30 March 2021
In recent years, populist figures, movements and parties have been widely seen as a threat to the liberal international order. But this prevalent narrative is misleading. Much analysis has focused on the attitudes of populist figures, movements and parties to the EU. This paper focuses instead on the broader approaches they take to questions of foreign policy beyond Europe and in particular on their attitudes to Atlanticism, which reveals a much more complicated picture. European populists are extremely diverse. First, they differ in ideological terms – i.e. whether they are on the right or left. Second, they differ in how they approach foreign policy, which often reflects the dominant strategic tradition and national interests of their countries more than ideology. When populists have entered government in the last decade – for example in Hungary, Poland, Greece and Italy – they have rarely implemented foreign policies that diverged significantly from their countries’ previous orientation. In so far as they differ from the foreign policy actions of mainstream parties in their countries, it is primarily in terms of discourse. While it is misleading to generalize about a single populist approach to foreign policy, there are certain distinct themes and positions that link some populist figures, movements and parties. This paper identifies three types of populists in Europe: Atlanticist nationalists, continental nationalists and anti-imperialist internationalists. Focusing on the threat of a populist takeover of European foreign policy distracts from the real difficulties in developing a coherent, effective European foreign policy, which must balance different national interests and strategic cultures in Europe.