🔮 Three myths about populism in international relations

When thinking about populism in world politics, much mainstream opinion sticks to a stereotypical view of populism as a uniform phenomenon that poses a mortal threat to the international order. But Angelos Chryssogelos argues that its relationship with foreign policy and the international order is much more nuanced

Populism has become one of the most researched political phenomena of our times. There is a growing literature by scholars of international relations and foreign policy interested in questions around the international sources and impact of populism. But just as in domestic politics, our understanding of populism in international relations remains warped by stereotypes. Here are three international myths about populism that we need to dispel:

Myth No.1

Populism brings about a major change in states’ foreign policies

This myth reflects the belief that the foreign policy preferences of populists are fundamentally different from those of non-populists. Therefore, when populists enter power or influence government decisions, as junior coalition partners, for instance, we should expect major changes in a state’s foreign policy. Donald Trump's assaults on NATO and the EU lend credence to this, as does Brexit, and Turkey’s de-alignment from the West under Erdoğan.

Much as numerous examples support this myth, there are just as many conflicting accounts. A recent comparative analysis of populist foreign policy in Europe, for example, found that populism rarely brings about complete foreign policy change. More often, populists accentuate foreign policy shifts that non-populist governments initiated. In other cases, changes in some areas go along with continuity in others. And in still other cases, populists pursue the same foreign policy as before.

Populists' foreign policy preferences are not always different from those of non-populists

Populism on its own says very little about foreign policy content, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti discuss. Accusations that the ‘elites’ betray the ‘interests of the people’ may mean that these elites do not pursue longstanding national interests as strongly as populists think they should. Or, conversely, populism may challenge elements of a state’s foreign policy and strategic consensus. This, they say, is because such elements are part of the elite conspiracy to keep the people subjugated. In either case, the main distinct feature of populism in foreign policy may not be the ‘what’ of policies pursued. Instead, it is the ‘how’ – the specific way foreign policy is articulated and used to mobilise supporters around the people/elite division at home.

Myth No.2

Populism is inherently anti-internationalist

There is a widespread perception that populism is fundamentally a national sovereignty-centred project. Many associate populism with protectionist instincts and opposition to free trade, the undermining of and even departure from international institutions like the EU, and an antagonistic stance towards foreign foes. In other words, with a sentiment of cultural or economic ‘closure’ towards globalisation. As a result, observers expect that populism will always undermine international cooperation, negotiations and interdependence.

Again, however, many counter-examples belie this perspective. Depending on the issue, their ideological profile, geopolitical pressures or the dynamics of domestic political competition, populists can just as easily engage with international processes.

Populism is fundamentally ambivalent towards sovereignty, its specific positions depending on other contextual factors

Thus, a populist leader like India’s Narendra Modi can pursue active diplomacy in areas from climate action to UN governance. Most populists, especially in the Global South, are strong proponents of free trade. This holds even in Europe. With the major exception of Brexit, most populists reconcile themselves with the EU and seek to influence it from the inside. And populism has an inherently transnational nature. This often makes such movements seek and establish cooperation with like-minded actors across borders.

The reality is that populism is fundamentally ambivalent towards sovereignty. Often, this depends on whether it is co-articulated with strong nationalism. Populists may seek to enhance the international status of their country, which they consider unfairly marginalised. Or they may seek to reclaim sovereignty from international institutions deemed too intrusive and undemocratic. Here, too, specific domestic and international contextual factors will determine which direction populism will go.

Myth No.3

Populism is incompatible with the liberal international order

Many observers view populism as fundamentally incompatible with an international order based on multilateralism, technical expertise, and economic and cultural openness. This liberal international order (LIO) is inherently linked with the political system of liberal democracy. Populism’s domestic illiberalism is therefore seen as a further attack upon its foundations.

In reality, historically, international liberalism has coexisted with and, in fact, relied upon domestic authoritarianism to reproduce itself. But many people retain and reproduce a highly idealised understanding of the LIO. They conflate three different forms of liberalism: political/institutional, economic and social/normative. Any challenge to one element of the LIO’s liberalism seems instinctively incompatible with the LIO as a whole.

Most populists adopt aspects of the liberal international order and frame their opposition to others as part of their struggle against international elites

But almost no populist movement in the world rejects all facets of the LIO concurrently. Trump is perhaps the only case to do so. Most other populists adopt aspects of the LIO while framing their opposition to others as part of their struggle against international elites. Thus, left-wing populists oppose international neoliberalism but support efforts to combat climate change. Or right-wing populists like the PiS-led Polish government undermine human rights at home while posturing as defenders of Western values in Ukraine.

It is more accurate that populism politicises the LIO and re-legitimises it, albeit in a fragmented and contradictory way. In other words, populism is a feature, not a bug, of globalisation.

Populist regimes, especially in the Global South, can generate mass support for integration in globalisation in a way that exhausted liberal democracy can no longer achieve. And in the West, the promises of liberalism have historically materialised only when juxtaposed or threatened by non-liberal alternatives. In this sense, by enabling elite discourses about a new menacing internal and external peril, populism enters into a dialogue with liberalism which ultimately serves both sides.

41st in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Angelos Chryssogelos
Angelos Chryssogelos
Reader in Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences and Professions, London Metropolitan University

In the past, Angelos has held positions at LSE, King's College London, Harvard and the EUI's Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

His research interests lie in international relations and foreign policy analysis, with a special interest in the role of party politics and populism in world politics.

His research has appeared in the Journal of Common Market Studies, Foreign Policy Analysis, Politics and others.

He tweets @AChryssogelos

Party Systems and Foreign Policy Change in Liberal Democracies
Cleavages, Ideas, Competition
By Angelos Chryssogelos

Party Systems and Foreign Policy Change in Liberal Democracies
Routledge, 2021

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