Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why the ‘loser’ in SNL’s NATO spoof is important
Why the ‘loser’ in SNL’s NATO spoof is important

Why the ‘loser’ in SNL’s NATO spoof is important

Jimmy Fallon’s Justin Trudeau swaggered into the NATO cafeteria with Paul Rudd’s Emmanuel Macron with the same pomp as any high school heartthrobs in Saturday Night Live’s cold open December 7.

The NBC sketch show picked up on some undeniable comedic fodder provided by world leaders in a hot mic incident at the NATO summit in London, where actual Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was caught poking fun at US President Donald Trump, along with French leader Macron and the UK’s Boris Johnson (who joins the SNL sketch via James Corden). 

Bringing the childish gossip into the school-like cafeteria is a clever spoof. But where there are popular kids, there are bound to be the social outcasts — and at SNL it was NATO’s new members who fell victim to the bullying “bad boys.”

Romania (Mikey Day) is told to “scram,” and Alec Baldwin’s Trump is told to go sit at the “losers” table with Latvia — Alex Moffat portraying President Egils Levits as a socially-awkward, foolish “dweeb.” 

All countries — and their leaders — must be prepared to take some sort of ribbing in the media. (Indeed, who knows that better than the US itself?) But while Kate McKinnon can portray Angela Merkel as a Barack Obama fangirl without erasing widespread knowledge that the real Merkel is a formidable politician leading a European powerhouse, the same is not often true for leaders east of the Danube.  

The exposure that Americans have to countries beyond “old Europe” is often limited to cameo appearances in popular media outlets. Far too often, those depictions are of corrupt thugs, backwards country folk or — case in point — Borat-like buffoons. (Melania Trump’s essentialized appearance on SNL also worth a note, though at least this skit included a relevant reference to her “Be Best” campaign.)

But these portrayals are more harmful than a grin-and-bear-it hit to national pride.

Particularly in the case of a NATO spoof, they can have trickle-down security implications. Latvia sits on the direct edge of NATO, right along the border with the alliance’s major adversary — Russia, who is not afraid of testing borders in the Baltic.

Turkey — whose relationship with Russia grows ever tighter — tried to block the Baltic defense plan at the NATO summit. NATO’s Article V, the key clause that says an attack on one member will elicit a response from all, continually comes under scrutiny. Will the West really risk nuclear war for Eastern Europe? And what kind of US domestic support can US allies expect if the only popular knowledge of these countries is depictions of lazy stereotypes?

Had SNL taken into account any tidbits of information about Levits or Latvia in the parody, the caricature might have at least been poignant. But while the skit riffs on Johnson’s unruly hair or Trump’s love of fast food, there is nothing to distinguish Levits portrayal beyond that of “generic post-Soviet man with random pickled meat.”

In fact, Levits — who was a judge at the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice — speaks five languages: English, French, German, and Russian in addition to Latvian. He could talk to the entire “cool kids” table in their respective native tongues — a feat not reciprocated.

Also notable: Latvia joined NATO and the EU in 2004, able to meet the standards for membership in these beacons of Western democracy after 50 years of Soviet occupation that systematically destroyed democratic institutions and repressed the population.

And per alliance recommendations, Romania and Latvia contribute at least 2% of their GDP towards defense spending. Who doesn’t? Well, most NATO members, including those popular kids: Germany, France, and Canada.

To be sure, Latvia is not perfect by any means — the government struggles with real challenges, from corruption to health care and social services.

But this isn’t unique. In France, Macron is facing yet another set of strikes, Germany faces the rise of the far-right AfD, Johnson has thus far failed to pass Brexit, Trudeau is battered by a series of personal scandals, and of course, the US president is up against articles of impeachment for attempting to bribe a (different) Eastern European country facing adversarial Russia.

SNL has long pointed out the absurdities and the failures of politics and political leaders. That plays an important role in democracy, but only when it is done smartly. Falling back on uninformed stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe isn’t smart — it’s lazy. And sometimes, it’s more troubling than that.