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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

Left and Right in Time of New Cold War in Europe

Monday 2 July 2007, by Ash Narain Roy


“If your enemies can’t find a flaw in your reasoning”, said William Hazlitt, “they will quickly find one in your reputation.” With its economy booming and most Commonwealth of Independent States back in its fold despite the US attempts to cage the bear on its own turf, Russia is on the way to recovering its past glory. And that is unsettling Washington. Hence the new strategy to balkanise it in Eastern Europe. Any state worth its salt would see this hidden game. And when Russia resents, American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeks to tarnish Moscow’s reputation by saying: “Russia, at times, seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era.”

Russia is becoming the new whipping boy in Europe. It has very much to do with American frustration to get Russian support on Iran to halt its nuclear programme. It takes no great wisdom to know that the planned missile defence system in Eastern Europe is aimed at Moscow. Russian leaders can’t be expected to take things lying down. That explains President Vladimir Putin’s rather harsh words against Washington accusing it of igniting a global arms race and dictating its will on others regardless of all international norms and law. A war of words is a measure of US-Russian ties hitting their lowest point since the Cold War.

The tide of history also seems to be flowing to the Right. Europe definitely looks like moving in that direction. The European Union has a fair share of Right-wing governments pushing tax cuts, immigration control and anti-workers agenda. Germany and France, the two big boys of Europe, now have governments which are more comfortable with George Bush than Vladimir Putin. Most governments are pushing more scapegoating of asylum seekers and immigrants. They are pursuing harsh measures against the unemployed and taking away welfare benefits.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s spectacular triumph in France certainly reflects Europe’s Right turn. He has been variously described as “a Margaret Thatcher without petticoats”, “a Thatcher in trousers”, “a modern Bonaparte” and the like. Many in the US have welcomed the rise of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy as they see economics and politics in roughly the same way. Europeans too have welcomed the return to what they call the Franco-German motor within the European Union in the hope that the new change will allow Europe to get rolling again.

Sarkozy is the first Gaullist President not to have served under Charles de Gaulle. In fact the Gaullist tradition ends with him. All previous French Presidents zealously guarded their independent line in foreign policy, often in defiance of Washington. President Chirac incurred Washington’s wrath for taking a position against the American-led war in Iraq. Sarkozy has already made a distinct break with the Chirac-era by openly showing solidarity with the US and Israel. Sarkozy has called America “the greatest democracy in the world”. Sarkozy’s Atlanticist leanings and pronouncements are music to Washington’s ears at a time when President Bush’s Iraq fiasco has brought his national popularity ratings to an all-time low. It was small wonder then that President Bush was the first world leader to congratulate Sarkozy for his spectacular electoral performance. Bush, who may not find new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to his side unlike Tony Blair, may be taking comfort in his new ally in Europe. Sarkozy is expected to take a tougher line towards Russia and Iran.

France has entered a new post-Gaullist era. Sarkozy is neither a Jacobin nor a Gaullist but he is fiercely French. How much will he edge to the Right? Will he actually turn out to be another Blair for President Bush? It is doubtful he will traverse that path. His Ministry formation came as a surprise to many. Bernard Kouchner, the man of the Left, is his Foreign Minister. The new Europe Minister, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, is a long-time friend of the defeated Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal. By appointing a virtual bipartisan Ministry and with a strong presence of women Ministers, Sarkozy has disarmed his critics. Not many expect him to be an ideological President.

His critics are still waiting for him to unveil his real agenda. What does he mean by “national identity”? Does it stand for White, Christian values? Similarly, it is as yet not clear what his pronouncements on “immigration” would amount to. Will that mean defending a certain idea of France that is supposedly under attack by Muslim immigrants? Much of that will be clear after the National Assembly convenes when a whole range of reforms—tax cuts, trimming trade unions, tougher sentencing rules for serial offenders and, more importantly, immigration—will be debated and passed.

Sarkozy has been quick enough to shed his image as “dangerous” and “brutal”. He is still struggling to soften his image as a tough, cold-blooded, aggressive man who is feared but not loved. The remarkable comeback by the Socialists in the parliamentary elections may have also moderated his stance. As of now he appears vague on his economic policies. During the course of his campaign, he first tried to portray himself as a Centre-Right candidate. Later, he pushed himself into a more Rightist stance. As President, will he edge towards the middle ground on some policies and move to the Right on others? In a country where a majority believes the free market is not the best system and where past governments have protested against a strong euro and promoted economic patriotism, Sarkozy will have many hurdles to cross before he has his way.

Despite his spectacular mandate, Sarkozy can ill-afford to ignore France’s many divides—between young and old, between haves and have-nots, between the civil servants who enjoy unparalleled job security and the young people who search vainly for jobs with permanent contracts, between those who live in safe areas and those who inhabit deprived suburbs, and finally between those of French origin and the French extraction. Each of these divisions has its own problems. But when they accumulate, one incident can spark an outbreak of social unrest.

Is the Rightist wave sweeping Europe? What one makes of the Left-Right divide? Sam Vaknin, author of Left and Right in a Divided Europe, says: “The differences between reformed Left and new Right in both parts of the continent have blurred to the point of indistinguishability.” Nowhere is this divide more blurred than in Eastern and Central Europe. As Vaknin further explains, “The Central European Left is more preoccupied with social agenda while the Right is less individualistic, libertarian, religious, and conservative than any of its Western parallels and much more nationalistic and xenophobic. It sometimes echoes the far Right in Western Europe rather than the Centre-Right, mainstream, middle class-oriented parties in power.”

IS the Left-Right divide in Europe for real? French Socialists privatised more than their conservative predecessors. That Tony Blair stole the Tory’s thunder is perhaps old story. In any event, the Left and Right are no longer ideologically monolithic or sociallyhomogeneous continental movements. Besides, the Right may replace the Left at a given time as the case appears now, but rarely does a regime retain power for more than a term. Today the pendulum that appears to swing towards the Right may swing back to the Left after the new elections.

In most cases the Left governments in Eastern and Central Europe lost power due to their inability to create more jobs. It is the fear of unemployment and not so much ideological conviction that has prompted the electorate now to turn to strong men with their exclusionary agendas. Nevertheless, the rise of populist and xenophobic leaders and parties in Europe is a matter of concern. More so because that may give vent to new Cold War. The Kaczynski twins have come to power in Poland riding a wave of neoliberal, pro-West reforms. The Polish Government has the extremist League of Polish Families as its ally. The Opposition party, Fidesz, in Hungary is rocking the boat of the governing coalition by its street politics. The protofascists in Bulgaria have made gains and they are publicly displaying their hatred towards the Turks, Gypsies and Jews. The extremist Slovak National Party (SNP), part of the ruling coalition, has a strong anti-minority agenda. Jan Slota, the SNP leader, has said that he would send the leader of the Hungarian minority “to Mars with a one-way ticket”.

Central Europe has become a new laboratory for populism. The ideological divide may not be for real given the fact that Socialist and conserva-tive parties have both implemented free market reforms with almost equal zeal and both are turning populist. Populism in Europe is a marriage of cultural conservatism and economic nationalism. That is no good news for the European Union. The protagonists of European integration are growing disillusioned with the new entrants from Eastern and Central Europe who, in turn, are getting disillusioned with the European Union. Before their integration, most Central European governments were consciously following the liberal agenda; now they are turning nationalist. The former Communists-turned-Socialists-turned-Democrats-turned-Capitalists are proving a hard nut to crack.

What is disquieting is the resurgence of a new Cold War rhetoric. The planned deployment of a missile defence radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of America’s European shield allegedly against “rogue” states is a deliberate act of provocation against Russia. President Putin’s response was equally tough. He said:

They are inundating Eastern Europe with new weapons—a new base in Bulgaria, another base in Romania, a (missile site) in Poland, a radar in the Czech Republic. What are we supposed to do? We can’t just observe all this and continue to keep our obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Putin also hinted that Moscow might suspend its obligations under the CFE Treaty if talks with NATO countries on its implementation show no visible progress. Moscow has said that US plans could erode the continent’s strategic stability and damage the regime of “checks and balances” in global politics.
US-Russia ties are caught between pragmatic cooperation and mistrustful acrimony. Washington says it wants Russia to be a liberal democracy with an open and transparent market economy integrated into the global system. Russia wants the US to accept it as it is. Russia under President Putin has acquired considerable international prestige and economic clout. As such he wants the US to allow Russia to claim its place at all the tables of great power structures and politics, not just the UN and G-8. Putin expects this by virtue of his country’s status as the largest nuclear weapons state and the world’s first energy superpower.

However, the fundamental national interests of the two big powers are at loggerheads. The geopolitical winds of change are blowing hard. The emergence of the “United States of Europe” is far from smooth. The US is not exactly comfortably placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the dollar collapses, which many analysts believe it will, and if Turley undergoes a bloody turmoil, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine what will follow. Russia’s present confidence is based on its energy sector which is its cash cow and its perception of America’s weaknesses. As Daniel Serwer, a former US diplomat, succinctly puts it, “People notice when Gulliver is tied down.” Who will come out on the other side of these above possible scenarios in better shape—America or Russia?

The author is an Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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