A seemingly never-ending stream of observers claim that the populist emphasis on nationalism, identity and popular sovereignty undermines international collaboration and contributes to the crisis of the so-called Liberal International Order (LIO). Why, then, do populist governments continue to engage in regional and international organizations?

In my new book with Fredrik Söderbaum and Kilian Spandler, Contestations of the Liberal International Order: A Populist Script of Regional Cooperation, we counter the mainstream image of populist governments as inward-looking, nationalist, sovereigntists and unilateralists, hence inherently opposed to international cooperation. Empirically, we observe that many populists actually do engage quite often with both regional and international organizations in various ways. For instance, the US President Donald Trump, considered by many as the populist leader par excellence, terminated his country’s relations with several United Nations bodies, albeit maintaining a robust level of engagement in many other international organizations.  Nevertheless, IR debates on the contestation of the LIO have not managed to make sense of this seeming contradiction. Conversely, we argue that populist leaders are not anti-internationalist per se, but in fact ascribe a positive value to certain forms of international cooperation that are malleable to populist ideas and preferences, according to a ‘script’(1) made up of specific frames and institutional preferences.

In order to substantiate our argument, the book compares speech acts on regional cooperation by three populist leaders straddling Western and non-Western contexts: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Albeit contesting the LIO in different ways, these populist leaders have continued to engage with several regional and international organizations in various ways. Infamously known for his Eurosceptic and xenophobic rhetoric, as well as for its reluctance to accept pluralistic democratic institutions both at home and at the EU level, Viktor Orbán remains deeply engaged in regional cooperation initiatives, the Visegrád Group (V4) being just the most prominent example. At the same time, Hugo Chávez was fiercely anti-US, thus disengaging from US-led organizations (i.e. FFTA or OAS), but it was also an enthusiastic promoter of a new regional institutional anti-hegemonic architecture (i.e. ALBA). Likewise, Rodrigo Duterte explicitly criticized established liberal powers and institutions, especially the UN, while strongly engaging with other regional organizations (i.e ASEAN), as well as with foreign powers such as China and Russia. While these leader’s ideological leanings are clearly different, they nevertheless show clear commonalities in the ways they contest the LIO. In our book, we have tried to design a framework that seeks to explain when and why populists decide to cooperate at the regional and international level.

The international dimension of populist politics

Generally speaking, populist governments mobilize support by presenting themselves as the real representatives of “the people” against the “corrupt elites”. Political theory and comparative politics scholars usually assume that this antagonism is built inside the nation, as the notion of “the people” is usually constructed in nationalist or ethnic terms, and “the elite” often coincides with the incumbent government or part of the political establishment. However, the “people vs elite” antagonism can also acquire a transnational dimension. In this sense, Hugo Chávez’ regional project was that of uniting all Latin American people, not only Venezuelans, against the liberal imperialist and hegemonic powers in the region.  Likewise, Orbán’s transnational populist dimension is evident in its effort to give power back to Christian, illiberal and morally superior people disenfranchised by the liberal and immoral Brussels’ elites that threaten true European values. Besides, Duterte’s transnational populism is evident in its effort to promote the interests of Asian nationals against the imposition of Western liberal values. In other words, populist governments interpret international cooperation through the people-elite antagonism and the notion of the leader as representative of the popular will. Hence, they can favor regional or international cooperation by virtue of a sense of common identity and/or strategic opposition to a common enemy.

What’s the populist “script” of regional cooperation?

Drawing on previous research on populism, especially those works that seek to explore the people–elite antagonism as populism’s core political logic, we contend that populist leaders use three main frames to represent and justify their foreign policies in regard to regional cooperation: anti-liberalism, multiple and threatened identity, and popular sovereignty.

Populist governments usually counter the hegemonic “liberal” order promoted  by (mostly) Western “elites” that act against the interest of “ordinary people”. Anti-liberalism can take on many forms according to each populist political leaning and ideology. For instance, Chávez is anti-liberal in the sense that he opposed the US- hegemonic order based on economic liberalism and liberal internationalism, whereas for Orbán being anti-liberal means promoting an illiberal democracy that can counter Western Europe and its liberal ideas of democracy and good governance. At the same time, populists build their legitimacy by promoting the notion of “the people” as a community made of multiple identities (i.e. national and regional) that is threatened by a corrupt elite. For instance, Duterte appeals to the “ASEAN family” and Filipino nationalism against the threat of external Western intervention. Besides, as populism draws on the logic that the majority has been disenfranchised by a corrupt minority, bringing sovereign power back to the people is indeed one of its core frames. Indeed, the three leaders analyzed engage in regional cooperation in order to reestablish popular sovereignty, be it the sovereignty of the people of Latin America, that of the “true illiberal and Christian Europeans” or that of the peoples of ASEAN-member states.

Following the three previously analysed frames, populist leaders tend to favor three core institutional preferences when deciding whether to endorse specific types of cooperation: leader-driven formats, symbolism, and à la carte cooperation.

As populist emphasise their role as the direct representatives of the people, it is only natural for them to prefer cooperation formats in which power rests mostly in the ends of heads of state and governments. Indeed, they are generally reluctant to engage in forms of cooperation where they need to hand over part of their sovereignty.  For instance, Orbán has strongly pushed for reforming the EU to strengthen member-state autonomy. At the same time, populist political style is always performative, in the sense that leaders tend to continually reinforce their position by reproducing the people vs elite antagonism before domestic and international audiences. In this sense, regional organizations provide populist leaders with an additional stage to give their performance. Last but not least, as populist engagement in regional organizations is mostly strategic and opportunistic, they generally cherry pick those policy fields in which they wish to cooperate.

All in all, as we show in our book, the populist wave does not mean the start of a new era based on unilateralism and isolationism. On the contrary, populists will continue to endorse and even promote certain kinds of regional and international cooperation as long as it does not endanger popular sovereignty and their understanding of identity. The real challenge now is to understand whether it is desirable to reject cooperating with populist leaders, or whether to leverage their cooperative instincts in order to promote more cooperation at the international level, which is definitely desirable to face present and future challenges.

(1) The notion of a ‘script’ is inspired by research in the Berlin-based Cluster of Excellence ‘Contestations of the Liberal Script’, where it broadly denotes a set of ideas about political and social order.