story of Success and Failure,” New York: Palgrave Macmillan). Her passion for U.S. politics and transatlantic relations has repeatedly taken her to the U.S. for longer work stints, including at the House of Representatives, the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies in Washington, D.C., and Yale University. Ms. Rytz holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Relations from the Free University Berlin. Ms. Rytz is vice chairperson of the board of Humanity in Action Germany, a transatlantic human rights network.

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).