Great Power Populism

April 26, 2020 Topic: Security Region: America Tags: PopulismEconomyDepressionGreat PowerPolitics

Great Power Populism

The fusion of populism and great power rivalries introduces an additional degree of unpredictability in an international affairs environment already beset by a condition reminiscent of an individual in the midst of a nervous breakdown, itself due at least in part to ongoing strategic realignment and cleavages.


All of this was packaged under the rubric of the “Washington Consensus” and, in the era of the “end of history,” was seen as the inevitable road to human progress. Center-left and center-right parties throughout the advanced industrial democracies embraced the proscriptions designed to produce a world system defined by open societies and free trade where disputes would be settled in boardrooms rather than battlefields. Samuel Huntington used the dismissive term “Davos Man” to describe critically the political and economic elites who were prone to view international affairs as the means to promote investing, producing, marketing, and consuming across boundaries. Over time, there would no longer be an imperative to distinguish “us” from “them” because the entire world, bound together in a common market under a common set of rules and regulations, would be “us”: the very grammar of the world would be upended. But in the meantime, political leaders would stay the course, taking as their guiding mantra the traditional practitioner view of American policymakers that foreign policy consisted of a “group of wise men doing what is right and then fighting off the ignorant yokels west of Washington,” in Huntington’s phrase.

BUT SCARCELY was the ink dry on some of the publications promoting this brave new world order before current events disproved the essential thesis. The 1999 NATO bombing against Serbia over Kosovo, Israel’s military incursions into Lebanon, and the 2008 Russia-Georgia clash disproved the Golden Arches Theory, while the more sustained Russia-Ukraine conflict flared into open military combat even though Ukraine served as a transit country for Russian energy to Europe and Russia and Ukrainian companies were bound together in tight supply chains, notably in the defense and aerospace industries.


Today, more than thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, world leaders are no longer so sanguine about the promise of the post-Cold War future. Right around the anniversary celebration, two of the Old Continent’s most famous leaders—Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron—sounded particularly pessimistic notes. “The values on which Europe is founded—freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights—are anything but self-evident,” the German chancellor said; NATO is experiencing a “brain death,” the French president remarked. Taken together, the statements suggest that the two most important pillars holding together contemporary Europe are less solid than most are wont to admit. Reactions to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by leaders on the Old Continent and beyond, in both word and deed, have lent additional credence to the veracity of this point.

Much of the post-Cold War idealist optimism about globalization dissolving boundaries and making conflict impossible assumed that the fall of the Berlin Wall would magically trigger human beings to seamlessly transcend their nature (or undergo a quick and easy historical transformation). The optimists fantastically claimed that, somehow, the result of a spontaneous and collective refashioning of the balance between logos—humanity’s distinguishing characteristic—thumos, and epithumia would produce a homo economicus: economic personhood relating to the world primarily through the lens of consumption. In such an environment, the warning of Athenian representatives, as noted by Thucydides, that conflict between societies erupted largely because of “fear, honor, and interest,” along with their judgment that “it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” would become irrelevant as people focused on their bottom lines and the acquisition of ever-more creature comforts.

Furthermore, those pushing the homo economicus thesis claimed, citizens’ attachment to particular political communities was waning. However, they failed to account for the lack of enthusiasm or even a willingness to sacrifice or fight for an “international community”—or even novel political forms like the European Union.

Moreover, the fragility of these global networks to disruption was also glossed over. Cabello may enjoy skipping through Brooklyn dispensing cupcakes to her fans, but Mastercard, Google, or Amazon would not be the entity to ensure that the cargo ships carrying flour were not intercepted by pirates, natural gas flows to the power plants powering the bakeries were not interrupted, or the currency she was using to pay for these treats retained value—nor would it be some amorphous “international community.” Indeed, without access to electricity, her smart phone would end up being a 200g lump of plastic and metal. In the end, citizens still look to their particular political communities for security and prosperity, not international organizations or multinational corporations.

Indeed, the sad experience of the Kurds over the past three decades, from Iraq in 1991 to Syria in 2019, demonstrates the unreliability of putting one’s trust in an “international community” to secure rights or freedoms. Observing all of this, Amitai Etzioni concludes: “…people’s first loyalty and sense of identity is still invested largely in their nation-states. One can readily argue that these feelings are obsolete, that we need a sense of global, or at least regional, post-national communities,” he continues. “However, as long as public leaders continue to fail in forming such communities, advancing post-nationalistic, ‘globalisitic’ policies that entail free flows of people (and goods) across national borders will both undermine the inchoate transitional international formations”—and, by extension, feed the growth of populism.”

BUT CERTAINLY the citizens of the major powers might have a different take than the stateless or the residents of failed or failing states? The conventional international relations expectation is that great powers assume the responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the international system and are willing to sacrifice either power or wealth (or both) as a condition for achieving that status. The problem here has been that the costs and benefits of this new global order have not been distributed equally, both within and among the great powers.

Ultimately, a borderless digital world of democratic enlargement needed both “bill-payers” and “stakeholders” in order to function. In other words, some of the great powers would be expected to pay the costs in blood and treasure to keep the system running, while others would be expected to accept a status quo set of rules they had little or no hand in formulating and which hardly constituted their optimal set of outcomes.

The bargain was that a political community like the United States would offer economic and technological incentives, even at the expense of its own citizens and companies, to bring another power like China into a rules-based liberal international order, and, sticking with the China example, Beijing would accept these rules without possibility of revision in order to reap the economic benefits. In the context of the European Union, the major powers would pay a disproportionate share of the costs while the smaller ones were expected to accept the social and political guidance of their betters.

These bargains seemed to work for a time: in the 1990s, during a period of economic expansion and relative peace. Politicians could push the democratic enlargement agenda because it appeared that the bills could be postponed—especially the costs related to the enlargement of the European Union and NATO. At the same time, rising and resurgent great powers were looking to secure their seats and positions within a U.S.-led global “board of directors.” Accepting Euro-American guidance as the price for admission was an acceptable trade-off, at least in a tactical time horizon.

Since the turn of the millennium, popular acceptance of these bargains has waned. In the United States, the impact of the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the global financial crisis undermined the claims of the Western political and economic establishments that they could chart a pathway forward to national security and prosperity by having America underwrite global and regional security and free-trade arrangements.

In countries such as the United States or Great Britain, therefore, sectors left behind or most negatively impacted by the push for global interconnectedness have increasingly used their power at the ballot box to change the political dynamics to favor a shift towards economic nationalism and a foreign policy more closely connected to immediate interests.

In rising and resurgent powers—whether democracies or authoritarian or some mix of the two—the pattern has been different. Even if globalization was a spur to economic growth and development, these political communities began to resist the notion that Western standards equal universal ones, or their rules and regulations must be assessed for compliance against the preferences of the status-quo powers. In particular, there was a palpable feeling of resentment and push-back against the aspects of what the former U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland characterized as the “spinach treatment”—namely that non-Western powers would need to swallow a whole host of American and European policy preferences in order to be admitted to the club.

And as the global balance of power shifted more in their favor, they increasingly pushed back against mechanisms designed to give them a “voice but no veto” over how the Euro-Atlantic world sought to manage international affairs. Here, the use of populism differs in that this is not structured as a revolt against the establishment but rather the harnessing of resentment that “our people” are being denied their rightful place in the world order.