Radical right-wing populism and foreign policy

Foreign policy positions of radical right-wing parties stem from their ultranationalism, or nativism, as a constituent element of their ideologies, as well as ethno-pluralism adopted from the European New Right. The approaches of radical right-wing parties to international relations are arguably best characterised by their attitudes towards globalisation, the USA, NATO and European integration.

The meeting of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in Prague, 16 December 2017. Left to right: Marine Le Pen (National Front), Tomio Okamura (Freedom and Direct Democracy), Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom). Source: N24/Kevin Knauer

The overwhelming majority of radical right parties consider globalisation, for economic, political and socio-cultural reasons, as a destructive process. First, globalisation – as a process of de-regularisation and liberalisation of goods and labour markets – is blamed for undermining the welfare state, impoverishing small and medium businesses in favour of transnational corporations, cutting wages and rising unemployment.

Second, international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank or World Trade Organisation, as well as currently proposed trade agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are seen as limiting economic and political sovereignty of European nation-states.

While these positions could potentially be also articulated by (radical) left-wing parties, these critical approaches to globalisation are – in the case of the radical right – underpinned by their ultranationalism. Concerns about the survival of the welfare state in a globalised world are part of the radical right-wing ideological package that can be called “welfare state chauvinism” suggesting that welfare benefits should be restricted to the indigenous population and, thus, implicitly cementing the inequality between “Us” and “Them”. Similar ultranationalist implications can be found in the radical right narratives associating globalisation with the rise of unemployment and salary reductions: globalisation fosters immigration, and immigrants “take our jobs and drive down wages”. Moreover, describing the IMF or World Bank as instruments of “international finance” enables the radical right’s flirtation with anti-Semitism, as the term “international finance” is a coded reference to the Jews.1 The combination of “leftist” criticism of globalisation and nativist undertones allows the radical right to mobilise “losers of globalisation” more efficiently in comparison to the radical left; as Hanspeter Kriesi and others argued, “fears about national identities” are more important for the “losers of globalisation” than “the defence of their economic interests”.2 The majority of “losers of globalisation”, who vote for the far right, come from the working class – a development that Hans-Georg Betz called a “proletarization of the radical populist Right’s electoral basis”.3 He also suggested that, from the point of view of economic programmes, already in the early 1990s, “a number of radical right-wing populist parties resembled Socialist and Social Democratic parties more than any other of the established parties”.4

Finally, radical right-wing parties directly blame globalisation, which – to a certain degree – implies free movement of persons, for uncontrolled immigration and erosion of national cultures. Immigrants from Africa and Asia receive special attention of far right parties that believe that real or imaginary cultural differences between Africans and Asians, on the one hand, and Europeans, on the other, are too great to allow for a peaceful co-existence of these peoples in the European space and for a successful integration of Africans and Asians into European societies. These arguments are underpinned by different but often overlapping motives ranging from overtly racist to Islamophobic to ethno-pluralist ones. The racist motive relates to a belief in the superiority of “white race” over any other “races”: Africans and Asians are thus seen not only as inferior to white Europeans but also a direct threat to the existence of “white race”. The Islamophobic motive alludes to the incompatibility of Islam with European societies; some far right parties would defend a concept of a Christian Europe and argue that Islam has threatened Christian Europe for many centuries, some others would insist that Europe is secular, while Islam rejects secularism. The ethno-pluralist motive, unlike the overtly racist one, does not presume superiority of Europeans over Africans and Asians, but glorifies cultural diversity of different ethnic communities – a diversity that should be maintained, and, hence, different ethnic communities should have as low influence on each other as possible.

The rejection of globalisation of the majority of radical right-wing parties is closely associated with their general scepticism towards to the USA. As Christina Schori Liang sums up,

Anti-Americanism has become one of the dominant foreign policy themes of the populist radical right since the end of the Cold War, and the United States is widely perceived as the main state adversary of Europe. […] The United States is viewed by many populist radical right parties […] as having hegemony over international institutions […] and international business. The United States is also represented as a warmonger, forcing countries to join in unwanted conflicts and instigating and forcing political, economic, and cultural integration.5

According to Lars Rensmann, “in general, anti-Americanism is now at the top of the agenda of extreme right parties all over Europe, from Lega Nord to Front National”,6 but exceptions do exist, while the attitudes of far right parties towards the US may change with time. For example, the Front National (National Front, FN) was strongly pro-American until the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-1991 and the beginning of the US-led Gulf War that the FN strongly criticised; the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ), under the leadership of Jörg Haider, looked at the US with favour until the beginning of the 2000s when Haider started to cooperate with Saddam Hussein; and the Belgian Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) was “virtually the only open supporter of American foreign policy in contemporary Belgium”.7 Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of far right parties remain, in a varying degree, anti-American. The election of President Donald Trump, who has been often seen as a racist8 and American isolationist,9 and whose presidential campaign was led by one of the ideologues of the Alternative Right (or alt-right) movement Steve Bannon,10 exerted an impact on many European far right parties who embraced his election – if only in hope that Trump, as an isolationist, would limit American presence in Europe – but it is too early to say whether Trump’s election will reverse the deeply rooted anti-Americanism of the European far right.

Contemporary attitudes towards NATO on the part of radical right-wing parties are similar to those towards the US, but during the Cold War the European far right predominantly supported membership in NATO; their anti-communism underpinned their belief that NATO was an efficient instrument to contain and deter the Soviet Union. After the fall of socialism and communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, most far right parties switched to anti-NATO positions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and communism were considered as a bigger threat than the US, but after the 1989-1991, the US became to be seen as the only remaining superpower, and NATO – as an instrument of the American imperialism.11

However, there have been exceptions too. The FPÖ supported Austria joining NATO in the 1990s, even if, ironically, the majority of Austrians favoured the country’s neutral status.12 The Partidul România Mare (Greater Romania Party, PRM) considered NATO – at least until the death of its long-time leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor in 2015 – “the only possible instrument to protect the strategic interests of Romania”,13 while the DF is still a resolutely pro-NATO far right party. The Vseukrains’ke Ob’yednannya “Svoboda” (All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom”) sees NATO as an instrument of resisting Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine, and, therefore, supports the idea of the country joining NATO.

With respect to the EU, the majority of West European radical right-wing parties supported European integration through to the signing, in 1992, of the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht Treaty) that was seen as a step leading to the loss of national sovereignty and creation of a European super-state, in which national and ethnic particularities would be eradicated. Cas Mudde suggested arguably the most useful typology of contemporary far right parties with regard to their approach to the EU by distinguishing between Euroenthusiasts, Europragmatists, Eurorejects and Eurosceptics.14 Euroenthusiasts, who express “support for both the underlying ideas of European integration and the EU itself”,15 represent the smallest part of the European far right, and the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (Alliance for the Future of Austria), when it was still a radical right-wing populist party under the leadership of Jörg Haider (2005-2008), was a notable example of a Euroenthusiast far right party. Europragmatists are no larger group within the far right milieu: “they do not believe in the underlying ideas of European integration, but they do support the EU”,16 and the PRM, among very few others, could be categorised as a Europragmatist party. Eurorejects are a broader group of far right parties: they oppose membership of their country in the EU, as they see it “as an infringement of or a threat to national independence” and criticise the “democratic deficit” of the EU.17 Some of the far right parties in the Euroreject category are the British National Party, Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families) and Bulgarian Ataka (Attack). Eurosceptics are the majority of radical right-wing populist parties; they “believe in the basic tenets of European integration, but are skeptical about the current direction of the EU”.18

Apart from concerns about the “EU-inflicted” loss of national sovereignty and erosion of national distinctions, as well as the ghost of a European super-state, the far right accuse the EU of the democratic deficit referring to the fact that neither the Council of the European Union nor the European Commission – the major EU institutions – is elected directly by the peoples of the EU. However, the far right often combine harsh, yet sometimes legitimate criticism of the functioning of the EU with conspiracy theories. One of most widespread conspiracy theories about the EU is that its elites allegedly promote mass immigration of Africans and Asians into Europe in order to replace the Europeans who are blocking the creation of a European super-state.19


1. John E. Richardson, Ruth Wodak, “Recontextualising Fascist Ideologies of the Past: Right-wing Discourses on Employment and Nativism in Austria and the United Kingdom”, Critical Discourse Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4 (2009), pp. 251-267 (256).
2. Hanspeter Kriesi, Edgar Grande, Romain Lachat, Martin Dolezal, Simon Bornschier, Timotheos Frey, West European Politics in the Age of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 19.
3. Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994), p. 166.
4. Ibid.
5. Christina Schori Liang, “Europe for the Europeans: The Foreign and Security Policy of the Populist Radical Right”, in Christina Schori Liang (ed.), Europe for the Europeans: The Foreign and Security Policy of the Populist Radical Right (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 1-32 (9).
6. Lars Rensmann, “The New Politics of Prejudice: Comparative Perspectives on Extreme Right Parties in European Democracies”, German Politics & Society, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2003), pp. 93-123 (119).
7. Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 78.
8. German Lopez, “Donald Trump’s Long History of Racism, from the 1970s to 2016”, Vox, 16 February (2017), http://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12270880/donald-trump-racism-history.
9. “Donald Trump Reveals His Isolationist Foreign-policy Instincts”, The Economist, 22 March (2016), http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2016/03/aipac-and-foreign-policy.
10. Joshua Green, “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America”, Bloomberg, 8 October (2015), https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2015-steve-bannon/.
11. Liang, “Europe for the Europeans”, p. 16.
12. Terri E. Givens, Voting Radical Right in Western Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 12.
13. Markéta Smrčková, “Comparison of Radical Right-Wing Parties in Bulgaria and Romania: The National Movement of Ataka and the Great Romania Party”, Středoevropské politické studie, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2009), pp. 48-65 (53).
14. Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, pp. 161-165.
15. Ibid., pp. 161-162.
16. Ibid., p. 162.
17. Ibid., p. 163.
18. Ibid., p. 164.
19. See, for example, Markus Willinger, A Europe of Nations (London: Arktos, 2014), pp. 19-20.