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Transatlantic discontents

Political volatility in Europe and the United States reveals deep fissures and real danger

From left: Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Joe Biden, Finnish President Alexander Stubb, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for photos Tuesday at the NATO summit in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Transatlantic discontents
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Sometimes political waves cross actual oceans. Recent elections in Europe show that voter discontent there mirrors the frustrations that many Americans seem to feel and will likely show at the ballot box in November. Discontent with our governing leaders appears to be a transatlantic concern.

For example, in France’s recent first-round parliamentary elections, a motley consortium of right and left parties split the bulk of the votes and much diminished President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party. In the second round, the center and left conspired to block the insurgent right. Last week in the United Kingdom, disaffected voters ousted the Conservative Party after 14 years in power, with now former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak the latest of five consecutive Conservative prime ministers to lose office. The left-wing Labour Party won a strong majority of parliamentary seats yet not a clear mandate as most voters seemed more interested in voting against the feckless Conservatives rather than for Labour’s agenda—whatever it is.

Last month, in the European Union elections, right-wing parties from several nations scored unprecedented gains, along with the center-right European People’s Party winning the plurality. Left-wing parties such as the Greens lost many of their seats.

Taken together, these elections do not seem to have stemmed from a discernible ideological thrust as was the case in previous eras, such as the transatlantic conservative wave in the late 1970s and early ’80s that brought Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, America’s Ronald Reagan, West Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and Canada’s Brian Mulroney into office.

The conflicting political results of the past month in Europe—with parties of both the left and the right scoring gains at the expense of centrists—seem to stem more from an eruption of voter unhappiness than a clear political realignment in one direction or another. Concerns that voters share in all of these recent elections will be familiar to many Americans, including unsecured borders and uncontrolled immigration, unresponsive bureaucracy, inflation, and wage stagnation.

That said, American conservatives should be careful not to assume agreement with all European right-wing parties. A number of the European parties ground their platforms in statist economic policies and “blood and soil” nationalism that differs from the creedal, limited government, and natural right foundations of American conservatism. The British Conservatives, or “Tories,” have traditionally come closest to alignment with their American cousins, though without our social conservative principles. And British conservatives themselves are splintering, dividing last week’s votes between a Tory party that appears bereft of conviction and Nigel Farage’s new Reform UK party that seems more about populist frustrations than a coherent governing agenda.

The conflicting political results of the past month in Europe—with parties of both the left and the right scoring gains at the expense of centrists—seem to stem more from an eruption of voter unhappiness than a clear political realignment in one direction or another.

Even with those differences, a common inheritance of Western values binds us to our European allies. A recovery of the West’s vitality, strength, and self-confidence depends first on a recommitment to those values.

It also depends on leadership, and here again, the situation is dispiriting. The recent Group of Seven summit, an annual gathering of the leaders of the Western world’s seven largest industrialized democracies, brought this void into sharp relief. The conservative Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni seemed to be the only leader there with vision and conviction. Not surprisingly, she is also the only G7 leader who enjoys broader support at home, as well.

Her six G7 counterparts—President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—are all quite unpopular at home and face difficult electoral prospects in the coming months (now a past-tense concern in Sunak’s case). As a group, they provide an unflattering contrast to G7 summits of yore that featured Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Mulroney, and Japan’s Yasuhiro Nakasone—giants all.

This week, several of these current leaders are reconvening in Washington, D.C., for the NATO summit. The stakes are very high. Not only does the transatlantic alliance need to address its domestic failures on border security and the economy, but it also faces growing peril from the international security threats posed by dictatorships in Russia, China, and Iran. While there is never a good time for the U.S. president to be beset by senility, Joe Biden’s evident incapacity comes at a particularly perilous moment for the Western alliance.

For Christians, this troubled political moment is an opportune time to remember Scriptural principles. First, 1 Timothy 2:1–2 commands us to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Second, Psalm 146:3–4 warns that we “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

Read together, these verses remind us that we still need to pray that our political leaders carry out their divinely ordained calling to preserve order, justice, and liberty so that we may live “peaceful and quiet” lives here on earth. And yet politics is ephemeral, and no political leader merits our ultimate hope and trust, which is reserved for our Lord in heaven alone.

William Inboden

William is a professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and the William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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