Why Populists Want a Multipolar World

Aspiring authoritarians are sick of the liberal order and eager for new patrons in Russia and China.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves following a meeting during the second day of a special European Council summit in Brussels on Feb. 21.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves following a meeting during the second day of a special European Council summit in Brussels on Feb. 21. Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 crisis worsened in Europe, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic launched a blistering attack on the European Union, arguing that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper,” and praising China for its willingness to assist with the pandemic. Even Italian politicians normally supportive of the EU joined their populist counterparts in hailing China and criticizing Brussels after Beijing supplied critically needed equipment following the EU’s initial failure to step up.

These developments underscore the growing sense that the international order sits at an inflection point, driven by the conspicuous lack of leadership by the Trump administration; China’s aggressive efforts to showcase its domestic political model and its status as a provider of international club and private goods; and the possibility that the pandemic may fuel a growing populist backlash against political, economic, and cultural liberalism.

These pressures are not, in fact, entirely distinct from one another. The Serbian and Italian examples highlight an important but often overlooked relationship between the decline of U.S. hegemony and the rise of 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.

As the political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller argues, populists worldwide share a specific form of personalized identity politics—one that is rhetorically anti-elite and anti-pluralist in orientation and that emphasizes their own moral superiority while denying the basic legitimacy of their political opponents. Once in power, populists seek to erode the independence of political, legal, and economic institutions; they hijack the apparatus of the state in order to build patronage networks that secure the loyalty of clients. They pursue these efforts by, in part, scapegoating vulnerable populations and communities.

Populist rhetoric and policies thus constitute a rejection of important aspects of the post-Cold War liberal order, driven by a mix of ideological and instrumental concerns.

First, the 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. Thus, stemming migration, offering protection to political clients from market competition, and cracking down on the activities of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations all form part of the populist toolkit for leaders as geographically diverse as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Second, in 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 to other states. It often actively supported repressive regimes, especially as part of the so-called global war on terrorism. Such hypocrisy, which is also shared by the leading European powers, does not change the degree that liberal pressures have been baked into the international order via multiple treaties and institutional arrangements. Nor does it change the fact 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.

For example, last year Washington imposed sanctions on high-ranking leaders of Myanmar’s military over systematic killings of minority Rohingyas. For their part, populists in Europe rightly see the liberal values that undergird the EU as an obstacle to their political programs. Orban, for example, frequently draws criticism from Brussels for his democratic backsliding and corruption, including the recent move by the Hungarian parliament to consent to allowing the president to rule by decree indefinitely under the pretext of combating the coronavirus. Even as he depends on EU subsidies to maintain his patronage networks, Orban positions himself as defending Hungary against EU efforts to subvert its sovereignty and values.

In consequence, populists have converged on the idea that a multipolar international system will best serve their interests and is therefore something to both welcome and advance. In essence, they 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.

Populists tend to emphasize the availability of new external partners, usually China or Russia. Most often, they point to Beijing and Moscow as actual, or simply potential, suppliers of international club and private goods that were, during the 1990s and early 2000s, delivered almost exclusively by the United States, the EU, Japan, and Western-dominated multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Such patronage includes development assistance from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), commodity-backed short-term loans, and, now, public health assistance.

Leaders argue that, unlike Western donors, China and other new patrons do not demand intrusive conditions such as economic conditionality or respect for individual rights. However, these deals involve opaque schemes and private payoffs, as well as expectations of future support. Beijing, for example, expects recipients to back its foreign-policy priorities and support—or at least not overtly criticize—China on matters such as respect for human rights in general or its current policies toward Uighurs in Xinjiang in particular.

In response to the outbreaks in Europe, both China and Russia have made a public showing of providing medical supplies, equipment, and trained personnel to Italy and other ravaged European countries. While doing so, they have taken pains to promote the narrative that they have stepped in where the United States and the EU have failed.

This “goods substitution” is significant on its own terms because the provision of international club and private goods is the main mechanism by which great powers order international politics. But countries such as China and Russia often do not, in fact, provide superior goods and bargains to those offered by the United States and its allies. China’s behavior surrounding the BRI and its preexisting aid programs has led recipients to accuse Beijing of neocolonialism, and growing evidence suggests that Chinese development projects are more problematic than Western ones.

Of course, Beijing’s comparative lack of concern about corruption is a feature rather than a bug for some recipients. But it is also telling that the rhetoric of lauding alternative patronage sometimes matters more than the reality. For example, the Chinese aid lauded by Italian politicians was actually the fulfillment of a procurement contract rather than humanitarian assistance. As the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield noted, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who has pushed the narrative of Chinese largesse, “is the euroskeptic leader of the populist Five Star Movement and led the effort to make Italy the first Group of Seven country to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”

A critical part of the domestic politics of goods substitution is that populists claim that their pragmatic courting of illiberal or authoritarian states affords them a wider range of partnerships and international networks. The fact that new partners like China and Russia are authoritarian becomes a net political positive: a signal that populist leaders are pragmatic and committed to protecting national interests—because they are flexible enough to find new partners who can deliver the goods.

Actively promoting partnerships—or, once again, the simple potential of partnerships—with new goods providers also allows populists to more credibly question existing agreements and partnerships. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States used its position as the sole superpower to expand its network of security relationships and alliances around the world. This involved not only NATO expansion but also, following 9/11, the creation of a comprehensive set of security partnerships and global access agreements to assist with the global war on terrorism.

Opposing alignment with the United States—which, along with its partners, was then pretty much the only game in town for effective security guarantees and other goods—carried international and domestic costs. With a few notable exceptions, regimes did their best to stay on Washington’s good side, which, in turn, furthered the creation of a truly global U.S.-centered security order.

Now conditions have changed, often dramatically. Leaders, and populists especially, now increasingly see partnership with the United States—once viewed as an indispensable pillar of foreign policy—and its Western allies as overly constraining. For example, Duterte, Erdogan, and Orban all came to power in states that were fully integrated members of the U.S.-led security order. All three now point to potential security relations with Russia and China as providing the possibility of greater balance with, if not outright exit from, that order. Duterte even canceled the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States after Washington denied a visa to one of his political allies.

Obviously, military partnerships and security cooperation with the United States have always been an object of political contention—and not just in countries run by multipolar populists. The difference now is that elites in multiple, and otherwise very different, countries are actually implementing policies that distance themselves from the U.S.-led security order. In all of these cases, populist leaders are invoking multipolarity as a rhetorical commonplace, taking advantage of the growing shift toward a multipolar order, or both. In doing so, they contribute to a power transition away from the United States by reducing its influence.

Finally, invoking multipolarity also makes it easier for populists to reject external, mostly Western, criticism of their domestic governance practices. When the West was dominant, even autocrats had to accept significant incursions on their domestic sovereignty—such as critical election monitors, foreign-sponsored NGOs, and members of the Western press. Now, emulating the practices of China and Russia, populists are much more comfortable with banning or repressing these same actors—and in justifying their actions as ways of protecting their national values and interests.

The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, at first glance, strengthens and fuels these dynamics. The closing of borders and the curtailment of international economic exchange increase the appeal of national fortress narratives conjured by populists about the perils of globalism. As the political scientist Ivan Krastev argues, this presents profound challenges to the integrity of the European Union; more broadly, how major powers like China and the United States manage the trade-off between supporting public health and economic openness will acutely impact their authority to lead global institutions and set international agendas going forward.

In the end, for smaller states, multipolar populism may prove self-defeating. It’s one thing to use exit options to reduce external liberalizing pressure, but it’s another when new patrons start calling in favors. Despite Beijing’s defense of sovereignty as an international principle, its practices toward clients suggest that, eventually, it will use its leverage in ways no less coercive than other great powers. Moscow has already demonstrated its lack of concern for the sovereignty of clients and partners. Perhaps some multipolar populists will find it convivial to trade away their national autonomy for the freedom to extract rents but otherwise may find themselves nostalgic for the older order. But, until then, the COVID-19 crisis underscores that international goods provision abhors a vacuum and that populists will find ample opportunities to embrace multipolarity.

The authors’ most recent book is the co-written Exit from Hegemony: the Unraveling of the American Global Order.

Alexander Cooley is the Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. Twitter: @CooleyOnEurasia

Daniel Nexon is an associate professor at Georgetown University specializing in international security and international-relations theory. Twitter: @dhnexon

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