Putin’s war changed the pacifist reflexes of the European left

Foreign Affairs

The shifts on the left of the German political spectrum are arguably even more striking than the historic moves in Sweden and Finland – especially the Greens, whose roots are in pacifism

Comment: Finland’s and Sweden’s intention to join NATO is not only a sea change from decades of Nordic foreign policy, it also shows how the invasion of Ukraine changed the political landscape in Europe – not just in Scandinavia.

There was a time when many leftist politicians in Europe viewed anything related to defense and security alliances with suspicion. Their anti-militarism and pacifism then sometimes merged with broader anti-American sentiment, especially under US presidents such as George W Bush and Donald Trump.

Putin’s war changed these pacifist reflexes.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the European left has shown greater resolve and clarity towards Ukraine than many right-wing politicians. That’s because many on the progressive side of politics see brutal aggression against a peaceful, democratic country for what it is: a moral issue, not a business matter.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin illustrates this change in attitude. She was 34 when she became prime minister in 2019. In her twenties, she was president of the Association of Young Social Democrats and campaigned against fur farming, income inequality and Pharmaceutical industry.

When she entered parliament in 2015, Marin opposed nuclear power, rejected NATO and focused on climate change. Commentators have placed her on the left wing of the Finnish Social Democratic Party.

“In the future, we will realize that we need more politics, more collective solutions. I expect the 2020s to be a decade where there will be a growing call for collective solutions. It’s a paradigm shift. »

– Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson

There was no sign that Marin would lead her country into NATO, which she had so vehemently rejected earlier, but now she is leading the effort to end more than seven decades of Finnish neutrality. Even before the February 24 invasion, Marin was one of the most vocal European politicians criticizing Putin and supporting Ukraine.

Across the border, in Sweden, it’s a similar story. Like Finland, Sweden is also governed by a centre-left government, led by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson since November 2021.

Shortly after taking office, Andersson said in an interview that Covid “marks the end of the era of neoliberalism that was established under Thatcher and Reagan.” She outlined her ambitions: “In the future, we will realize that we need more politics, more collective solutions. I expect the 2020s to be a decade where there will be a growing call for collective solutions. It’s a paradigm shift. »

It is not without irony that Andersson is now following in the footsteps of Thatcher and Reagan, if not on the economy, at least on defense and armaments. Sweden, too, aspires to join NATO, which would mark the end of a policy of neutrality even longer than that of Finland.

With the accession of Sweden and Finland, all the Nordic countries will soon be members of NATO (Denmark, Norway and Iceland were founding members in 1949). This is a significant shift, occurring at a time when all five countries are ruled by centre-left parties.

These northern developments are historic, but the shifts on the left of the German political spectrum are perhaps even more striking. In Germany, it is the Greens who are most supportive of NATO and defense spending these days.

Unlike their Scandinavian comrades, German social democrats are struggling to adapt to the new security landscape. Since the Cold War, the SPD has always maintained good relations with Moscow. The Social Democrats have also worked with Putin’s regime on gas exports over the past decades – so much so that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even became a highly paid lobbyist for Gazprom.

The German Greens, however, are not compromised in this way. They have cultivated a long tradition of engagement with civil society institutions in Eastern Europe and Russia. The promotion of liberal democracy was their main concern, not the making of economic gains.

The founding of their party, the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung, demonstrates the Greens’ interest in Eastern Europe. Although a minor party, the foundation has built a remarkably strong presence in the region with offices in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Tbilisi, Kyiv and Moscow. Obviously, the Kremlin has also noticed the commitment of the Greens. He revoked the foundation’s registration and closed its Moscow office.

The Greens are one of three coalition partners in the German government. Former co-leader Annalena Baerbock is foreign minister, while her male counterpart, Robert Habeck, is economy and energy minister. Following the invasion of Ukraine, their ministries became crucial, and Baerbock and Habeck occupied a prominent place in the German government.

Habeck publicly advocated sending arms to Ukraine almost a year before the war. He now expedites all weapon delivery requests as a minister. At the same time, he is managing a transition away from Germany’s reliance on Russian energy.

Baerbock, meanwhile, has visited Ukraine several times since becoming foreign minister late last year. She is also the first German minister to visit Ukraine during the war, while the Social Democratic Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is timid and indecisive.

Since the roots of the Greens are in pacifism, their transformation into a party comfortable with military involvement is all the more remarkable. They were formed in the late 1970s in opposition to NATO’s deployment of medium-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe, NATO’s so-called dual track decision.

Four decades later, the German news magazine The Spiegel features prominent Green politicians on its cover dressed in camouflage gear under the headline “Die Olivgrünen” (“The Olive Greens”).

It would be too easy to dismiss all these developments as a remilitarization of European politics. And no, it’s not a return to the Cold War with its anti-communism either.

The main reason this time is different is that the new emphasis on defense and military alliances is not driven by conservatives. It is politicians such as Sanna Marin, Magdalena Andersson, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck who are leading Europe’s security reorientation. They do so on the basis of protecting and promoting liberal and democratic values ​​at home and abroad. And they are happy to do so under the aegis of NATO.

By the way, this is exactly what NATO was created for. By emphasizing “the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”, this is precisely what the NATO treaty states in its preamble. Although it was written in 1949, today’s centre-left will have no problem accepting the aims of this treaty.

It is perhaps fortunate for Europe that some centre-left and green politicians are at the helm in this time of crisis. They are politicians who put their democratic values ​​and principles above short-term (and short-sighted) economic interests. And these are politicians who realize that liberal democracy must defend itself against external threats, especially those posed by autocracies.

Of all the developments sparked by Putin’s war, this is perhaps the most surprising. It will be interesting to see if only the left in Europe will focus on security in this way.

Mary I. Bruner