Drawing on their article in International Affairs, Kilian Spandler and Fredrik Söderbaum speak to Isabel Muttreja about why populist leaders like Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump and Hugo Chávez both support and attack international organizations (IOs).
What role have international organizations played in recent years?
Kilian Spandler: International organizations like the European Union (EU), the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), have a considerable say over their member states.
That power makes them important actors for addressing today’s global challenges, like climate change, armed conflict or economic growth. But it also makes them objects for political controversies. Some argue that they may be too powerful and so intrusive that the sovereignty of the member states is violated.
One thing that has become obvious over the last couple of years is that global and regional IOs are not just contested by rising powers like China, but increasingly from within – by states that are traditionally seen as champions of the so-called ‘liberal international order’.
Scepticism about the EU has been a trademark of populist right parties in Europe for decades. This culminated in Brexit, which made everyone aware of the radical potential of these movements.
The other decisive moment was the election of Donald Trump. His administration prominently withdrew from a number of international organizations and agreements.
Why do populist leaders seek to delegitimize IOs – what do they have to gain?
Fredrik Söderbaum: They contest and delegitimize those IOs whose policies they do not like, especially if these IOs pursue liberal policies.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, would, for example, fight against the UN and the EU on migration, climate change and so on.
Delegitimizing IOs is also part of their domestic political strategy. They want to create a divide between the ‘elite’ in IOs and the people, portraying themselves as bringing back control to the people.
Orbán in Hungary speaks to domestic audiences all the time about the EU and the transnational elite in Brussels, who he frames as the enemies. He wants to control and reduce their influence, but he doesn’t actually talk about leaving the EU.
People in Hungary are supposed to focus their frustrations on intrusive EU institutions in Brussels instead of the government in Budapest, and that would be much harder to argue if Hungary were no longer a member state.
To some extent he therefore needs the EU, but he wants to transform it into being more anti-liberal and restrictive.
How do populist leaders delegitimize IOs?
Kilian Spandler: A lot of this happens through narratives. One is about sovereignty: IOs must not take decision-making power from ‘the people’. The other is about identity: powerful IOs symbolize a ‘globalist’ worldview that threatens national communities and traditional feelings of belonging.
One example of the identity argument is how Orbán depicts the EU as an evil, elite-driven monster, which represents corrupt establishment figures and threatens the identity of the righteous Hungarian people, and to some extent Christian civilisation.
Many analysts argue that populism is always a unilateralist, isolationist force. What we demonstrate in our International Affairs article is that populists only reject IOs when they can plausibly portray them as anti-people and pro-elite.
In some cases, they actively support IOs, especially when the populist leader’s own country is a leading figure in a regional or international project. Dominating an IO means you cannot portray it as a dangerous, foreign force. On the contrary, the leader’s prestige becomes bound up with the success of the IO.
Hugo Chávez as the president of Venezuela strongly opposed US-led or Western financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as elite projects.
But he enthusiastically promoted regional IOs, especially among like-minded, left-wing governments in Latin America, which he saw as being more representative of the popular will than these far away and intrusive and neoliberal IOs.
You argue that populists’ approach to IOs is strongly shaped by domestic concerns. Can you provide an example?
Kilian Spandler: That has been particularly clear in Orbán’s 2022 re-election campaign. For some time it looked quite bleak for him as he faced a broad domestic coalition who were united by the will to get him out of office. On top of that, Russia, a long-time partner of Orbán’s government, suddenly invaded a neighbouring country, Ukraine.
Everything seemed to turn against Orbán, but he was extremely savvy in turning this difficult situation into an advantage.
Despite being a longstanding advocate for a common EU defence policy, he undermined the EU consensus on Ukraine by rejecting sanctions against Putin, arguing that this strategy would only prolong the war.
Hungary, he said, wanted peace and compromise, which required concessions to Putin. Framing the reaction to the Ukraine war as a choice between the warmongering EU and himself as a peacemaker strengthened his claim to rule and in the end he was re-elected with a big margin.
Does political leaning impact how leaders approach international organizations?
Fredrik Söderbaum: In our study of left-wing Chávez and right-wing Orbán, we show that both sides endorse certain international and regional organizations that respect national sovereignty and are compatible with populist identity claims. There are obvious differences in the types of policies they support or delegitimize.
But in all the cases we examined, populist leaders assess the international organization not according to how effective it is in solving problems, but who it stands for and whether it is representative of popular sovereignty and identity.
Are populist leaders justified in claiming that IOs do not represent normal people?
Kilian Spandler: There’s certainly a point to the argument. IO decision-making is often not very transparent.
Some policymakers have argued that IOs and the decisions they make are simply too important or too complex to allow for democratic participation, which is a problematic attitude.
Yet nation states are actually still the most powerful players within virtually all IOs. That’s even the case to some extent in the EU, which is in many ways the most authoritative IO. Against that background the populist argument rings a bit insincere.
The notion that IOs are not representative is a simplifying narrative, constructed for domestic political purposes rather than a genuine concern with democratic representation.
What impact do delegitimizing efforts really have on IOs?
Kilian Spandler: You could easily think that delegitimizing is just rhetoric. That’s partly what we’re saying, but there are real world effects.
The more a populist leader or government delegitimizes an organization rhetorically, the more the pressure will rise for them to follow through with action.
Trump did this with the World Trade Organization, where he followed his critique by blocking the appointment of new judges to the main dispute settlement mechanism.
Delegitimizing can also have broader effects. IOs are often highly dependent on being recognized as legitimate as they are not secured by any legally enforceable mechanism. The more this narrative that an organization is defunct spreads, the more difficult it will be for that organization to mobilize buy-in from member states.
However, with some exceptions, we have seen that IOs are usually quite resilient, especially if they have well-developed bureaucracies and secretariats and strong leadership.
NATO has proven resistant against Trump’s repeated attacks not least because of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s assertiveness.
Fredrik Söderbaum: Delegitimizing by populists can even have the opposite effect and increase the confidence in an IO.
For instance, let’s say that Orbán tries to delegitimise the EU. For liberals and believers in the EU that may actually increase their loyalty rather than undermine it.
Whether you see him as successful depends on whose legitimacy beliefs you look at. Orbán is primarily addressing his own domestic constituency, whereas supporters of the EU in Brussels or in other countries may be inspired to challenge Orbán’s critique.