Foreign Affairs

Populist Promises and Sovereign Illusions

“We must take our country back.” The most salient political refrain of our time is so widely endorsed that it is impossible to locate its origin. Populists from every corner of the globe all seem to share the same message, but they rarely quote each other. Their appeals to fear of subversion and to the necessity of pure autonomy have become incredibly successful in contemporary politics by building a movement around a timeless objective.

Sovereignty is an old concept in tension with a new world. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia enshrined the principle among European monarchies. For centuries, the idea that a state ought to be free from foreign interference held. When this norm has been violated – by assassinations of nobility or invasions of neighbors – massive conflicts have ensued. Even as the world democratized, the concept was transferred from the rights of the crown to the rights of the public.

When new technology, hostile actors and apparent realities threaten sovereignty, public anxiety rises over the lack of control. Populists succeed by offering to ease these worries. They promise a return to more familiar times with less uncertainty and disruption. While sovereignty may have been a linchpin of order and stability, its pursuit in the 21st century is gravely illusory.

The durability of borders has eroded throughout the post WWII order. The victors of WWII realized that global security would require institutionalized interdependence to provide stability. Nation states that relied on each other would be hesitant to fight each other. Bodies such as the United Nations were formed to resolve disputes in a cooperative manner. Realizing that war and occupation are the gravest violations of sovereignty, the architects of the new world order sought to voluntarily relinquish some control to mitigate transnational tragedies by cooperating on problems that affect the global community as a whole.

Meanwhile, technological and geopolitical realities make pure exclusivity impossible. Mass communication linked many nations by chains of information. The ease and speed of global transportation and integration created widespread economic opportunity. Moreover, these tools were leveraged for geopolitical gain as the Soviet Union and United States indirectly fought each other on both physical and ideological battlefields. The enhanced flow of people, things and ideas presented new opportunities to coordinate these connections for maximum gain. Regional trade blocs – such as NAFTA and the EU – formed to standardize regulations across borders to further harmonize the interstate activities.

Great disruptions provoke great dissatisfaction. It is fashionable to lead change, but troubling to be surprised by it. As the new globalized reality emerged, local communities either adapted or fell behind. Outsourcing is perhaps the best example of the damage of disruption. Communities that lose their jobs meet a fate beyond their control. This makes the offer to return control to the disaffected so powerful. There is a profound cultural reaction to falling behind that can be observed across time and space. For instance, the Near East was a hub for modernism and progress for centuries in the Middle Ages, but in the contemporary era, significant support has grown for traditionalism and disdain for the prosperity of the wealth. The sudden, inevitable loss of prestige on the world stage invokes real pain felt at the individual level.

More recently, Great Britain’s recent experience with its changing position in the world has prompted serious upheaval. Formerly the “Empire where the sun never sets,” Britain managed to hand-over global hegemony to the Americans while retaining a significant geopolitical presence and engaging with continental Europe to usher peace to a historically tumultuous corner of the world. During what was supposed to a golden age for Western societies, the U.K. instead followed the U.S. into a quagmire in Iraq and saw automation and offshoring hollow out its manufacturing sector. Then, in 2016, the British public responded by directly repudiating the long-standing forward-presence of Britain in the world. The 2016 Brexit vote was one of the most significant rejections of international engagement in favor of an inward-concentrated approach to restore control and familiarity.

While Britain is a strong example of the populist turn against internationalism, the island nation also demonstrates the practical impossibility of sovereignty in the present moment. The 2016 migrant crisis and the specter of foreigners committing crimes within the U.K. drew calls to reject the EU’s free-movement inclinations and fortify British sovereignty. This has proven easier to pass in a referendum than to implement in actionable policy, and Britain remains in no better position to control what happens within its borders than before. For instance, In 2018, the Russian government carried out a nerve agent attack on British soil against a former Soviet spy and claimed the life of a British woman. This is the most extreme of a litany of recent cases where Russia has reached within the borders of a “sovereign” state. Meanwhile, the EU — created to ensure the key British interest of stability on the Continent — is routinely castigated by British politicians. “Know Thine Enemy” is advice the Brexit movement ought to consider.

Although the Brexiteers thoroughly view the European Union as their enemy, Britain will not be able to get any further away from the continent. Geography dictates that most of Britain’s trade will occur with Europe. British imports will be treated by EU regulations just like any other nation’s goods, except without membership, the U.K. will have no influence over what those regulations are. Moreover, by leaving the bloc, Britain loses much of its leverage to pressure Brussels for reform. Withdrawal does not cure the erosion of sovereignty but rather forfeits the capacity to guide the changes that are controllable.

Achieving sovereignty in the 21st century as it was conceived of in the 20th century is an illusion. However, it is a powerful illusion. The struggle for self-determination between the elites and the masses creates a Manchurian worldview that is conducive to ally the anxious with the dispossessed. The “elephant chart” shows how populists build their coalitions. While the developing world’s poor have radically risen out of poverty, the working class of the developed world has seen its standards of living either stagnate or fall. Support for populists extends beyond the punished workers to include those who fear they may be next. The face of the movement is the victims of globalism, but its composition includes those beyond the directly affected.

Although populists are frequently cited for amassing unchecked power, their appeal is fundamentally democratic. They promise to grant autonomy to the masses and protect co-nationals from predatory outsiders. Institutions that obstruct this transfer of control to the populace where it belongs are seen as subverting the will of the majority. Courts of a handful of magistrates make decisions that anger tens of millions. A press room of a few dozen journalists can be seen as unfairly satirizing entire cultures. These institutions exist as a check on power, regardless of whether that power emanates from a narrow interest or from a wide majority.

In its simplest form, populism is a struggle for control against foreign and domestic “elites.” Moreover, domestic elites are often labelled as puppets of global interests who aid and abet violations of sovereignty against the will of the people. When leaders make hard choices that yield negative consequences for segments of their constituencies, those disaffected groups can’t help seeing their situation as directly connected to the success of the privileged and the well-resourced.

Populism will endure because there will always be hard choices to make. Additionally, leaders will inevitably succumb to hubris and other vices and deserve the ridicule and scrutiny that results. Even those endeared by the establishment for their resilience against populism have provoked reasonable outrage. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently tarnished his golden boy reputation by pressuring officials to spare a Quebecois company charged with corruption. And while liberals in the broad sense of the label champion freedom and meritocracy, the recent college admissions scandal further enshrined the “Elites versus the Rest” narrative.

Any bureaucracy occupied by human beings will be susceptible to scandal. Likewise, populists are hardly immune from wrongdoing. Any single controversy is unlikely to redefine a public narrative, but all scandals serve to entrench prior beliefs and exacerbate fault lines within our culture. Grassroots grievances won’t go away by trying to convince the public their lives are fine as is. The populist challenge cannot be quelled with just better rhetoric and narratives. Populism is driven by emotions that are based in both anxiety and reality. Today’s leaders must confront both these drivers or prepare to cope with being tomorrow’s followers.

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