GREAT POWER populists take as their common starting point that there is no such thing as an “international community,” arguing instead that the international system is made up of a series of specific political communities to which citizens owe allegiance and expect protection and preference. Every great power populist typically privileges the interests of “our people” over a generic humanity, and is suspicious of transnational elites and institutions that exist beyond the control and purview of political communities. Just as we can speak of right-wing and left-wing populism in domestic politics, populism in foreign affairs takes two broad forms: the populism of retrenchment and the populism of aggrandizement.
Within the rising and resurgent great powers—including Brazil, China, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, India—the populist message is to push back against the efforts of the West to impose its rules, principles, and values, and also to argue that the international order must be modified in order to secure their rights and place. Failing that, it follows the path charted by political scientist Steven Weber and his colleagues a decade ago, where the great power populist aggrandizers create alternatives:
by preferentially deepening their own ties among themselves, and in so doing loosening relatively the ties that bind them to the international system centered in the West, rising powers are building an alternative system of international politics whose endpoint is neither conflict nor assimilation with the West.
Within the established, status-quo great powers—especially the United States and the United Kingdom—populism in foreign affairs is reflected in what Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations defines, citing Chinese interlocutors, as “a retreat to advance”—a withdrawal from extended commitments and support for broad-based multinational systems and a scaling back of global missions in favor of renegotiated bilateral relations with partners.
In particular, when at both the global level as well as in specific regions of the world, there is a gap between the demand for economic and political security and the supply that other political communities are willing and able to provide, the United States or the United Kingdom will be far less willing to automatically fill that deficit—unless of course there is a direct threat to specific interests or some form of compensation is forthcoming. The Trump administration has been quite open about its plans to rebalance America’s security commitments with its economic interests. At the same time, it has sent a remarkably consistent and clear message to existing allies and partners that a continuation of the security relationship with Washington rests on the intensification of the benefits America receives, particularly its companies.
For instance, when Polish president Andrzej Duda visited the United States in June 2019, Trump contrasted the bilateral security relationship with Poland with the imbalance in U.S.-German relations. Warsaw committed to purchase American fighter aircraft and billions of dollars’ worth of American-produced natural gas, and, in return, for the plan to station U.S. forces, “the Polish government will build these projects at no cost to the United States,” he said. Meanwhile, Germany relied on American security guarantees from Russian aggression but preferred to purchase energy from Russia than the United States. In Trump’s own words, “we’re protecting Germany from Russia. And Russia is getting billions and billions of dollars of money from Germany.”
IN BOTH its forms, however, great power populism is revisionist when it comes to the post-Cold War liberal international order that assumes an indivisible set of global commons which are the common responsibility of all but where certain powers are prepared to underwrite the costs and other great powers are expected to adhere to the rules.
In other words, great power populism is not a retreat from the world but rather a recalibration of engagement. However, it is based on the assessment, as Leonard concludes, that international politics will be defined by “competing blocs and protectionism rather than cooperating states”—with a much more clearly transactionalist approach.
Consider, for instance, the antipiracy mission off the coast of Somalia. The U.S.-, NATO-, and EU-led task forces start from the principle of securing the global commons—in essence, of providing a universal common good to all vessels. In contrast, the Chinese government deployed vessels to the Horn of Africa with the stated mission of “safeguarding and providing security for Chinese vessels and personnel sailing through the region.” The Chinese task force has tended to focus its effort on escorting Chinese-owned and flagged vessels, and does not see as a primary mission the protection of non-Chinese vessels—even those that may be carrying goods to or from China. When the Chinese navy assists other naval forces in patrolling the region, or comes to the aid of non-Chinese vessels, it does so based on an assessment that China benefits from this by generating goodwill, gaining expertise, or banking favors. This focus on transactionalism is likely to increase in the coming years.
Great power populism could lead to open conflict, although the realities of the twenty-first century mitigate against major warfare in favor of what the Eurasia Group Foundation’s Devin T. Stewart has described as “gray power competition”: economic diplomacy, surveillance, information warfare, political interference, industrial espionage, and trade conflict. It could just as easily lead to some novel form of concert of great powers working to promote common action when interests align and to find ways to minimize the negative consequences of disagreements.
IN A new era of great-power populism, we are likely to step back from talking about an “international community” (which implies commonly accepted standards and norms, the existence of a shared approach to policy questions, and an acceptance of burden-sharing in the name of solidarity) in favor of an international society or an international system in which political communities find ways to coexist and reach mutually-accepted regulations to facilitate transactions. Three decades after George H.W. Bush proclaimed the onset of a “new world order,” populist reactions across the globe mean that the world of the twenty-first century is going to share more similarities with the past. Otherwise, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic would not have met with a range of responses by leaders strongly reminiscent of those taken by their predecessors a century ago in attempts to contain the global influenza outbreak that had infected one quarter of the world’s population or the Great Depression that followed a decade later.
The postmodern fantasy that the broken shards and remains of the Berlin Wall somehow constituted the secret ingredient to a hitherto unknown formula enabling the spontaneous inception of radically new modes and orders has come to naught. In sum: human beings are still driven to live in political communities by the bonds of blood or history, and their actions remain predominantly driven by considerations of aspiration, fear, honor, or national interest. As has always been the case, great powers will keep playing by rules different from those of smaller powers. And populism, like tyranny, will persist in being a “danger coeval with political life.”
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair at the U.S. Naval War College, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
Damjan Krnjević Mišković, a former senior Serbian and UN official, is Director of Policy Research and Publications at Azerbaijan’s ADA University, having taken a leave of absence as Executive Director of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), a Belgrade-based think tank.
The views expressed in this essay are their own.