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Multipolar Populism

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U.S. Department of State / Public domain

Alex Cooley and I have a new piece in Foreign Policy about “multipolar populism.”

Despite important regional, cultural, and political differences, many contemporary populists embrace multipolarity—an international system composed of multiple great powers rather than one or two superpowers. They do so as a rhetorical aspiration, a vision of a global order that privileges national sovereignty over liberal rights and values, and as a tool to increase their freedom of action by playing alternative suppliers of international club and private goods against one another. Indeed, this multipolar populism is fast becoming a core part of the contemporary populist playbook.

The populist embrace of a world of multiple great powers has ideological dimensions.

[T]he ideological vision offered by most populists usually treats internationalism as a source of threat to the political community. In right-wing populism, this sensibility finds expression in the idea that contemporary politics are driven by a struggle between nationalists and globalists. Populists thus emphasize the overriding importance of some combination of sovereignty, territorial borders, and national identity and culture. They routinely claim that efforts, spearheaded by sinister external forces, to undermine all three constitute an existential threat to the political community. 

It also reflects instrumental considerations.

[I]n order to implement their policies, populists need to shield themselves from pressure to, variously, protect human rights, maintain the rule of law, combat corruption, and respect domestic pluralism. Even during its apex as a hegemonic power in the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States, of course, did not consistently apply such pressures… [But] the fact [is] that the United States and other liberal great powers have frequently pressured weaker states, even if more in rhetoric than practice, to conform with liberal political and economic expectations.

As we note in the piece, this isn’t just a matter of Orbánism or the Movimento 5 Stelle. Both the appeal of – and appeals to – multipolarity appear in populisms all over the world.

One thing that we do not spend much time on is the place of multipolarity in American populism. We do note that the current embrace of multipolarity among right-wing populists is particularly interesting because:

In essence, [populist movements outside of the United States] have come around to the position taken by Russia and China in 1997 against hegemony and in favor of diversity in foreign relations. This remains true even though the president of the United States is himself a right-wing populist and his administration is pushing a similar vision of international order.

I do think “multipolar populism” in the United State is a thing. Obviously, the anti-hegemonic left looks favorably upon multipolarity insofar as it constraints American foreign interventions in particular, and ‘neo-imperialism’ in general.

However, it does seem odd to suggest that the American right might involve something like multipolar populism. Trumpists generally, first, favor the naked use of American power to pursue narrowly conceived national interests and, second, want to prolong U.S. military dominance for as long as possible.

But I think you can find a sense that a world of multiple great powers will allow the United States to bypass multilateral institutions while facilitating the abandonment of any pretense of pursuing liberal internationalist goals. Some cultural conservatives certainly view Russia as a potential ally in their struggle against what they see as the decadent liberalism of the left. Many look favorably upon overseas multipolar populists, whether in the form of Orbánism or the French National Rally. So there’s a lot to unpack there.

Anyway, I’m curious to see what you think of the piece and the question of how this plays out in the American context.

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