The right-wing populists are more vibrant and popular, the old leftist peace warriors more consistent
Upcoming Speech to the XII European Russia Forum, Brussels, 25-26 November 2018
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address here today the question of what we as civil society can do to stop the relentless march towards war of our media and political elites. War on the European continent, including nuclear war, is becoming a real and alarming possibility. The peace project that we know as the European Union is no longer a bulwark against such madness.
On the contrary, with the active assistance of new member states from the former Soviet bloc, with Poland and the Baltics in the forefront, the European Union has become an agent of war-making, not within itself but with respect to its great neighbor to the East. Not a day passes without some new warnings emanating from Warsaw, Vilnius or others in their circle alleging aggressive designs by Russia requiring ever higher military expenditures, forward positioning of NATO forces and the like.
Now, with the pending withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, we face the prospect of reinstallation on European soil of American nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aimed at Russia. This will, of course, elicit a symmetrical response from Moscow, placing the Continent on a permanent war footing notable for a very short warning of incoming attack – 15 minutes or less.
To be sure, the existential threat to Russia posed by the new American ground-based missiles in Europe is being exaggerated by the Kremlin, considering that the country is already surrounded by US-navy based missiles with similar capabilities and similarly short incoming warning times. However, those systems are offshore and do not attract Russian targeting within Europe, as the new systems will. It is the political dimension that is changing, namely the relations between Europe and Russia. Any stationing of American missiles in Europe will represent a further and long-term subordination of the European Union to control of its foreign and defense policy by Washington.
All of this takes us back in time to the period before the conclusion of the INF Treaty in 1987, when the installation of US Pershings in Germany to offset Soviet SS20s was the latest and most ominous turn in the Cold War.
Back then, the strategic instability engendered by these missiles sparked a massive antiwar movement in Western Europe and most particularly in Germany, where the American missiles were based. Contemporaneously, in the United States a less potent but still relevant antiwar movement was sparked by the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s "Star Wars" plans for a new arms race. Universities were the centers of this agitation, and the American Committee for East West Accord, a lobbying group for détente with which I was associated, was the beneficiary of a wave of membership applications, whereas previously it had been a gentlemen’s club operating mostly in the bar of the United States Senate.
The American antiwar movement of the 1980s was anecdotal. The European movement against cruise missiles was a lot more substantial: it had big numbers, it was noisy and it attracted media attention. It is reasonable to assume that the conclusion of the INF Treaty, with subsequent removal and destruction of these missiles, was in no small measure due to the antiwar movement.
Can we expect such a development today? If so, how do we go about mobilizing?
To answer these questions responsibly, we must consider the very considerable changes in how the game of politics is played from then to now.
Then, in the 1980s, political parties were aligned on a Left to Right axis. The Left was antiwar. The Right was the war party. Easy to comprehend.
Today, politics in Europe has moved outside the Left-Right dichotomy. There are many reasons for this. I will mention here what I consider the main causal factor: widespread discontent with the parties of our ruling elites. They fail to address the problems that concern the great majority of the population in these times of economic distress.
As their popularity fades here on the Continent under conditions of proportional representation, these mainstream parties of the Center Right and Center Left have formed Grand Alliances to hold onto power at any price. Consistency, integrity of policy are abandoned. Ministerial portfolios are handed out without regard to competence or policy, but to hobble together parliamentary majorities. We have seen this for the past decade here in Belgium. More to the point, we see it in Europe’s leading country, Germany over the same time period in the marriages of convenience between the SPD and the CDU/CSU.
This unprincipled power-sharing has discredited these parties and encouraged the rise of politics outside the mainstream in the shape of populist or anti-Establishment parties. Add to that the dimension of Identity politics driving many such parties. They appeal to our sense of nation or ethnicity or race. The mainstream has responded with other identities, including gender, sexual orientation and assorted minority causes.
Amidst this changing landscape, the Left as a whole has fared especially poorly. It has been more disorganized, demoralized and has lost more voters than the Right. We see this with special clarity in Germany, where Die Linke has been unable to benefit from the weakness of the Socialists, and disaffected Centrists have moved to what is called the "extreme Right," meaning the Alternativ fuer Deutschland, or to the Greens, parties built around an agenda outside the traditional issues of economic and social policy.
I wrote about these phenomena shortly after the latest elections in the German state of Hesse a month ago, when the serious electoral losses of the CDU forced the hand of Angela Merkel and put her departure from politics on the calendar.
All of this bears directly on the question of what is to be done today to mobilize antiwar demonstrations. Such movements have traditionally come from the Left, which is, as I said, exceedingly weak at present. However, at the same time, what are called the "extreme Right" parties, now show great potential for taking up this cause, just as they have exploited the anti-immigration wave of emotion to win votes and break into national politics in country after country.
In the distant past, there was clear logic to the emotional bond between the Left and the Soviet Union as standard-bearer of Communism. The Russian Federation, on the other hand, is a market economy. We can put to one side the qualifications that it is a Continental variety, with a good measure of state direction of the economy and of social protection for the population. It has every reason to appeal more to the Right than to the Left. And it has strongest appeal to the Far Right, given their shared emphasis on state sovereignty and the nation, for which Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been the most visible and consistent fighter on the world stage. Add to that the factor of social and religious conservatism which the European parties of the extreme Right share with United Russia.
This, in my view, explains the orientation of Western Europe’s leading "extreme Right" parties towards Russia and against NATO, against American domination of the Continent. The Rassemblement National in France; the Alternativ fuer Deutschland in Germany; the Liga in Italy all come to mind. The leaders of these parties regularly speak out against the sanctions that Brussels has imposed on Russia and in favor of normalization of relations with Moscow. It is very likely they will take stands against new US missiles in Europe. It was deputies from these parties whom I saw in greatest numbers as international observers to the presidential elections in Russia on 18 March. They were also the greatest number of participants in the Forum on Parliamentarism that the State Duma organized in Moscow at the start of June that I attended as a foreign expert.
The Liga already enjoys a key role in the government of Italy, where its leader, Matteo Salvini, is setting the agenda in a showdown with Brussels over control of the national economy. His stated ambition is not to leave the Euro-zone or to dissolve the Union but to take control of these monsters and rein them in.
Salvini makes no secret of his admiration for Russia under Vladimir Putin and desire for normal relations. In his foreign policy statements, he opposes Atlanticism and subordination to the American Diktat. We may expect to hear a lot more from him in the coming months.
Meanwhile in Germany the AfD has now entered the legislatures of all the German Laender and may well enter the federal government after Angela Merkel leaves the political scene and the Grand Coalition collapses. The media talk about AfD’s xenophobia, painting them as primitives. However, the bigger story is that the party has its roots and its greatest support in the territories of the former GDR where it has been the vehicle for popular resentment against the region’s colonization by West Germany since reunification. It now enjoys 27% support of voters in the East according to recent polls. Among its core issues is the wish to restore commercial and other ties with Russia, which had been so very strong before 1992.
As electioneering for the May 2019 Europe-wide elections to the Parliament heats up, we may be sure that the issue of East-West relations and new threats to the peace coming from the American withdrawal from the INF Treaty will be taken up by the parties of the extreme Right across the EU.
Will the parties of the Left just weep into their beer? Or will they find a way to participate in the still inchoate new peace movement that is forming outside their control?
In the coming weeks and months, I intend to follow closely and further develop contacts with the political forces on the Right while remaining focused on my highest priority of resistance to the introduction of American missiles in Europe and calls for détente instead of confrontation.
Considering who is sponsoring this event today, I am aware that some in this room may not like my analysis of where the fulcrum of power lies for building an antiwar movement in Europe. I do not doubt that some here would not be eager to shake the hand of AfD or Rassemblement politicians. I ask you to reconsider that noble disdain for the sake of our overarching concern to prevent war on this Continent and more generally in the world.
In closing, let me assure you that I am open to those who defend the viability of the Left and plead the case of its abiding relevance to antiwar movements.
I sent my article on the Alternativ fuer Deutschland for comment to one of the most dedicated followers of Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt’s Entspannungspolitik, former SPD Bundestag deputy Ute Finck-Kraemer. I got back the following comment which she encouraged me to share with others:
"The Left Party is much more than Sahra Wagenknecht and is still a vital part of the German Peace movement. And, what you cannot see from outside the movement – lots of Social Democratic and Green Party members are active in the peace movement as well. They are minorities in their parties, but have some influence, at least in the SPD."
Did you see the new appeal from prominent Social Democrats against a new nuclear arms race in Europe?
The AfD votes in the Bundestag for some of the military missions – the Left Party does not."
I leave it to you to judge whose position, mine or Ute’s, gives greater promise for mobilizing demonstrations against the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Europe, against continuation of sanctions and provocative military exercises at the Russian borders.
But above all, I hope you will agree that the greatest chances for success of our cause will come when we prioritize peace and work together with all political forces pointed in that direction whatever their place on the Right-Left scale.