The Nationalist Internationale Is Crumbling
Steve Bannon is trying to sell Trumpism to Eastern Europeans—but shared ideologies die hard when they run into economic and military realities.
He may have been cast out of the White House, but Steve Bannon isn’t giving up his far-right crusade. U.S. President Donald Trump’s former strategist visited Central and Eastern Europe in May to call on Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the United States in defense of Judeo-Christian culture.
Bannon’s message echoes much of the rhetoric in a region that is becoming a beacon for the radical right thanks to its xenophobic resistance to immigration and what it considers the European Union’s “cultural Marxism.” However, while Bannon hits many of the right ideological notes, he’s also preaching economic blasphemy.
The gilded hall of Zofin Palace on an island in Prague’s Vltava River was only half full for Bannon’s sermon on May 22. He received a warmer welcome the following day after traversing visa-free borders to star at an alt-right activist bonanza hosted by the Hungarian government in Budapest.
The Hungarian government’s public relations handlers made sure Bannon was pictured meeting Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose apocalyptic visions of a clash of civilizations have made him a far-right icon. The viciously xenophobic Czech President Milos Zeman and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the eccentric conservative who rules Poland from behind the scenes, also attract admiring glances from far-right activists across Europe and the United States.
Yet beneath the biblical bluster, both Bannon and Trump appear blind to the concrete national interests of Eastern European leaders. The move toward the right in Central Europe is largely driven by political opportunism, which taps into frustrations that 14 years after joining the EU, the quality of life there is yet to equal that in Western Europe. The mood in the White House is useful ideological support. However, the economic nationalism of “America First” and the weakening of NATO unity are serious and tangible threats to the stability and security of countries across the region.
While on tour, Bannon’s diatribes tend to focus on Trump, his miraculous election victory, and the president’s vision of tearing down the “global liberal elite.” He pushes all the right buttons: defense spending, trade imbalances, and Crooked Hillary. But Bannon does it from a blinkered Washington perspective. There was little Central European context in his speeches and no evidence of the close attention that Bannon claims the U.S. far-right pays to the region and its “populist nationalist revolt.”
In fact, Bannon, who left the White House last summer, is so clueless about the needs and priorities of Eastern European nations that right-wing commentators in Budapest were quick to express frustration. Why, they asked, would Bannon parrot the White House line that China and Iran threaten Western civilization when those countries are currently a cornerstone of Orban’s foreign and economic policy ambitions?
Hungary hopes for a significant economic boost from Chinese investment—largely in transport infrastructure as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—in the coming years and hopes to expand trade and establish Budapest as a regional hub for Chinese finance. It has joined Poland recently in fluttering its eyelashes at Beijing by pioneering yuan-denominated debt issues, an aid to China’s push to raise its profile on international financial markets. Hungary signed one such deal, raising $148 million, in 2016, with another bond issue last year.
The rest of the region is also careful to avoid offending Beijing as it chases Chinese investment. When the Czech culture minister privately met the Dalai Lama in 2016, Zeman forced the then-prime minister into co-signing a groveling letter of apology.
In Prague, Bannon also offered an economic epiphany. Trade is simply “unfair competition using underpaid labor in other countries,” he declared. The audience’s stunned silence was not due to his radical challenge to conventional wisdom but because of the approximately 80 percent of the Czech Republic’s GDP that comes from exports.
Bannon and Trump may have correctly identified the populist ideological urges in the region, but they flunked Economics 101 by failing to understand how economic realities determine political priorities for these small European nations.
Asked to identify his county’s biggest foes last weekend, Trump named the EU for “what they do to us in trade.” But trade is the tether that keeps Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries inside the bloc, no matter how much political capital their governments earn from bashing the Brussels bogeyman. And Trump’s threat to extend his trade war by placing tariffs on EU cars puts the region’s biggest industry at risk.
Slovakia has the most to fear, with cars accounting for 60 percent of its exports to the United States. On top of the vehicles produced by the Volkswagen, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Kia, and Jaguar Land Rover plants on Slovakian soil, the country plays a large role in the supply chain of numerous German brands being built across the region. Boasting the world’s highest car output per capita, the country of 5 million people could suffer a hit of 0.7 percent to its GDP if the United States imposes the vehicle import tariffs that Trump has threatened. If he follows through, tariffs would put 40,000 jobs at risk in Poland, and 25,000 each in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
No matter how much regional populists may enjoy the nationalist turn in Washington, that kind of threat can’t be ignored. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman often compared to Trump, rarely misses an opportunity to blow the immigration dog-whistle. But he’s also keenly aware of the risks to his country’s economy.
Reform of the EU to remove the final barriers to free trade across the single market is his government’s top priority, Babis told Foreign Policy in an interview an hour before Bannon took the stage just across the river. Trump’s trade tantrums and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal have prompted concern that U.S. leadership of the West is flagging, the prime minister warned. Unlike his Hungarian counterpart, Babis did not pop in to greet the U.S. president’s former sidekick, appearing uninterested in the performance.
Neither is his government prepared to hand U.S. companies a long-contested contract to supply military helicopters, despite Washington’s lobbying to increase arms sales to European allies. Trump’s persistent complaints that European NATO members fail to spend enough on defense, and the subsequent questions he casts over the level of U.S. military support, have raised alarm across the region.
The weakening of the once ironclad guarantee that the United States had NATO countries’ back is convincing previous fans in the region that Trump and the U.S. far-right may not be the new best friends they had hoped for. Returning from his controversial July 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the U.S. president questioned why his country would rush to the defense of an “aggressive country” like Montenegro under NATO’s Article 5.
With those few words, Trump collapsed the mechanics of an alliance that more than any other body draws Eastern Europe westward. The tension in capitals such as Warsaw and Vilnius is palpable, and Trump is rapidly turning from hero to villain for his ideological brethren.
While the U.S. president pitches the issue as one of simple trade and economics, for the likes of Poland and the Baltic States, where a profound fear of Russian aggression lurks, it’s an existential threat and reckless geopolitical gambit that pulls the rug from under Western unity.
Although Poland is one of the few EU states to meet the NATO defense spending threshold of 2 percent of GDP, its conservative government has been disappointed to find that even a $4.75 billion deal for U.S. missiles signed earlier this year couldn’t buy peace of mind. And despite Trump’s pronouncement in a speech in Warsaw in 2017 that Poland shares the same conservative values as the United States—fighting “for family, for freedom, for country, and for God”—he has offered the country no encouragement in its hopes of securing a permanent NATO base.
The mounting proof that Trump’s bite is at least as bad as his bark is provoking calls for a coordinated European response of greater unity and strategic autonomy. “Europe should be stronger on the outside,” Babis said. “The Czech Republic supports European cooperation in defense and a stronger global role for Europe.”
Trump’s election victory in 2016 initially sparked hope among Central Europe’s populists that their own illiberal revolt, which casts the EU as archvillain, was moving onto a global stage. However, Bannon’s tone-deaf rhetoric and Trump’s disdain for alliance obligations have only emphasized the contradictions at the heart of this imagined internationale of nationalists.
The divergence between nationalist ideology and concrete national interests has left Central European officials unimpressed with the efforts of the U.S. radical right and White House to engage. If Bannon is serious about a new career as a far-right evangelist and Trump hopes to encourage “new” Europe to continue weakening the EU, they must learn to avoid bruising the low-hanging fruit so carelessly.
Central Europe’s populist leaders have been all but ignored by the Trump White House, and diplomatic sources in the region complain that Wess Mitchell, the administration’s point man for the region, wasn’t even seen east of Trieste until this summer.
In return, there’s diminishing interest in U.S. efforts—official or freelance—to encourage the region’s populism and Euroskepticism. “Fear and anger can go a long way,” Bannon boasted to his Central European audiences. But only so far in the face of such concrete realities.