The West’s challenge: an ‘axis of fear’

Trump’s foreign affairs officials meet with other Western leaders for the first time this week. The big theme: the rise of voter fear in the US and Europe, reflected in nationalist politics. Germany’s leader has an answer for that.

AP Photo
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and the Prime Minister of France, Bernard Czaeneuve address the media in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 13.

This week, many of President Trump’s national security officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, will be meeting with other Western leaders for the first time at a gathering in Germany. The forum is the Munich Security Conference, a prestigious body that has influenced transatlantic relations – indeed the global order – for more than half a century. In a prelude report for the 2017 meeting, organizers warn that the world is “more volatile today than at any point since World War II.”

While the report cites critical issues with Russia, China, and the Middle East, the main concern is an “axis of fear” forming in both the United States and Europe. Nationalist leaders are emerging who play to voter insecurities and grievances about terrorism, migration, and the global economy. The leaders threaten to throw off many established alliances and trade deals, possibly eroding the West’s pillars of cooperation.

These trends are creating “maximum unpredictability,” the forum organizers say. Britain is exiting the European Union while France holds a presidential election this spring that could bring an anti-EU party, the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, to power. Elections in the Netherlands in March and perhaps in Italy could also see anti-establishment parties winning or gaining ground.

Meanwhile, Poland and Hungary are moving to restrict liberties and are bucking the EU on many policies. Current European leaders are eager to see if Mr. Trump’s security team will fit this pattern, especially in defining what the new president means by his slogan of “America First.”

“Populist parties are now part of the government in about a dozen Western democracies,” the report stated. “And even in countries where populists only received a small share of the vote, they often exert a defining influence by shifting the debate or pressuring mainstream parties to adopt different policy agendas.”

Perhaps the key figure at the conference will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also faces an election later this year. Through one crisis after another in Europe over the past decade, she has been its calm center, taking the long view and sticking to the democratic values that define the West. Her role in Munich, as well as a probable meeting with Trump at a Group of Seven summit in Italy, could sway the West’s future.

Often when asked about voter fears, Ms. Merkel gives this response. “Fear is not a good adviser in politics.” She also makes the point that countries driven by fear will not control their future.

Both the EU and the US are now in the midst of changing their policies on terrorism, migration, and trade – as much in response to rapid changes in those areas as to the rise of populist parties. Merkel’s advice in Munich will likely be that the West must deal with such problems with the same principles, trust, and cooperation that have guided Western democracies for more than seven decades – not fear. Perhaps her message will keep 2017 from being so uncertain.

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