Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
It was hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu when supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president, stormed major federal institutions in the capital Brasília in early January. Insisting that Brazil’s 2022 presidential election was “stolen,” the demonstrators ransacked the Congress, the presidential palace, and other key government buildings. Observers swiftly noted similarities to scenes that played out two years before in Washington, when right-wing mobs attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.
There was nothing accidental about the similarities between these two attacks on liberal democracy. Right-wing populists in multiple countries, including in Brazil, have drawn inspiration from Trump’s brazen political manner. But the transnational connections among right-wing populist movements extend beyond the circulation of styles and ideas. Bolsonaro, his lieutenants, and many of his followers maintain concrete ties with right-wing leaders and organizations in the United States. Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement is, at least so far, one of the most politically consequential far-right success stories—if only by virtue of its four-year control over the executive branch of the world’s most powerful country. Recent years have also seen the rising influence of right-wing populists in most Western democracies—including, for example, the ascendance of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the victory of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the growing strength of extremist anti-immigrant parties in France and Germany, and the recent rise to power of far-right parties and leaders in Italy and Sweden.
These groups take cues from and provide support for one another. In October, Republican lawmakers, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right member of Congress from Georgia, celebrated when Italy chose as prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who has consulted with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and called him an “ally.”
Defenders of liberal democracy and the U.S.-led “rules-based” (or “liberal”) international order cannot ignore the transnational character of the contemporary far right. Cross-national ties facilitate the transmission of ideas, tactics, and narratives—such as versions of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory (the notion that sinister forces are engineering migration to deprive U.S. and European whites of majority status, influence, and power), attempts to stigmatize gay and transgender people under the guise of a crusade against pedophiles, the invocation of “woke culture” as an existential threat to freedom, and groundless attacks on the integrity of elections.
This is not the first time transnational, far-right movements have emerged as a major force in international politics. The years between World War I and World War II also saw major crises and dissatisfaction with established parties and centrist ideologies. These developments, which were, as they are today, associated with the spread of new communications technologies, fueled the global rise of fascism (and, on the left, revolutionary socialism). Most famously, the Nazis demolished the liberal-democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic and transformed Germany into the authoritarian, genocidal, and expansionist Third Reich. The results were catastrophic. The Nazi regime directly murdered millions of civilians, and more than 70 million people lost their lives during World War II.
Academics, analysts, and pundits routinely invoke the interwar period in an ongoing argument over whether the contemporary far right offers a modern manifestation of fascism. But the 1920s and 1930s are instructive for reasons independent of the “Is it fascism?” debate.
Comparisons between the interwar period and the present underscore the threat that increasingly normalized and transnationally linked far-right movements pose to liberal democracies. They also offer some grounds for optimism. For one thing, most of today’s liberal democracies are more entrenched and more cohesive than their interwar counterparts. For another, developments during the 1920s and 1930s highlight the difficulty that far-right movements face when it comes to sustaining international cooperation. Neither of these considerations are reasons for complacency; rather, they suggest that defenders of liberal democracy need to cooperate if they want to maximize their advantages and more effectively exploit the weaknesses of their opponents.
Many public figures, including Biden, see commonalities between the current period and the interwar era. In August, the president described Trump’s MAGA movement as “like semi-fascism.” Biden’s remarks provoked indignation among many on the American right, who characterized his comments as yet another example of the venerable left-wing tradition of trotting out “fascism” as a vacuous, all-purpose slur.
“Fascist” was not, of course, always such an effective insult. Fascism became stigmatized in the 1940s with the defeat of the Axis powers and with the revelations of their widespread atrocities, including the Holocaust. By 1946, the Spanish leader Francisco Franco felt compelled to deny that he held fascist views, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. For nearly 80 years, far-right parties in Europe and North America either publicly rejected the label “fascist” or gave up any hope of governing at the national level. The fact that fascism remains (for good reasons) toxic in Europe and North America makes analogies with the interwar period politically fraught.
In some cases, a direct line connects interwar fascism to present-day far-right parties. The lineage of Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) traces back to the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), a party formed in 1946 to carry the torch for Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism. Meloni claims that her party has moved beyond its fascist origins, but its political symbols, revelations about some of its elected officials, and its major statements all suggest that the party has not put sufficient distance between itself and its past. The Sweden Democrats, the second-largest party in the Swedish Parliament, descends from two extremist, overtly racist parties; its founders had ties to neo-Nazi groups. Since the 1990s, it has evolved into what many describe as a right-populist party, one that anchors its political identity in hostility toward Muslim immigration.
What links the diverse members of the transnational right is a shared commitment to what we and other scholars have termed “reactionary populism.” In an oft-invoked 1995 essay, the Italian writer Umberto Eco identified 14 features that characterize “Eternal Fascism.” With these as a guide, several family resemblances between interwar fascists and contemporary reactionary populists become clear. Both interwar fascists and contemporary reactionary populists see themselves as battling sinister international forces (variously ascribed to “globalists,” international financiers, cosmopolitan liberals, international socialists, and proponents of multiculturalism) that seek to erase national identity. They blame these forces for the erosion of traditional sex and gender roles, the promotion of same-sex relationships and other forms of “deviant” behavior, and the supposed degradation of national values. Both adopt narratives that present specific outsiders (racial, ethnic, religious, or whatever) as foreign pathogens.
The diversity of interwar fascists has disappeared from public memory.
The specifics of how these parties operate depend a great deal on context. Reactionary populists in Brasília, London, Moscow, New Delhi, Stockholm, and Washington will not behave in the same way or adopt the same criteria for drawing boundaries between in- and out-groups.
The same was true of interwar fascists. They disagreed about a great deal, including the ideological centrality of economic corporatism and racism (fascism appealed to audiences outside of the “white world,” including, famously, some Indian opponents of British imperial rule). The issue of anti-Semitism was, according to many historians, a major obstacle to forming a “fascist international” when European fascist organizations convened at the 1934 and 1935 Montreux conferences.
The diversity of interwar fascists has mostly disappeared from public memory. In retrospect, fascism seems much flatter, with Nazi Germany (or, occasionally, Mussolini’s Italy) presented as its archetypal case. But from the vantage point of 1930, it would have been difficult to define fascism or demarcate where its boundaries lay. Few anticipated Nazism’s emergence as the most successful, and most emulated, variant—let alone that the Nazis would plunge the world into a catastrophic war.
If today’s reactionary populists were transplanted to 1930, the average observer might be inclined to see them as fascists, or at least fascist-adjacent. If Germany, Italy, and Japan had not lost World War II, mainstream fascist parties would have remained regular fixtures in the politics of many countries. But they would have evolved over the decades, just as social Democrats, Christian Democrats, conservatives, and liberals did. Modern fascist parties might have accommodated themselves to electoral democracy, as did many socialists and archconservatives before them. Some might even look very much like today’s reactionary populists.
Regardless of where one comes down on the matter, debates about whether today’s reactionary populism is a contemporary iteration of fascism rarely produce useful insights. Analysts can find any number of good reasons to support or reject the notion that a movement such as MAGA should be considered fascist. But a diagnosis one way or the other achieves little. Instead of worrying about labels, analysts should turn to the interwar period for another reason: to better understand politics in a world marked by galvanized transnational far-right movements. The dynamics of interwar fascism shed a good deal of light on modern reactionary populism.
For one, far-right leaders have a habit of providing rhetorical and material support to one another. Mussolini offered aid to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and met with Hitler repeatedly to show solidarity. Networking also helps strengthen today’s far right. In October 2022, Trump, Meloni, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and the Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, offered messages of support at a rally for Spain’s far-right Vox party. The Conservative Political Action Conference, a conclave of right-wing U.S. politicians and activists, met in Hungary in May 2022. Later, at an August 2022 CPAC held in Texas, Orban appeared as a guest of honor.
American dark money supports overseas far-right forces: openDemocracy reported that, between 2008 and 2017, U.S.-based Christian fundamentalists gave $50 million to support far-right causes and parties throughout Europe (a significant sum in the European context). Russian money, bots, hackers, and propaganda have also backed multiple reactionary-populist parties. Russia loaned money to the National Front, a far-right party in France led by Marine Le Pen, in 2014 and threw its weight behind the Brexit campaign to push the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Despite his calamitous and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is still held in high esteem by some on the right who see him as a defender of traditional values. In the United States, an ongoing right-wing campaign to undermine support for Kyiv has met with some success.
Second, far-right parties tend to emulate one another. Even as they adapt ideas and ideology for local audiences, breakthroughs in one country provide “demonstration effects” that help legitimize far-right movements elsewhere and build a repertoire of practices to draw from. The events in Brasília in January showcase this phenomenon. Bolsonaro seemed to borrow from Trump’s rhetoric before, during, and after the 2022 election cycle in Brazil, echoing the former U.S. president’s conspiratorial claims of fraud and theft.
Fascist aesthetics spread rapidly during the 1920s and 1930s; martial uniforms became a ubiquitous symbol of the movement. Now, reactionary populists around the globe have adopted the language and themes of the United States’ “culture wars.” The French far right made “wokeness”—a term often used by Americans to deride progressive views about race and gender—an important talking point during national elections in 2022, borrowing explicitly from the rhetoric of the Republican Party and other U.S. conservatives.
Learning from and adapting the techniques, methods, rhetoric, and style of groups elsewhere can lead to radicalization. The rise of Nazi Germany emboldened many far-right parties to become more overtly anti-Semitic. By the end of the 1930s, fascist Italy was adopting racist and anti-Semitic policies.
Similar processes occur today. Islamophobic hijab and burqa bans in Europe echo the spread of “love jihad” laws in India, which penalize conversion to Islam and have a chilling effect on interfaith marriages between Muslims and Hindus. Transphobic laws are becoming increasingly common. Last December, Putin signed into law an expansion of Russia’s 2013 bill banning the exposure of children to “gay propaganda” (a nebulous term to denote any information that depicts same-sex relations in a positive or even just neutral light), which had passed both legislative houses unanimously. The new amendment prohibits sharing such information with adults, as well as children, and zeroes in on speech related to transgender identity. Parts of Poland have created “LGBT-free zones” that allow local officials to ban pride marches and other LGBTQ events. Hungary passed a law to discourage “gender ideology” in 2021, as did the state of Florida in 2022 when it enacted legislation restricting the content of sex education for children that some called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Transnational connections ensure that even marginalized movements can learn to become serious, viable competitors. Through exchanges of rhetorical support, Le Pen, Meloni, Orban, and other far-right figures have helped to legitimize one another. Le Pen and Meloni, respectively, brought the National Front (now National Rally) in France and Fratelli d’Italia in Italy out of political irrelevance by aggressively laundering the parties’ reputations.
Opponents of reactionary populism are in for a long fight.
Opponents of reactionary populism need to assume that they are in for a protracted political fight. The growing normalization of reactionary populism presents particularly acute dilemmas. Once extremist views become destigmatized, politicians and parties have no choice but to engage with them on their own terms. Efforts to selectively co-opt far-right positions, such as the Danish Social Democrats’ adoption of hard-line policies on immigration and cultural integration, may succeed in diminishing support for radicals. But they also facilitate normalization, which opens the door for extremists to inject ever more radical, illiberal, and authoritarian positions into the mainstream.
One of the major differences between the interwar period and the current era, as Sheri Berman has argued in Foreign Affairs, is the absence of revolutionary socialism. The left simply does not present a challenge to liberal democracy, in terms of its reach, popular support, ambitions, and capabilities, as it did a century ago. The lack of such a threat should improve the resilience of Western institutions and help compel right-wing movements to become more moderate.
In the interwar period, fear of the radical left played an important role in democratic breakdown as it led conservatives and moderates to see far-right movements as useful partners. Liberal democracies are generally more consolidated in 2023 than they were in 1923, and the liberal international order is much more institutionalized now than it was in the two decades following World War I. In principle, the system can accommodate more illiberalism before democratic order itself comes under severe pressure.
The problem is that it is unclear just how much more resilient the current order is. Even reactionary populists who support electoral politics still favor policies that erode electoral accountability and the independence of state bureaucracies. Bolsonaro’s supporters in Brazil actively call for military rule and the overthrow of a democratically elected government. Hungary provides a stark example of how fast illiberal democracy can slide into electoral autocracy. On January 6, 2021, the United States came very close to outright conflict among different parts of the executive branch, including within and among its different security services; among federal elected officials; and possibly among local, state, and federal authorities. Events on January 6 could have produced far more dangerous, far more violent outcomes. They could even have led to the end of U.S. liberal democracy.
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, parties across the political spectrum underestimated the dangers of fascism. Supporters of democracy should not repeat that mistake with reactionary populism, and that means that they cannot ignore the implications of the normalization of far-right politics and ideas. They cannot take for granted that reactionary-populist forces will moderate over time or simply weaken and fade away.
Reactionary populism poses multiple threats to U.S. national security. Its normalization at home creates fertile soil for domestic political violence, as evidenced most dramatically in the January 6 insurrection and as seen in an increase in right-wing domestic terrorism. The rise of reactionary populism has already undermined the attractiveness of the U.S. political system as a “beacon of democracy” while raising concerns among many core U.S. allies about Washington’s reliability. Reactionary populists are much more likely than centrists and liberals to support policies that would curb U.S. power and influence, such as demanding the country’s withdrawal from NATO.
The same is generally (but, crucially, not always) true in other Western democracies. The United States should take appropriate, limited steps to boost governments that oppose reactionary populism. Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held in December 2021, may have failed to deliver substantive results, but it was a move in the right direction. To his credit, Biden was quick to condemn the events in Brasília earlier this month.
Where reactionary populists have gained power, such as in Italy, Washington should provide material and symbolic incentives to far-right parties to respect democratic values and the liberal democratic order. It may have seemed odd, for example, that Biden did not invite Hungary to the Summit for Democracy in 2021 but did invite Poland. Yet it makes sense for the United States to reward Poland, which, despite its backsliding, remains a valuable and staunch NATO member, and not Hungary, which has backslid further and been more broadly supportive of Russia.
More important, these choices are leading indicators of some of the difficulties that the normalization of reactionary populism creates for foreign policies that aim to defend the liberal democratic order. U.S. officials had to determine whether it was better to unconditionally reward Poland for its foreign policy, which clearly advances the security of the Western democratic community, or to use Warsaw’s dependence on U.S. security commitments to push its governing party, Law and Justice (PiS), away from democratic backsliding.
Such situations require difficult judgment calls; adopting a one-size-fits all approach is likely to prove both unwise and impractical. Instead, U.S. policymaking should consistently incorporate two propositions: first, that the preservation of liberal democracy in the core U.S. alliance system is a key national security interest; and second, that reactionary populism—both from within and without—is currently the most pressing threat to that objective. Both the interwar experience with fascism and recent examples of democratic backsliding suggest that Washington cannot afford to be overly cautious when it comes to nudging its democratic allies and partners in the right direction.
Supporters of liberal democracy enjoy some real advantages. The transnational right seems united, especially when compared with centrist and left-leaning parties. But that unity is more limited and fragile than it appears. Differences over foreign policy are one source of friction. Another is that reactionary populists are also nationalists, which can trump any sense of transnational solidarity.
Such divisions create opportunities for liberal democratic powers to weaken transnational links among the far right. The invasion of Ukraine has already opened up rifts among reactionary-populist parties. A staunch supporter of Ukraine, PiS has been at odds with Hungary’s Fidesz, which has been critical of sanctions against Russia. The war in Ukraine has given Poland and Hungary some leverage; last December, Hungary was able to free up some locked COVID-19 recovery funding from the EU by consenting to an 18 billion euro aid package for Ukraine. Unfortunately for Hungary (and fortunately for the Western democratic community), access to the vast remainder of funds is conditional on democratic reforms. Although the release of some funds has eased the pressure for democratic reform, it has also helped weaken the transnational ties between Putin and Orban.
Indeed, maintaining the collective willpower to support Ukraine will likely prove a key test for the core liberal democracies—and a strain on the ties between many far-right groups. Russia is the only major power with a government that reactionary populists acknowledge as a plausible model for their own ambitions. Putin’s rejection of “decadent” liberal values and American hegemony, his unabashed repression of sexual and gender minorities and the media at home, and his strongman persona have endeared him to many on the far right. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s ratings among the right have taken a hit following his brutal invasion of Ukraine. His imperialist aggression has not only created friction among right-wing forces in different countries but has also created rifts within right-wing coalitions—including between more traditional conservatives and reactionary populists in the United States. A defeat for Russia—one assisted by some far-right parties—could improve the outlook for representative democracy and delegitimize those populists who still support the Kremlin.
Thankfully, today’s convulsions do not offer a simple replay of interwar fascism. Despite an alarming number of ideological similarities, major reactionary-populist movements are generally less militant than their interwar counterparts. Today’s center-left and center-right parties are ostensibly better positioned to fend off, if they so choose, their far-right challengers. But now, as then, the transnational far right has broken into the mainstream. Reactionary populism is robust. It is too late to stop or reverse normalization, and as a result, things are unlikely to get better any time soon.
Will things get worse? Interwar fascism was a heterogeneous, evolving ideology that spread globally and adapted itself to local conditions. But the emboldening of more radical strains was not an inevitable outcome. The world stands at a moment comparable to 1930. The far right is ascendant, and it is unclear, even to reactionary populists themselves, where their success will take them.
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