Does the rise of populism on both side of the Atlantic endanger the concept of international order?
Populism has left its mark on the face of international politics as of late. The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the rise of Marine La Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the coming to power of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungry and of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and of course the election of Donald Trump in the United States have shaken the political structures of the industrialized world.
Populism, sometimes called right-wing populism in the press, presents itself as an ally of the common man against forces he can’t control and it isn’t always in line with a free-market agenda voiced by conservative ideologues. During his presidential campaign, President Trump slammed corporations for moving jobs overseas and free trade deals such as NAFTA for promoting this trend. LaPen holds similar views on trade.
Populism tends to support portions of the welfare state. President Trump opposes privatizing Social Security and Medicare and Nigel Farage, former leader of the right-wing populist U.K. Independence Party, wanted to use the money saved from exiting the E.U. to beef up funding for the National Health Service. In France, La Pen has voiced opposition to privatization of her country’s pension system and post office.
Right-wing populism also holds a dim view of the institutions of liberal democracy and of international alliances. When Orban rose to power in Hungry in 2010, he destroyed the country’s systems of checks and balances, changed the electoral code to ensure the Fidesz party’s continued dominance and also ignored the E.U.’s opposition.
The E.U. has served as a promoter of democracy and rule of law in the region, as countries must have a democratic system of government to join. The expansion of the union into Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans helped spread liberal democracy in the region. The E.U. founders’ dream – a stable Europe connected through nation-to-nation ties – has succeeded in some respects. But the refugee and Eurozone crisis and the rise of populism presents a challenge.
In the U.S., Trump has treated the press, a critical part of liberal democracy, like an occupying power and frightened N.A.T.O allies by questioning our commitment to the organization. Also, Trump has called the U.N. “a club for people to get together and have a good time” and has halted funding of the U.N. Population Program.
International law is supported by international institutions like the U.N., forums where individual national states decide lawful from unlawful behavior and enforce these laws. Through these forums and laws we build what international relations theorist Hedley Bull calls a “society of states,” or a system of states able to cooperate on certain issues and keep a more peaceful world. When nation’s corporate in the enforcing of international law and peace, it takes pressure off of each nation to spend more on defense.
The trend of populism militates against Bull’s “society of states.” And if certain states step outside law making and enforcement bodies, then conflict could arise in turn create a push for more defense expenditures. More defense expenditures can put pressure on other items the government funds – education, infrastructure, social insurance and scientific research.
The defeat of Wilders in a recent election for prime minister in The Netherlands and the rise of a vibrant anti-Trump movement in the U.S. could mean that right-wing populism’s tide is fading. However, it’s up to those who believe in a “society of states” to resist these movements.