During the last few years, debates about the rise of ‘populism’ have been entangled with debates about the future of the set of norms, rules and institutions established after the Second World War, known as the ‘liberal international order’. Populist figures, movements and parties have been widely seen as a threat to the liberal international order and are often also linked to threats from revisionist non-Western powers like Russia. Former President Donald Trump, who was indifferent or even hostile to the liberal international order, was often seen as its biggest threat. However, other populists on both the left and right – many of whom, unlike Trump, are still in power in their countries – share a similar approach to foreign policy that is distinct from more centrist parties and endangers the order.
Despite this widespread idea that populists represent a threat to the liberal international order, there is little clarity about how to understand populist foreign policy – if there is such a thing. For example, it is not clear how populism fits into the divide in international relations between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’, if at all. Populists are sometimes seen as, and indeed themselves often claim to be, hyper-realists whose single-minded focus on the ‘good of the people’ leads them to discard international commitments and values. At the same time, some see populists as ideologues who allow right-wing or left-wing ideologies, or even personal whims, to guide them to harmful and baseless policies.
Populists are sometimes seen as hyper-realists whose single-minded focus on the ‘good of the people’ leads them to discard international commitments and values.
This paper, which focuses exclusively on populists in Europe, argues that this prevalent narrative about a populist threat to the liberal international order is misleading. First, the idea of a ‘populist playbook’ on foreign policy overlooks the heterogeneity of populism. In particular, left and right populists are very different, though often the term is used to imply similarities between them, and left-wing and right-wing populists also differ substantially from country to country. Second, populists do not diverge from mainstream foreign policy positions as much as is often assumed. In fact, focusing on the threat of a populist takeover of European foreign policy distracts from the real difficulties in developing a coherent, effective European foreign policy, which must take into account different national interests and strategic cultures in Europe.
The assumption that populism is a threat to the liberal international order is based to a large extent on the Euroscepticism of nearly all populist figures, movements and parties in Europe. Because the EU is widely seen as a part of the liberal international order, any opposition to the former is often by extension seen as undermining the latter. This paper does not look at the attitudes of populist figures, movements and parties to the EU. Instead, it focuses on the broader approaches they take to questions of foreign policy beyond Europe and in particular on their attitudes to Atlanticism. Although populism is often assumed to be antithetical to Atlanticism, not all ‘populist’ figures, movements and parties oppose the Transatlantic alliance.
The paper argues that, in practice, populism affects European foreign policies much less than the profile, rhetoric or style of populists would suggest. In particular, it examines four populist-led governments in Europe in recent years – the single-party governments of Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and the coalitions of SYRIZA and ANEL in Greece and the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega in Italy. Once in power, all these parties largely remained within the parameters of their countries’ traditional national interests. In some cases, they introduced new elements to their states’ foreign policies. But even these shifts reflected the influence of established strategic traditions rather than populist ideology per se.
Finally, the paper sketches out a typology of populist approaches to foreign policy in Europe. A detailed examination of populist figures, parties and movements shows that while it is misleading to generalize about a single populist approach to foreign policy, there are certain distinct themes and positions that link some populist figures, movements and parties. On the basis of an analysis of similarities and differences in their approaches to foreign policy, the paper identifies three types of populists in Europe: Atlanticist nationalists and continental nationalists on the right and anti-imperialist internationalists on the left. Each of them challenges the liberal international order in a different way.