Populist Wave Crashes over International Relations

From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, the group of world leaders with an anti-system stance bordering on populism grows ever more powerful, crashing over global diplomacy and threatening multilateralism and international cooperation.

For many observers, the “populist wave” sweeping democratic countries claimed its first victory in June 2016 with the passing of the Brexit referendum, months before the election of a billionaire Republican as president of the United States.

Whether the term “populist” applies to conservative politician and Brexit champion Boris Johnson is a question for academics and future historians.

What is certain is that his appointment on Wednesday as Britain’s new prime minister, hard on the heels of the rise of far-right leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Matteo Salvini in Italy, was welcomed by Trump.

“When you look at the G20 leaders, you see a lot of people now — almost half of the leaders — that generally speaking are friendly oriented towards Trump as an American leader,” said Ian Bremmer, president of consultancy the Eurasia Group.

Bremmer noted that many leaders propelled by the populist wave have come to power in Trump’s wake, pointing to Britain, Brazil, Italy and Australia’s Scott Morrison.

But he added that many had been in power much longer, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erodgan, as well as leaders from more authoritarian countries, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“I don’t think (Boris) Johnson will be very comfortable in that company,” said Thomas Wright, the Brookings Institution director of the Center on the United States and Europe.

“We see these leaders getting together and making some sort of illiberal pack… He is more moderate than they are.”

While Johnson is in the hardline camp on Brexit, Wright explained, he is more moderate on issues such as climate change and relations with Iran.

The journalist-turned-politician is “basically in favour of multilateralism,” Wright said, and risks finding himself at odds with the American president, who is supposedly his main ally.

The group of populist or populist-adjacent leaders may have different personalities and backgrounds, but they have a long list of similarities, too.

“They all share a populist style and are clearly part of the same broader political phenomenon,” said Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

“Voters in the US, UK and Italy are embracing a brand of politics characterised by anti-immigration sentiment, the embrace of more or less explicit nationalist language, the rejection of traditional elites such as technocrats and experts,” he said.

The movement is rooted in the rise of inequality, coupled with a growing sense of being undervalued that has spread from the working class to the middle class.

“These men — Bolsonaro, Salvini, Trump, Boris Johnson — are really creatures of social media,” said Bremmer, noting they have done “fantastically well” at using the online platforms.

“When you link those reasons together, you understand structurally why we’re getting so much more populism in so many more countries,” Bremmer said, noting that the “populist wave” is far from being widespread.

The emergence of the new far-right players has had a “profound impact on global affairs,” noted Scazzieri.

“Populist leaders also disparage international institutions as undermining national interests and sovereignty,” he said.

Trump’s “America First” formulation appears to have been applied in every country’s populist language: “Brazil first,” “Italy first” and so on.

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