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Populism in the United States, Germany, and France Could Have Unexpected Foreign Policy Consequences

The U.S. presidential election has revealed the strength of populist sentiments that will likely affect its foreign policy in the coming years, regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is elected write Timo Lochoki and Jennifer Diamond. Em­­­boldened populist forces will drive a greater focus on domestic issues and put limits on the attention and resources that the next administration can devote to more action abroad. Paradoxically, elections in France and Germany next year will also be marked by strong populist dynamics, but with the opposite foreign policy effect. Populism in Germany and France could push their next respective governments to step up their international engagement.

Even if, as expected, they defeat their populist challengers at the polls, the main moderate parties of France and Germany will be pulled toward more assertive foreign policy actions to address the concerns of populist voters and sympathizers about refugees, migration, and terrorism. The electoral impact of the Front National (FN) and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) could increase the foreign engagement of both countries through reshaping their governing coalitions or approaches to foreign-policy cooperation within the European Union. As a result we might see a stronger foreign-policy axis between Paris and Berlin that compensates for any reluctance on Washington’s part to play a stronger role in some areas.

In the United States, the impact of populist opinion on foreign affairs has been most visible with regard to international economics. For example, in May, nearly half of Americans said that global economic engagement is a “bad thing,” lowering wages and costing jobs. Not surprisingly Clinton and Trump have criticized international trade deals, with the former notably shifting her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But economic worries exacerbated by populist pressure could place constraints on U.S. foreign engagement more generally in the coming years. The same poll showed that 57% of respondents want the United States to focus on its own problems and leave other countries to deal with their own affairs. Such polls have even led to talk of a possible resurgence of isolationism. The next president’s foreign policy agenda will be at least partly shaped by such opinions, not least because they will also be reflected in Congress.

Yet we should not exaggerate the ramifications of this inward-looking stance. Despite the populist impact on the campaign, a strong majority of Americans remains committed to an active U.S. role in world affairs. What is more, not only do 89% say that maintaining alliances is very or somewhat effective at achieving foreign policy goals, this holds true for Democrats (94%), Republicans (88%), independents (86%), and even “core Trump supporters” (84%). Thus, rather than pulling it away from its international commitments, populist pressures could make the United States simply more selective in its foreign engagement. For its European partners, the risk is not that the United States will downgrade or contribute less to their alliance but that it will have less appetite for acting as much as they would like to solve problems in their neighborhood.

In Germany, the most likely outcome of the 2017 elections is a coalition between the ruling conservatives and the Greens. Though the party has pacifist roots, today’s Greens are far more open to intervening abroad than the social democrats, the conservatives’ current governing partners. For a potential conservative-Greens government, addressing the concerns of voters who flirt with the AfD will necessitate an increasingly robust foreign policy, wider international commitments, and even the greater use of military measures. In particular, reducing the number of refugees will call for more engagement for stabilizing the Middle East and North Africa as well as developing quasi-military structures to secure European borders.

In France, the concerns of FN supporters will also influence the agenda of the next president, who will likely have to devote much time and effort to a more coherent EU immigration and refugee policy as well as to robust anti-terror missions. As things currently stand, the favorite to be the next president is the conservative Alain Juppé, who can be expected to pursue a foreign policy that is very pragmatic, and open to work more with Germany and other EU partners. He would most likely reach out more to partners to increase France’s leverage on the international stage due a stronger commitment to the EU and Franco-German tandem, as well as the transatlantic alliance. In fact, the governments that should come out of the elections in Germany and France should be keen on compromising to ensure EU cooperation across the board, and security issues will be the least contentious ones.

Thus transatlantic impact of populism could lead unexpectedly to greater foreign activism by and strategic importance of France and Germany in the transatlantic relationship (something, incidentally, that populism-driven Brexit will also contribute to), and perhaps even some rebalancing of cooperation with the United States on some security issues and areas.

Timo Lochoki is a Transatlantic fellow in the Europe program of the German Marshal Fund (GMT) and Jennifer Diamond is the program coordinator  of the same Europe program. This article was first published by the GMF. More information can be found at

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