In 2016, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan got 65,855,954 million Americans to elect him as the President of the most powerful country in the world. Not only is Trump a political outlier due to his unusual business background, but his controversial campaign promised a more nationalistic and self-centered approach focused on narrow material gains for the country. And while many believe Trump is a singular phenomenon, evidence suggests otherwise. The citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, with a similar populist mentality of putting U.K. interests first. This year, Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD)— a far right-party in Germany— has entered parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote. Germany uses proportional representation in the legislative branch; thus, the populist far-right party won enough seats to have a significant influence in the legislative affairs of the country. Austria’s far-right Freedom party won enough votes to return to power after more than a decade in opposition. And on Poland’s Independence Day this year, thousands of nationalists chanted for white supremacy and held up banners with slogans like “White Europe of brotherly nations”. And this is not the usual way the public and politicians have behaved in Europe.
Populist leaders have not only ran for elections, but have successfully won against established opposition. President Rodrigo Duterte promised the citizens of Philippines to eradicate the country of crime and drugs by killing thousands of criminals; and just 16 months of his presidency resulted in more than three thousand people dead. While they have been killed under suspicion of drug dealing and other crimes, the international community has expressed concerns over human rights violations in the Philippines. Nicolas Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chavez’s populist regime in Venezuela, has been accused of human rights violations and economic mismanagement.
Populism has long been a contested and enigmatic concept that scholars have studied. One can look at populist movements around the world as an attempt to uproot political establishment that have become passive to the needs of the people. Populists are the praised defenders of the hard-working majority that chant against elitist politicians and demand economic prosperity for the people. However, it goes beyond short-term political and economic gains that often reject the international structure and balance. It feeds off of insecurities of the common people and breeds nationalistic sentiment that in turn unravels the social fabric of our international interdependent world.
Some see populism as a discourse rather than an ideology of its own; there is not central policy objective to populism, therefore the term is neither negative nor positive. It’s a way to demand and form new identity for the masses and it has potential to give “the people” a voice and political liberties that can bring about democratic change. The outcome depends on how populist forces are used.
The history of the 20th century has shown us the impossibility of dealing with international issues through inward focus on national interests. When international leaders prioritized economic punishment on Germany after World War I, populism facilitated a successful rise in nationalistic sentiment, bringing Adolf Hitler to power and showed the world just how cruel humans can be if we close our eyes to a nationalistic aggressor. Since then, thinking about national self-interest wasn’t enough when you deal with international trade, tyranny, and weapons of mass destruction: foreign policy shifted to encourage meaningful efforts to discourage conflict and hostilities.
The United States sponsored major changes to the institutions, rules, and norms that facilitate global commitments to peace. States have adopted treaties and created organizations that in turn would provide support for various international standards of order. Organizations like the United Nations (UN), North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) have provided foundations for international advocacy networks that set norms and provide informational backing to national policy makers. The investment and membership into international organizations is a long-term commitment that is often forgotten and underestimated by some supporters of populist leaders.
When the United Nations was created in 1945, the world vowed to protect human rights of everybody from government abuse and neglect. With all its legal limitations, the United Nations symbolizes human progress towards universal human rights. Populism too vows to defend the rights of the people from threats and evils; however, the definition of threats and evils is different for populists. Recent right-wing populist officials and politicians portray refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities as scapegoats for larger political crises around the world. They call for national ethnic purity in light of international crises around the world, but do not address the underlying geopolitical realities that drive human beings to leave their home countries.
The nationalistic sentiment that favors a homogeneous majority, central to populist movements, brings us back to the dark memories of World War II. It’s not safe to underestimate the power of those who empower their cause by sacrificing the lives of others. It’s a dangerous trend that threatens to reverse the accomplishments our human society has reached after the horrors of the war.
With the rise of far-right populist parties in democracies across Europe, the EU’s purpose and existence is being challenged. Scholars have often studied how economics and politics influence each other, concluding that the decline of the economy is the pivot of politics. Since the 1970s, many Western countries have experienced a drop-off in growth. Populist politicians tap into the profound dissatisfaction with economic performance and use it to become popular. When, in reality, the day-to-day benefits of the Union are often unseen; it’s in the simplicity of common currency, ease of travel and infrastructure projects.
The danger now is to discourage a populist precedent in light of Brexit and Trump’s administration. In an economically interdependent supranational union like the EU, a “pain-free Brexit” is unachievable. Any citizens of other sovereign nations that wish to follow the example of the UK have to remember the decades of unforeseen impacts such an outcome will likely bring.
The EU is not the only international community under threat. When President Trump withdrew United States support from the Paris climate change agreement, the world understood what he meant when he chanted “America First” policy. The Paris agreement intends to bring the world community into battling increasing climate change concerns that need an immediate response. And when the second-largest polluter and a renowned world leader abandons the deal, it doesn’t just undermine the remarkable diplomatic progress that has been made by the international community; it undermines the purpose of the agreement, setting us on a path of further climate volatility.
In addition, the Trump administration has expressed multiple concerns over the United Nations infringing on American sovereign interests, thus calling for weakening support for the organization. In October, the United States pulled out out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the bases of “anti-Israel bias” and how the organization designates World Heritage sites. In December, the Trump administration said it was withdrawing from a non-binding New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants; a pact between countries to tackle migration and refugee issues.
Populism could pose a threat to our interdependent social fabric worldwide; while it may not have a significant presence, the sentiment always lurks in our politics. Our national and foreign policies are not perfect, and at times both leaders and citizens will doubt the purpose of the international globalized order. However, we have achieved something that no other generation was able to do. We bounded seven continents, 24-time zones, 195 countries, 7.6 billion people through networks of trade, cyberspace, treaties, agreements, organizations, and perhaps most importantly, shared history.
Then it’s no wonder why the Charter of United Nation starts with the words “We the Peoples of the United Nations Determined…”. The document evolves the definition of “the peoples” as global citizens with a common goal for peace. Those who believe in the international world order and who can do something to protect it are those who not only have the best communication and technologies available, but most importantly have hope in values that are central to our international world order.
How can we resist poisonous populism movements in countries around the world? Recognize and expose the shallow policies proposed by populist leaders through conversation. Ultimately, the power lies within the public. The social media age allows us to expose wrongdoings around the world to a larger public, bringing people to face the realities of the world. By encouraging mass conversation, leaders who still stand to protect human rights can organize others to a conference on basic rights and principles that every human should have.
Populist leaders in European countries that are chanting for “nation-first” policies and thus threatening to destabilize economic integration must be met with educational and informational resistance. Their play on vulnerabilities must be exposed on both the international level and on the European level. International advocacy networks have to utilize their power to invigorate conversational forces through social media and international conferences.
The fight for global change goes beyond reducing carbon emissions in every country in the world; it’s about global empowerment for innovation. Through global community conversations on climate change, we bring about a new generation of technology and leaders that have the potential to give our future generations a shot at sustainable living. And while the United States President has not formally committed to goals of the Paris Agreement, a network of 2,500 leaders from America’s diverse population have committed to the goal of the global community.
As Mark Twain wrote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” It is our time to preserve and protect the world that we so cherish. We the people— the international community— have long-standing values, traditions, and experience that have developed a social fabric of the international world order that cannot be unraveled by shallow policies formulated through fear.
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