How Foreign Policy Goes Tribal in the Western World and What to Do about It


According to the old-school rulebook of traditional mainstream politics, you are likely to lose if you receive support from a non-allied superpower – due to the suspicion of representing foreign interests. In the era of tribal politics, you should not be afraid, though. How can extreme forms of polarization eat up traditional norms in foreign policy and make a hero out of the intruder? This piece explains it using the case study of Russian foreign intervention in elections. What is the way out? Tribalism can be reduced if there is some political will from above or below. 

Moscowgate, Ibizagate, Bankgate

In May 2019, a secretly recorded videotape was published in Austria, providing a rare insight for voters into the most corrupt desires of some of the country’s leading politicians. On this record, two leaders of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ): vice-chancellor and party leader Heinz-Christian Strache and deputy leader Johann Gudenus, were talking with a woman disguised to be the wife of a Russian businessman, Igor Makarov. She proposed an exchange: in return for positive media coverage of the FPÖ they would grant some government contracts. Strache and Gudenus were ready to go to the deal, openly promising to give public assets (e.g., building motorway contracts) to a Russian woman in turn for some gains for their parties. "We like Russia" said, Strache on the tape, revealing his intention that the Russian help is needed for building a “media landscape similar to Orbán's". Two days later, they proved that their willingness to put the interests of Russian oligarchs and their parties in front of their countries is serious. They immediately released a smear press statement against an owner of the major construction company Strabag after being asked to do so – in order to weaken the position of the Austrian firm. 

A few days after this scandal exploded, the Austrian government collapsed. So, many assumed that the party's popularity would nosedive and they would disappear in the elections – especially as they portrayed themselves as the sole representatives of ‘true, real Austrians’. But the FPÖ vote did not collapse, only trembled slightly. Only one week after the videotapes were leaked, FPÖ won 17 percent in the EP elections, only slightly underperforming expectations before Ibizagate. The party could delegate three MEPs to the European Parliament - among them the protagonists of the scandal, Strache himself,[1] which means that FPÖ voters supported him despite the treacherous media performance in Ibiza. While FPÖ is no longer part of the Austrian government, it is still a relevant mid-sized party despite the revelations. 
In the end, the scandal was faked – and orchestrated sting story of Russian interference, where FPÖ leaders were dumb enough to step into a money trap and reveal their openness to accept foreign money in turn of some favours. And they also stepped down, allowing the rest of the party to claim that they were the exclusions and not the rule. Does real Russian interference into the elections turn the voters away from their beloved parties and its leaders? Not at all, as the case of the Italian Lega and French Front National shows us. 

Last summer, a political earthquake shook Italy. Gianluca Savoini, the right-hand of Lega leader and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and two comrades met with three real Russian businessmen in a luxurious hotel in Moscow. On this meeting that took more than an hour, they discussed how the party could be illegally financed by Moscow via overpriced energy deals involving the Italian energy company ENI, through intermediaries. The goal was to finance the European parliamentary election campaign of the Lega party from these corrupt deals. 

"A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty", Gianluca Savoini said at this meeting, where they agreed on a deal that, similarly to the Austrian case, would serve the interests of Russia and Lega against the interests of Italy. When the transcript[2] of this taped conversation was released, Salvini tried to distance himself from Savoini, saying that he was not even in the delegation. This quickly proved to be a lie, as photos showed[3] them smiling together on the Red square. Salvini also wanted to downplay the importance of their relationship. But evidence swiftly emerged confirming their decade-long alliance and friendship. 

It was logical to assume that this scandal, and a legal procedure that followed, will mark the end of the career of Matteo Salvini and the collapse of Lega. But such expectations proved wrong again. The "Moscowgate" affair made practically no impact on the popularity of Lega that remained far the most popular party in Italy at the time, reaching close to forty percent (!) support in some polls. Its more recent popularity loss has nothing to do with Moscowgate, but how Lega outmanoeuvred itself, leaving the Italian government in 2019 and the rise of far-right challenger, Giorgia Meloni, and her party Brothers of Italy, which has managed to take away some voters from Salvini’s movement.

In the case of Lega, it was not the leader of the party but its right hand, Savoini who was involved in foreign corruption. In France though, it was the president of the party who secured a gift from Russia – and it still did not matter. Less than one year after it the revelation that Marine Le Pen's Front National received 9 million euro loan from a Kremlin-close Russian bank before the 2014 EP elections, her party could secure its best-ever electoral result, gaining 27% of the votes in the regional elections in. Three years later, in 2017, she entered into the second round of presidential elections, and gathered 34% against Emmanuel Macron - a historic success again.[4]

Brexit and Trump 

It seems that nationalist voters in the Anglo-Saxon World are similarly ignorant when they see Russia helping their candidates- while Russia is generally seen as more unfavourable here. A prime example is Nigel Farage, who could stay on the top despite a strong suspicion[5] that his ally Arron Banks put some Russian money into the Brexit campaign. Despite some official investigations, Farage’s newly established Brexit party came first on the 2019 EP elections. Furthermore: despite widespread allegations emerging of Russian help during the Brexit referendum in the heat of the campaign, Boris Johnson, the former Brexit frontman, could secure a historic victory for the Conservatives - the party of Winston Churchill.

Voters of Ronald Reagan’s party could see an even more tricky turn. After more and more chunks of evidence emerged in the United States on how Russia interfered in the campaign on the side of Donald Trump in 2016, far from shifting their party allegiance Republican voters looked more fondly on Russia. They reacted to the “Russiagate” scandal expressing an increased sympathy towards Vladimir Putin’s regime.[6]

Vladimir Putin through tribal lens 

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the diplomatic climate around Russia is chilly. Putin's regime has bad press throughout the Western World, with tons of news in the mainstream media on cyberattacks, hacks, disinformation, spying and aggressive diplomacy. As a consequence, antipathy is the dominant attitude towards Russia in all the countries we mentioned above. Furthermore, the parties and politicians that typically receive help from Russia such as the ones above are all posing as the champions and defenders of national sovereignty. 

So why voters obsessed of sovereignty do not seem to lose their trust in their candidates when it turns out that a hostile superpower with such a negative and scary image helped them with money, hacks or disinformation – always in secrecy, and mostly illegally?

Ignorance of voters would be a logical explanation – but data suggests otherwise. As it was mentioned above, Republican voters just embraced Russia more after the Russiagate scandal broke out. Similarly, supporters of populist right parties in Europe express a more positive opinion towards the Russian President than voters of other parties. Populist voters do care about Russia – and often admire its leader. 

Political tribalism, or as others call it “pernicious polarization[7], seems to be a more valid response. Political tribalism is an understanding of politics as the ultimate war between the Good and the Evil – when you have to defeat the other tribe, using every tool possible. To be successful, the leader of the tribe should be followed by unconditional and uncritical support. This combination of Manichean worldview and authoritarianism makes tribalism a dangerous weapon against democratic norms. In a tribal political war, there are no rules- except that you have to win. Moral universalism disappears and gives way to moral relativism and particularism. Norms are used selectively: the members of my tribe will tolerate, or even cheer, the transgression of democratic norms as far as they bring us closer to victory. But if the other tribes do that, this is, of course, a sin. In a way, there is nothing really new here - but as the tribal logic is gaining ground, this is increasingly becoming the shameless new normal in politics. 

Tribal logic makes it easy to explain why nationalist voters with sovereigntist obsessions can welcome when Russia helps their candidate via illegal tools. If foreign interference helps my candidate to win and weakens the opponent, then it is a good thing. If it helps the other side, this is a bad thing. In strongly polarised environments where politics is understood as a tribal war, finding foreign allies can be crucial - the stronger, the better. No tools can be treated as taboo - financial resources for my tribe, hacks and leaks on the opponents, hacks and(dis)information weapons- every help can be important. The tools do not matter in the cosmic political battle between the Good and the Evil. 

If Putin helps[8] our leader of the tribe to win the political war - we will love him even more.

Are there any cures for tribalism?

The nature of tribal politics is that it destroys moral and democratic norms. And does it not on a cynical ground, but on a moral one: you have to do everything that is needed for your tribe to survive. In this essay, we focused only on one narrow segment of this problem: foreign policy. But tribalism has many other damaging effects, as well: it can make corruption seem acceptable and inevitable, and destruction of democratic institutions as inevitable in the fight for my tribe’s survival. In tribal politics, public good is sacrificed on the altars of the tribal good. 

What can be done to overcome, or reduce tribalism? This is not an easy question to respond, but we have to think about possible remedies for this problem, because Europe’s future is largely dependent on its ability to handle polarization and tribalism. 

Here I propose six possible methods that common sense and the scholarly literature suggest to us. This is not an all-encompassing and exhaustive list, but can serve as a conversation starter. 

Bringing information to citizens 

One false conclusion from the stories above could be that revelation of Russian links of political parties is totally unnecessary, as it does not change the mind of the voters. But some research suggests that the lack of impact can be more the consequence of the distorting and filtering effect of already existing bubbles on information than the lack of moral reaction of the voters if they meet a fair coverage. Some researchers found[9] for example than in a repeated exposure experimental setting Republicans reacted more angrily about stories on the Trump campaign’s Russia collusion than Democrats and independents. It suggests that if undistorted information can break into the bubble, it can make an impact on the attitudes of the voters. 

The change of elite discourse. Even if we are hardwired to political tribalism, in contemporary politics the major source of this phenomenon is more the elites’ political discourses. As Jennifer McCoy and her colleagues put it, “elites play a critical role in constructing and/or intensifying existing cleavages or resentments with a divisive rhetoric of “Us” versus “Them” intended to mobilize a (perceived) marginalized or disunited sector of the population”.[10] Of course, changing the political players is not easy- and it isa task more for such actors rather than the average citizen. The authors point to the importance of discourse, actions and strategies of new and rising political players that confront perniciously mobilizing leaders. If such groups apply a tribal logic as well, it can add fuel to the fire instead of water.

Changing the electoral system. Research in political science found that electoral systems can have a strong impact on polarization, as more majoritarian systems and their logic of ‘the winner takes it all’ lead to the antagonism of two rival tribal blocks.[11] The more fragmented and pluralistic politics of proportional electoral systems, and the constraints that coalition governments put on the political players to negotiate with each other can serve as a buffer that is defending the democracies from the most malevolent effects of polarization. This is not an easy cure with democracies of well-established institutions. Brits, for example, declined to replace[12] their first past the post electoral system with a more proportional one. But this principle should be taken into account in democracies in the making, or in the process of transformation. 

Leaving the political labels behind

A consistent finding in the social psychological research that entering into political conversations under party flags and labelling partisan tags on political positions just result in a stronger polarization instead of bringing the positions closer to each other. Labelling political positions as “Democrat” or “Republican”, for example, can reduce and polarize political support by activating implicit biases.[13] It means that leaving the bubble behind is not sufficient, as mere exposure to differing partisan opinions or a harsh debate from spectacularly partisan positions can exacerbate polarization.

As leading political psychologists Shanti Iyengar found, "hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters' minds" and "affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race".[14] So, what ordinary citizens and NGO-s can do is to facilitate political discussions where the participants are not labelled as representatives of one political party and position, and where policy solutions are not tagged as conservative or liberal, left or right. If political tags and labels are present anyway, taking the perspectives of others and re-framing our political positions to fit more the mindset and values of the ones who we tend to disagree with, can dilute political and affective polarization. When politicians ‘above’ are working hard to divide the electorate for their ends and create political tribes, the voters ‘below’ have to invest more in demolishing tribal barriers.

[1] (He later resigned from the post)



[4] A more recent example from the Netherlands: serious revelations of talks about Russian campaign money around the last elections with party comrades via Whatsapp in April did not have any negative impact on the popularity of the party of new far right hopeful Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy. 



[7] McCoy J, Somer M. Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies: Comparative Evidence and Possible Remedies. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2019;681(1):234-271.


[9] Darr, J., Kalmoe, N., Searles, K., Sui, M., Pingree, R., Watson, B., . . . Santia, M. (2019). Collision with Collusion: Partisan Reaction to the Trump-Russia Scandal. Perspectives on Politics, 17(3), 772-787.

[10] McCoy J, Rahman T, Somer M. Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities. American Behavioral Scientist. 2018;62(1):16-42.



[13] Hawkins CB, Nosek BA. Motivated independence? Implicit party identity predicts political judgments among self-proclaimed Independents. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012 Nov;38(11):1437-52. doi: 10.1177/0146167212452313. Epub 2012 Aug 8. PMID: 22875789.

[14] Iyengar, S. and Westwood, S.J. (2015), Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59: 690-707

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).