Please cite as:
Nguijol, Gabriel Cyril; Sithole, Neo; Kastoriadou, Konstantina; Guidotti, Andrea; Diethelm, Johann Mathies and Mancini, Luca. (2023). “Symposium Report: Impacts of Global Power Transition on Authoritarian Populism and Multilateralism.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 23, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0045
Achieving a peaceful hegemonic change and power transitions, perhaps for the first time in history, requires Herculean efforts. In this context, a realistic reform agenda against the ongoing negative trends should focus on i) implementing better regulatory regimes for environmental protection, the spread of epidemics, and financial stability; ii) protecting the most fragile and “forgotten” people through improving global income distribution; iii) providing equal opportunities in global collective responsibility areas through relevant international public goods based on the principles of pluralism, participation, and transparency; iv) strengthening national sovereignty and the autonomous decision-making capacity of nation-states vis-a-vis globalization.
This report is based on the ECPS’s Second Annual International Symposium titled ‘Impacts of Global Power Transition on Authoritarian Populism and Multilateralism’ which was held online in Brussels on March 30-31, 2022.
Contrary to expectations, following a short period of revival in democratic governance in the post-Cold War era, “the third wave of authoritarianism” has gained momentum, particularly since the great recession of 2008-2009. For the first time in post-World War II history, there are more authoritarian states globally than democratic ones. This shift can be attributed, among other factors, to the rise of alternative powers with different norms and values in the emerging multiplex/multipolar world, the excesses of so-called hyper-globalization, and the failures of post-war multilateral cooperation mechanisms in addressing various global challenges.
The essence of the topic lies in the globalization of problems, coupled with the weakening of the liberal multilateral order (LMLO). This weakening has brought regional, national, and individual solutions to the forefront. Consequently, it sets the stage for alternative hybrid political-economic systems with different values and norms, creating a new space for populist politics that appeal to the people. Under the unpredictable, arbitrary, and contingent decisions of authoritarian populist leaders, the power transition process becomes more precarious, reminiscent of the painful memories of the recent past.
As we observe, the last hegemonic force, the U.S., has itself been threatened by populism. Conversely, with its authoritarian state capitalism, China has been aggressively defending its interests, positioning itself as a new power with a different interpretation of hegemony. Additionally, a long-consolidated authoritarian regime in Russia ultimately invaded Ukraine after unlawfully and forcibly annexing a strategically significant part of it, Crimea, in 2014. Lastly, the EU attempts to balance the emerging trends through alternative strategic partnerships with like-minded global partners to uphold its principles and values rooted in human rights, democracy, the rule of law, rule-based governance, and a free-market economy.
There are additional factors exacerbating the situation. Recent developments during and after the pandemic lockdown (2019-2022), such as disruptions in global value chains, a dangerous surge in global inflation, the associated energy-food crisis, accumulating debts, and a sharp deterioration in global income distribution, have the potential to influence the future course of populism and, consequently, the liberal multilateral order (LMLO).
Achieving a peaceful hegemonic change and power transitions, perhaps for the first time in history, requires Herculean efforts. In this context, a realistic reform agenda against the ongoing negative trends should focus on the following topics: First, implementing better regulatory regimes for environmental protection, the spread of epidemics, and financial stability. Second, protecting the most fragile and “forgotten” people through improving global income distribution, such as introducing universal income and welfare tax. Third, providing equal opportunities in global collective responsibility areas through relevant international public goods based on the principles of pluralism, participation, and transparency. Lastly, strengthening national sovereignty and the autonomous decision-making capacity of nation-states vis-a-vis globalization.
Considering all these issues, under the coordination of Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk and the auspices of Sir Graham Watson, our then-Honorary President, the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) organized this symposium on March 30-31, 2023, focusing on “the Impacts of Global Power Shift on Multilateralism and Populism.” The symposium brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of global power transition on authoritarian populism and multilateralism. Distinguished scholars in the field contributed their insightful speeches. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to document the symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and links to the full videos of presentations.
Welcoming Remarks by Prof. Cengiz AKTAR
Professor Cengiz Aktar says: Populism appears to rival roof-based international order, human rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, gender equality, social and environmental justice, transparency, and accountability. Unfortunately, it gains ground in a vertiginous space everywhere in our contemporary world. Populist politics and authoritarian tendencies are all over the world, ranging from developed to developing countries. As with most of the problems we face today, there is no magic stick to counter its evils.
Professor Cengiz Aktar, Professor and Senior Researcher at Foreign Policy Program of the ECPS, articulated how populism is undoubtedly one of the most important words of our times and a topmost adversary of liberal democracy and the democratic way of being. According to Professor Aktar, populism appears to rival roof-based international order, human rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, gender equality, social and environmental justice, transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, it gains ground in a vertiginous space everywhere in our contemporary world. Populist politics and authoritarian tendencies, according to him, are all over the world, ranging from developed to developing countries. As with most of the problems we face today, there is no magic stick to counter its evils. So, solutions cannot come from the feelings of human beings.
Furthermore, Professor Aktar highlighted that while the threat from populist movements is concerning, collective efforts from institutions like the ECPS have intensified to raise awareness about its dangers. These initiatives aim to translate academic research into more accessible formats for various stakeholders, including intellectuals, media, and policy-making communities. Engaging in a global effort, the ECPS serves as a knowledge hub and a platform for discussion, contributing to public goods and conducting evidence-based research in collaboration with relevant stakeholders. The goal is to provide timely alerts for the early identification of populist tendencies challenging democratic governments and to support an open society, market economy, multilateralism, the rule of law, and liberal democracy. Prof. Aktar concluded his welcoming speech by emphasizing that the annual conference aims to assess and take stock of these ongoing endeavors.
Opening Speech by Sir Graham WATSON
Addressing the response of liberal democracy to the challenges, Sir Graham Watson stressed the need for respect for universal principles against the politics of selfishness and resentment. He advocated for policies rooted in compassion, generosity, openness, and goodwill towards others. Moral education, the separation of church and state, and opposition to the political abuse of religion were identified as essential components.
In his opening speech, Sir Graham Watson, then-Honorary President of ECPS, underscored the pivotal role played by the ECPS in addressing global concerns and challenges. Sir Watson pointed out that nearly three-quarters of the world’s population now lives under autocracy, a significant increase from half a decade ago, highlighting the pressing nature of these concerns. He attributed this shift to two main factors discussed in the symposium: i) the decline of multilateralism resulting from a power shift, and ii) the exploitation of modern technologies and communications to evoke negative human emotions, causing adverse effects on liberal democracy.
Sir Watson identified many regions, both in Europe and beyond, as cradles of autocracy and illiberality. He cited examples such as China, characterized by illiberality under despotic rule, and Russia, described as a monster of autocracy involved in war crimes. Africa, hosting 40 of the world’s 59 authoritarian governments, was also mentioned. Despite challenges related to democratic recession stems from resurgence of intolerance based on ethnic, religious, or other affiliations, Sir Watson stressed the importance of a global sense of community. He cited Brexit as a recognized mistake, highlighting the continued global spread and rooting of democracy.
Sir Watson also highlighted the fact that modern conflicts challenged liberal democracy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us of how conflict is the most destructive behavior to liberal society as it is responsible for the murder of unarmed civilians, torture, abduction of children, destruction of homes and livelihoods, obliteration of infrastructures, all are costly in financial, physical and psychological terms. The danger of escalating is still there. This invasion and other conflicts elsewhere crystallize the battle between closed and open society, though peaceful resolution remains a high priority.
Addressing the response of liberal democracy to these challenges, Sir Watson stressed the need for respect for universal principles against the politics of selfishness and resentment. He advocated for policies rooted in compassion, generosity, openness, and goodwill towards others. Moral education, the separation of church and state, and opposition to the political abuse of religion were identified as essential components. Sir Watson outlined the foundation of an open society on moral principles, including equality, opportunity, social participation, and the rule of law for the benefit of all. He condemned intolerance and discrimination, emphasizing the importance of trust in the people.
Despite the challenges faced by these principles, such as the abuse of power and social inequalities, Sir Watson expressed optimism in the potential for reform and restructuring. He concluded by asserting that liberal democracy is not a lost cause but requires vigilance and resilience from its advocates to rebound and become stronger than ever.
Report by Gabriel Cyril Nguijol
Věra JOUROVA: “Saving Multilateralism and Democracy Under Global Power Transition and Rising Authoritarian Populism.”
Věra Jourová’s address encompassed a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from global development goals, human rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the rule of law, countering disinformation, EU enlargement, and unwavering support for Ukraine. The comprehensive nature of her speech underscored the EU’s steadfast commitment to international cooperation, the advocacy of democratic values, and addressing the multifaceted challenges of the contemporary world.
Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency and former European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality, commenced her address by addressing the profound challenges facing the world today, notably the Russian Aggression and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. She underscored the setbacks experienced by global development goals due to these crises. The commitment of the European Union (EU) and its member states in preparing for the 2024 EU Summit, with a focus on the ambitious “Pact for the Future,” was highlighted.
Turning to the sustainable development goals (SDGs), Jourová emphasized the EU’s dedication to accelerating the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda. She referenced the EU’s voluntary National Review of SDG implementation presented at the United Nations Higher-Level Political Forum in July 2023. Stressing the interconnection between peace, security, and SDG achievement, she asserted that goals such as human rights, gender equality, climate change mitigation, and ensuring water, energy, and food security hinge on the attainment of peace.
Jourová also expressed robust support for human rights, emphasizing the human rights dimension within the common agenda. Acknowledging the United Nations’ commitment to promoting and protecting global human rights, she highlighted the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. These milestones were seen as opportunities to strengthen the UN framework for human rights, urging adherence to international laws and rules to bolster multilateralism and development.
Transitioning to the rule of law, Jourová underscored the core values underpinning the EU, prominently featuring human rights. She outlined various tools employed by the EU to address rule of law concerns within member states, including annual rule of law reports, reforms embedded in recovery and resilience plans, infringement procedures, and Article 7 procedures addressing systemic rule of law breaches. The speaker also referenced the budget conditionality mechanism designed to safeguard the EU budget against risks arising from violations of the rule of law.
The Vice President of the Commission addressed the European Democracy Action Plan, launched in December 2020, aiming to uphold free and fair elections, protect independent media, and combat disinformation, especially electoral manipulation. She emphasized the plan’s focus on enhancing journalist security and introducing legislation against abusive litigations targeting media outlets. Jourová discussed disinformation countermeasures, such as the Code of Practice against Disinformation, boasting 38 signatories, including major digital platforms, civil society organizations, and media entities. The EU’s approach centers on fostering societal action, including demonetization and fact-checking, rather than dictating truth or falsehood. The discussion expanded to financial inflows and their impact on European democracies, acknowledging their potential role in compromising electoral integrity. Jourová advocated for increased transparency in international donations and funds to prevent election interference.
In addressing disinformation challenges, Jourová drew a distinction concerning AI-generated disinformation, asserting the necessity of stringent measures due to its non-human origin. She highlighted the dual challenge: AI-generated content not only tests freedom of speech limits but also contributes to disinformation by producing convincing media forms that deepen societal divisions.
Regarding EU enlargement, the evolving geopolitical situation was elucidated, she acknowledged the EU’s past hesitance toward enlargement but emphasizing its current necessity in light of global dynamics. Ongoing discussions with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were disclosed, with a focus on evaluating their progress toward EU integration. Jourova underscored the imperative of providing EU support, technical assistance, and a phased accession perspective for these nations, placing particular emphasis on supporting Ukraine.
The speaker commended the unity and bravery displayed by the Ukrainian people and their supporters in the pursuit of security and democracy. The EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine encompassed military aid, macroeconomic assistance, sanctions, and a robust reconstruction plan. Recognizing the EU’s role as a partial contributor to Ukraine’s reconstruction, discussions are underway concerning the use of frozen assets and funds for this purpose. The objective is a substantial contribution to Ukraine’s recovery, considering its significance in securing the European neighborhood and upholding democratic values. Coordination among global donors for Ukraine’s recovery was deemed vital, with the EU actively engaging in the multi-agency donor coordination platform. Additionally, European cities are collaborating with Ukrainian counterparts to ensure inclusive and effective reconstruction efforts. Věra Jourová revisited the issue of human rights in Ukraine, highlighting ongoing investigations and prosecutions of alleged war crimes by Russia at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Two attendees expressed concerns about the EU’s weakened position in effectively addressing challenges to democracies, citing recent elections in Hungary and Turkey, where allegations of ‘undemocratic and authoritarian’ government practices arose. Additionally, apprehensions were voiced regarding China’s asymmetric economic influence potentially swaying smaller future EU members, particularly in the Balkans, away from European values. This raised questions about the effectiveness of existing EU mechanisms in enforcing established democratic values.
In addressing these concerns, Věra Jourová emphasized the pitfalls of creating a blacklist or whitelist to identify safe or at-risk countries. She highlighted the challenge that the Union, the Commission, and their affiliates often have limited insight into the causes of authoritarian shifts until they become evident at the national level. She cautioned against overlooking countries such as the United States, despite its alliance with the Commission, noting its potential to pursue its divisive agenda. Stressing the importance of financial transparency as a vital control measure, she acknowledged that while it might not eliminate the issues, it would help gain a better understanding of unfolding developments.
Věra Jourová directed attention to the EU’s preventive enforcement measures when disciplining members. While acknowledging that preventative measures may not entirely resolve issues, she pointed to cases like Hungary and Poland, where enforcement measures such as sanctions or limiting EU funds played a role in addressing democratic backsliding. These examples underscored the utility of enforcement measures in curbing potential challenges to democratic principles.
Another participant voiced concerns regarding freedom of expression and media across all EU member states, prospective members, and neighboring allies like Turkey. The inquiry questioned whether the EU is doing everything within its power to safeguard these rights. The need for a delicate balance between the autonomy of various media platforms, both traditional and contemporary, and oversight procedures by the EU, Commission, and member states was underscored. The participant highlighted the fine line between verified facts and disinformation, emphasizing the necessity to reinforce this boundary.
The discussion also addressed the challenge of content removal, predominantly initiated by governments rather than citizens, creating a potential for the abuse of oversight mechanisms by authorities. While acknowledging the role of professional media and other entities, including states, in debunking disinformation, the complexity of this task within the context of the ongoing “information war” was underscored. The participants recognized the importance of handling this issue with care, considering its implications for European values. They stressed that an excessively stringent response by states could encroach upon freedom of speech, presenting a significant victory for illiberal leaders, such as Vladimir Putin.
The discussion delved into the persistent issue of populism surging across the EU, despite the efforts of organizations like the European Commission for Values. The inquiry focused on whether the speaker believed the populist trend would persist and if the EU’s actions were sufficient to counter its rise in member countries. The response indicated that populism is likely to increase, particularly in instances where governments fail to address the needs and concerns of their citizens and voters.
Drawing on the example of Greece, the discussion highlighted how populist sentiments surged due to escalating feelings of inequality, unaddressed anxieties toward technological changes, abuse of power, unchecked corruption, and a media landscape inundated with false and emotive content. It was emphasized that each of these factors is manageable when addressed promptly, but if left unattended, the outcomes become predictably unfavorable.
In conclusion, Věra Jourová affirmed that the Commission fulfills its mandated responsibilities to the best of its abilities within the established rules and competencies. While acknowledging the scope for improvement, she emphasized that any enhancements must align with the regulatory framework governing the Commission’s actions. This sentiment extended to other EU organs, each with distinct competencies, where a more activist role, as seen in the EU Parliament, could be exercised.
In summary, Věra Jourová’s address encompassed a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from global development goals, human rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the rule of law, countering disinformation, EU enlargement, and unwavering support for Ukraine. The comprehensive nature of her speech underscored the EU’s steadfast commitment to international cooperation, the advocacy of democratic values, and addressing the multifaceted challenges of the contemporary world.
Report by Neo Sithole
Multilateralism: The Past and the Future
The First Panel of the Symposium, moderated by Dr. Aline Burni, a Policy Analyst on International Relations at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels, featured three distinguished speakers. The speakers, in order of appearance, were Dr. Mattias Kumm (S.J.D. Harvard, Research Professor for Global Constitutionalism, WZB Berlin Social Science Center), Dr. Richard Clark (Associate Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University), and Dr. Werner Pascha (Professor of Economics, Duisburg-Essen University, Institute of East Asian Studies-IN-EAST).
During her introductory speech, Dr. Burni underscored the significance of recognizing that, despite populist opposition to multilateral and international cooperation, these approaches remain crucial. She emphasized that multilateralism stands as the most effective means for the international community to address escalating global threats, such as climate change and digital challenges, which transcend national boundaries and necessitate collaborative efforts.
Dr. Mattias KUMM: “How International Law Enables Great Power Domination and Great Power Competition and Chat Can Be Done About It”
Dr. Mattias Kumm states that, “for a committed international community wanting to hold great powers accountable, there are paths to move forward, significantly enhancing the capacities of the international system to judiciously hold great powers accountable.” These three factors—1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional problems related to both a general court (comprising the ICJ and the ICC), and 3) The issue of unaccountability arising from the threats of the use of nuclear weapons—are, according to him, “the core structural features that enable the kind of great power competition we have in the present.
Dr. Mattias Kumm, S.J.D. Harvard, Research Professor for Global Constitutionalism at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, delivered a presentation focused on the evolving dynamics of international relations over the past decade. He explored the structural enabling features of the current international legal order that have contributed to these changes. Dr. Kumm contends that a crucial issue lies in the lack of recognition that International Law itself requires reform. Supporting his argument, he began by citing the example of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and analyzing the reactions provoked by the conflict. The aim was to gain a deeper understanding of the Contemporary International Legal Order (hereafter: CILO). Despite widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion by many nations (142 out of 190+ states), Dr. Kumm emphasized the absence of a compelling argument advocating for the reform of International Law.
Regarding reform, Dr. Kumm highlighted three core structural features that underpin the current state of great power competition: 1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional issues related to the General Court, encompassing the ICJ and the ICC, and 3) The challenge of unaccountability stemming from the potential use of nuclear weapons. It is essential to emphasize the inherent interconnectedness of these points.
Before delving into an analysis of these three factors, Dr. Kumm provided the audience with contextual information about the CILO and its formation. He traced the origins of the idea that the international order needed reform back to former U.S. President Roosevelt during the Second World War. Despite the initial reluctance of the United States to be directly involved in the war, it played a significant supporting role, acting as the “armory of democracy” by providing weapons, organizing coalitions, and offering support against aggressors. However, Dr. Kumm stressed that, by 1941, Roosevelt recognized the inevitability of U.S. involvement in the war. He underscored that, beyond immediate actions to support the Allies, particularly the UK against Germany, Roosevelt’s focus shifted to the mid- to long-term need for a transformation of the international order to prevent such conflicts from recurring.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the establishment of the UN Charter and other multilateral forums, including the Bretton Woods institutions, signaled a recognition that the crisis at hand was indicative of a broader deficiency within the existing international legal order. This acknowledgment led to the understanding that the International Legal Order needed reform “to ensure that this type of thing, which has happened for a second time in a short period, and how to make sure that in both cases the USA was drawn into the conflict, [won’t happen again].” Thus, the connection between intervention and the imperative for a transformation of International Law was established. Dr. Kumm’s presentation underscores the pivotal role played by the United States in shaping the CILO.
Regarding the first core issue, Dr. Kumm argues, “If we ask: ‘Who are the great powers, who are likely to get away with murder, war crimes, they are not only those five, but others will get away only if they are under the protection of those five. So ultimately, the possibility to cast a veto and to ensure that condemnation or collective mobilization and the authorization of sanctions of various kinds can take place, is a very, very important part of ensuring unaccountability.”
While he deems the abolishment of the veto as utopian, he asserts, “there are other ways, that as a lawyer we could get into more discussions relating to the potential role of the UN General Assembly, as we already have here, under the uniting for peace process, but there are other legal techniques – the idea that certain vetoes casts are invalid and thereby should not undermine all the UN Security Council authorizing actions and so, there are a number of steps one might think of […] there are ways to address it through legal interpretation and legal creativity, which does not involve something utopian.”
His second argument focuses on jurisdiction as a contributing factor to the “unsatisfying state of affairs.” In a scenario where a state claims its rights are internationally violated, it can take the matter to an impartial and independent tribunal to assess the legality of the actions. The challenge arises from the fact that international courts only have jurisdiction if there is consent.
Dr. Kumm highlighted a historical context, stating, “there was a time in history where both the USA, Britain, and France had accepted the general jurisdiction of the ICC. But the US, after being condemned for its aggressive war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, withdrew. Similarly, when the French were criticized by the ICC for engaging in a nuclear weapons test in a way that arguably violated human rights, they also withdrew.”
The last argument pertains to nuclear weapons. Dr. Kumm contends, “The current conflicts would be unthinkable in a context with no nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are perpetually used as a threat in the background, as has been the case with Russia.” He proposes that in the scenario of Russia’s invasion, there might not have been a war in the first place if not for nuclear weapons, suggesting that NATO would have intervened. In the preceding point, he asserts that nuclear power serves as a destabilizing factor in the existing balance of power arrangements.
He concludes that, “for a committed international community wanting to hold great powers accountable, there are paths to move forward, significantly enhancing the capacities of the international system to judiciously hold great powers accountable.” These three factors—1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional problems related to both a general court (comprising the ICJ and the ICC), and 3) The issue of unaccountability arising from the threats of the use of nuclear weapons—are, according to him, “the core structural features that enable the kind of great power competition we have in the present. Unless we contemplate and actively address these challenges, we risk stumbling from one crisis to another, with a genuine danger of a major global conflagration as a consequence.”
Dr. Richard CLARK: “On the New Paradigms of Cooperation in the Rising World of Multiplexity in Countering Populism”
The key takeaway from Dr. Richard Clark’s presentation is his belief that populists are unlikely to exit or completely abandon IOs. Instead, they will engage with these organizations strategically, leveraging aspects like regime complexity to avoid policies they find intrusive or stringent. Populists will choose forms of engagement that offer them the best deal—a policy package that is least intrusive and erodes sovereignty minimally. This allows them to appeal to their base while interacting with international organizations.
The presentation by Dr. Richard Clark, Associate Professor at the Department of Government at Cornell University, focused on a chapter he is contributing to the upcoming Oxford Handbook on the International Monetary Fund titled “Regime Complexity and the Populist Challenge to Global Governance.” The central question he posed was: “Does populism truly signify the demise of international organizations (IOs)? How do populists navigate governance complexity?”
The key takeaway was his belief that populists are unlikely to exit or completely abandon IOs. Instead, they will engage with these organizations strategically, leveraging aspects like regime complexity to avoid policies they find intrusive or stringent. Populists, according to Dr. Clark, will choose forms of engagement that offer them the best deal—a policy package that is least intrusive and erodes sovereignty minimally. This allows them to appeal to their base while interacting with international organizations.
Dr. Clark highlighted the traditional populist opposition to IOs, emphasizing how populists often pit the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” This elite can be domestic or international, encompassing business figures. The “pure people” typically represent working-class individuals, often less affluent, and sometimes even the middle class in the US, who feel left behind by trends like globalization, international trade, and economic interconnectedness. International organizations, in this context, serve as popular scapegoats for populist leaders. They are identified as highly technocratic institutions employing experts, and these experts, being highly educated individuals, become the perfect scapegoats in the populist narrative framing the corrupt elite, particularly because they are seen as part of the international elite.
According to Dr. Clark, both right-wing and left-wing populists target international organizations (IOs), as these entities are often perceived as incompatible with populist ideologies. Left-wing populists, characterized as redistributionists, seek to redistribute wealth from the affluent elites, either domestically or in the global economy, back to the common man. This perspective leads redistributionists to oppose IOs, viewing them as primarily benefiting the wealthy on an international scale. On the right-wing side, nativists oppose international or foreign power groups, making IOs an ideal target since they represent a foreign elite or out-group. The argument is that IOs allegedly benefit foreigners more than the citizens governed by populist leaders.
Dr. Clark explained the concept of “regime complexity” as the governance by multiple international bodies with overlapping mandates. In simpler terms, it refers to the involvement of numerous international bodies with shared responsibilities. Using the World Bank as an example, he noted that what was once the sole multilateral financing forum for infrastructures has now expanded to 28 overlapping forums. He highlighted those countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan regions, can be members of multiple forums, allowing them to choose the most favorable deal or shift operations between regimes to minimize adjustment costs.
In his research, Dr. Clark focuses on the conditionality of policy requirements attached to foreign aid, whether from bilateral sources (such as China, the US, or the EU) or multilateral institutions (like the IMF and World Bank). These requirements may involve how funds should be spent to prevent corruption or governance features such as democracy and human rights. Populist leaders often view these conditions as intrusive to state sovereignty, which is a primary reason for their hesitation and dismissive stance towards IOs.
In the contemporary landscape, countries can strategically utilize the array of international forums, even employing the threat of forum shopping to generate bargaining leverage, according to Dr. Clark. Various regional forums, such as The Chiang Mai Initiative, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, BRICS institutions, and the European Monetary Institution, offer alternatives. A country might signal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it is considering substituting its financial support from another source, thereby potentially obtaining funds on terms more favorable to its preferences and reducing conditions that could threaten sovereignty. Dr. Clark contends that there are strong theoretical reasons to believe that populists are particularly inclined to pursue this strategy, seeking to avoid adjustment costs that erode sovereignty and distancing themselves from IOs rather than engaging in negotiations, which are often highly public, especially in the context of loan programs, which is the primary focus of his research.
Furthermore, Dr. Clark emphasized the IMF as an ideal target for populists due to its highly technocratic and bureaucratic nature. He underscored that the IMF imposes stringent conditions on countries under loan programs, including mandates for privatizing state-owned enterprises, cutting wages, and implementing measures that may lead to short-term adjustment costs such as unemployment and currency devaluation. These consequences can have significant political ramifications, potentially jeopardizing the positions of leaders, whether populist or not, particularly in democratic countries. Dr. Clark also highlighted instances, such as in Hungary, where the presence of IMF bureaucrats for routine surveillance became politicized, with leaders like Orbán emphasizing the importance of distancing oneself from these IOs.
In a presented graph, Dr. Clark illustrated that countries with non-populist leaders have a 10% chance of entering an IMF program, whereas those with populist leaders have a 7% chance. Although he didn’t present specific data, he argued that populists are particularly prone to avoiding these programs when they have alternative options. According to reports from sources like the New York Times and Financial Times, there is a growing indication that China is emerging as a significant competitor to the IMF.
In a second graph, he demonstrated that “populist leaders can negotiate fewer conditions,” resulting in a nearly 20% reduction in the number of conditions imposed in a program when transitioning from a non-populist to a populist leader within a given country. This suggests that populist leaders, despite their critical stance toward elites and international organizations, maintain engagement with the IMF. They do not outright leave these institutions; instead, they have representatives working behind the scenes, fulfill their financial obligations, participate in voting, and, in essence, act as responsible members of these institutions.
In conclusion, Dr. Clark emphasized that “populists engage with IOs despite their hostile rhetoric, but they leverage regime complexity to minimize the costs of doing so.” He highlighted the material costs associated with economic reforms tied to loans, especially at the IMF, and reducing conditions serves as a strategy to alleviate these material and short-term costs. Populist leaders also aim to minimize audience costs or the inconsistency between their rhetorical criticism of IOs and their practical engagement with these organizations.
By portraying their engagement as a favorable deal or by exploring alternatives in less stringent forums, populists seek to mitigate the dissonance between their words and actions and present this as a strategic move to the public. However, Dr. Clark pointed out that such an approach limits the ability of IOs to promote reforms and fulfill their mandates, leading to negative consequences for these organizations.
Nevertheless, according to Dr. Clark, maintaining superficial engagement, even if it involves populist leaders, is preferable to their outright exit or cessation of cooperation with IOs. A widespread revolt, considering the prevalence of populist leaders globally, could be severely detrimental to the liberal international order. The advantage of keeping a level of engagement, even if it appears merely symbolic, is that when non-populist leaders assume power, it becomes relatively straightforward to repair these relationships. This has been demonstrated, for instance, in the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration in the United States. There exists a method to preserve the legitimacy and vitality of these institutions, ensuring their collective acceptance through repairable means after populists leave office.
Dr. Werner PASCHA: “Mini-literalism in the Indo-Pacific as an Alternative to Multilateralism and Bilateralism? The Role of Public Support and Populism”
According to Dr. Werner Pascha, there is a notable co-evolution of minilateralism and populism. He posited that the promotion of minilateral schemes is something populists would attempt if they wielded sufficient influence, as not all countries can engage in such initiatives for various reasons.
Dr. Werner Pascha, Professor of Economics at Duisburg-Essen University, Institute of East Asian Studies-IN-EAST, explored a theme closely aligned with Dr. Richard Clark’s presentation, examining the correlation between populism and minilateralism. The central question he addressed was whether populism serves as a catalyst for the development of minilateralism in the region, and what the implications might be, backed by empirical evidence.
He began by defining minilateralism as the association of a small number of countries with each other. Unlike multilateralism, minilateralism involves the smallest number of countries necessary to have the most significant impact on solving a specific problem. This concept is rooted in efficiency, as minilateralism is expected to be more effective, arguing that with a small number of like-minded countries working together informally, it becomes easier to address issues compared to dealing with larger entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
He argued that some of these minilateral groups may be regional, while others may not. However, typically, as a small number of countries, they serve a specific and targeted purpose in areas such as trade, infrastructure, security, international security, and the environment. Importantly, they do not attempt to substitute entities like the World Trade Organization (WTO) but rather focus on specific ideas within their designated domains.
According to Dr. Pascha, minilateral events in the Indo-Pacific region began emerging gradually since 2013, exemplified by MIKTA—an informal cooperation involving non-G7 and non-BRICS members of the G20, including Turkey, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, and Indonesia. MIKTA is an illustration of groups extending beyond regional borders. Notably, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in 2017, involving Australia, India, the US, and Japan, is one of the most prominent minilateral events. While it is perceived by some as directed against China, its primary focus revolves around the open seas, the rule of law, and freedom in various contexts. The Australia-Japan-India Trilateral Agreement (AJI) in 2015, focusing on supply chain resilience, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, involving Southeast Asian countries and China, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, demonstrate the potential for minilateralism among non-liberal democratic countries. Lastly, the AUKUS grouping in 2021, similar to the Quad but without India, focuses on military cooperation. Under AUKUS, the US and the UK are supplying Australia with nuclear power, submarines, and other military capabilities.
Dr. Pascha then posed the question, “Why do we have these kinds of minilateral events?” The conventional argument is rooted in the perceived deficiencies of multilateralism, as mentioned earlier by Dr. Clark. These deficiencies are often attributed to the formality of multilateralism, leading to clumsiness, and the challenges countries face in navigating it. The complexity of bilateralism, often referred to as the “spaghetti effect,” and the intricacies of multilateralism further contribute to the appeal of minilateralism. Dr. Pascha argued that the shortcomings of these alternatives ultimately drive the preference for minilateralism based on considerations of effectiveness and efficiency. The informality of like-minded partnerships is seen as expediting processes, offering flexibility, modularity, and the opportunity for experimentation.
However, he also highlighted the downsides of minilaterals, including their potential to undermine multilateral mechanisms, engage in forum shopping, lack transparency in accounting for agreements, be perceived as toothless, and pose challenges when dominated by one partner, potentially leading to an unfair association. Thus, the crucial question emerges: “Are minilaterals a meaningful alternative or not?” Dr. Pascha asserted that the answer depends on the political process behind it and who drives for minilaterals.
The preceding question led him to explore the idea that populist governments exhibit a strong interest in minilaterals, particularly due to the simultaneous rise of populism and minilateralism. To establish a connection between populism and minilateralism, he delved into the reasons behind the emergence of populism, asserting that it is intertwined with the economic aspects of international relations.
Dr. Pascha pointed to inequalities resulting from globalization, concentrated specifically among certain characteristics such as low-skilled workers and certain regions. He argued that multilaterals struggle to address these issues and crises effectively. The challenges related to migrants and refugees further exacerbate the problems, creating a sense of dissatisfaction with multilateral schemes. He aligned with Dr. Clark’s observation that there is tension in the current international order. However, he phrased it as a dissatisfaction with multilateral schemes, and for populists, there is a perceived need or hope to find an alternative that can be presented as an easy solution. In this context, Dr. Pascha asserted that minilateral schemes become the preferred option for populists.
To support this argument, he presented the case of the US and Japan in the Indo-Pacific region, contending that they play a primary role in the proliferation of minilateral agreements, with other countries reacting to their initiatives.
In the case of the US, AUKUS and QUAD represent perhaps the most notable attempts to establish like-minded partnerships in the region, according to Dr. Pascha. Initiated during the Trump Administration, these endeavors align closely with the argument presented. They are linked to a rejection of multilateral mechanisms, as evidenced in official documents, where it is explicitly stated that existing multilateral schemes, or what has been termed the international rule of law, are deemed ineffective. There was an expectation that the US would assume a dominant political role in these partnerships, emphasizing the need to find like-minded countries. Consequently, said Dr. Pascha, it is evident that the populist United States, in practice, became a leader in minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific.
The case of Japan is somewhat more intricate due to the question of whether Japan can be considered a populist country. Dr. Pascha referred to Prof. Axel Klein’s presentation in ECPS symposium from the previous year, noting that according to Klein, Japan, in terms of ideology, ideas, strategy, and other aspects, “cannot be considered as a populist country.” However, Dr. Pascha disagrees with this assessment, particularly based on definitions 3 and 4 (communication style and policies). He focused on the styles of Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe, citing Koizumi’s public approach, often described as a “lion,” as indicative of a populist style. In terms of policies (definition 4), he pointed to Abenomics, characterized by expansive economic measures that generated criticism from conventional economists. Dr. Pascha views this as a typical populist policy seeking an easy solution that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Additionally, he highlighted Abe’s attempts to change the constitution and the presence of anti-migration sentiments during the period of interest. Consequently, the question remains somewhat ambiguous on this matter.
Dr. Pascha concluded that there is a notable co-evolution of minilateralism and populism. He acknowledged the challenge of quantitatively studying this co-evolution due to the difficulty in precisely defining both multilateralism and populism. Nevertheless, he argued that a co-evolution exists between them and suggested that he could demonstrate a connection between the rise of minilateralism and domestic political effects. He posited that the promotion of minilateral schemes is something populists would attempt if they wielded sufficient influence, as not all countries can engage in such initiatives for various reasons. As he argued in the beginning, it’s not quite clear whether the pros or other cons effects of minilateralism are most striking.
Reported by Konstantina Kastoriadou
Power Shift, Multiplex World, and Populism
The second panel of the first day of the symposium was titled “Power Shift, Multiplex World, and Populism” and moderated by Professor Emilia Zankina, Interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement and Dean at Temple University in Rome.
Dr. Sara CARIA: “Cooperation Regimes and Hegemonic Struggle: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries”
Dr. Sara Caria: Functioning within the ambit of US hegemony, United Nations’ 2030 SDG Agenda strives to perpetuate the primacy of GDP trade growth and integration into the global value chain as the primary drivers of global economic development. Furthermore, this framework advocates for homogeneous global macroeconomic models, establishing common goals for the world irrespective of the diverse developmental stages of countries. It also sustains identical rules, thereby maintaining developing countries in impoverished and subordinate conditions.
Dr. Sara Caria, Research Professor at The Center for Public Economics and Strategic Sectors at the Institute of Higher National Studies, initiated her presentation with an overview of the key cooperation frameworks utilized by countries to extend or preserve their international leadership. These frameworks also function as specific types of regimes, offering insights into how they evolve into arenas of hegemonic dispute and how different countries functionally employ them as rhetorical devices.
According to Dr. Caria, regimes encompass the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures that converge around actors’ expectations within a given issue arena. Moreover, they articulate a worldview, set praxis, define behaviors, establish decision-making procedures, and reflect the stability of the international world order. Notably, regimes delineate expected behaviors for stakeholders and the allocation of resources among different actors and participants. In this context, the concept of hegemony assumes significance, denoting a situation where state relationships are balanced in a way that enables one party to impose rules over others across economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural domains. These rules are established to favor the interests of the hegemon.
Dr. Caria stated that the initial cooperation framework within the 2030 SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Agenda was established in 2015 under the UN and the dominance of Western countries. It encompasses 17 primary goals and 169 targets to be achieved. Functioning within the ambit of U.S. hegemony, it strives to perpetuate the primacy of GDP trade growth and integration into the global value chain as the primary drivers of global economic development. Furthermore, this framework advocates for homogeneous global macroeconomic models, establishing common goals for the world irrespective of the diverse developmental stages of countries. It also sustains identical rules, thereby maintaining developing countries in impoverished and subordinate conditions.
For this reason, it aligns with the neoliberal project forged in the 1980s, giving primary consideration to economic growth and regarding wealth inequality and ecological concerns as marginal. Nevertheless, China is currently attempting to gain leverage within the framework. Developing countries have successfully incorporated certain principles, albeit at a rhetorical level only, such as standard and differentiated responsibilities and policy coherence.
The second cooperation framework is South-South cooperation, which is centered on collaboration between developing countries. It encompasses two primary understandings: (i) cooperation as collective self-reliance, involving coalition building among developing countries to disrupt the power dynamics of the Global North within the UN assembly; (ii) technical cooperation based on technological transfer and capacity building, grounded in the belief that developing countries, while heterogeneous, share very similar needs. Some key concepts of this framework include solidarity, respect for national sovereignty, and a commitment to non-interference in domestic affairs. These principles are considered more important than the necessity to quantify the amount of cooperation to provide and the resources to be mobilized. This sometimes leads to a preference for an authoritarian allocation of resources rather than market-based assignment mechanisms. In summary, this cooperation framework is particularly advantageous for regional leaders as it enables them to function as global actors within their respective regions.
The third cooperation framework, according to Dr. Caria, is international cooperation for structural change, with China playing a central role. The core principles of this framework revolve around the concept of a New Structural Economy, which places economic growth at the center of development but assigns a guiding role to the state in the process. The underlying assumption is that China serves as a more accessible and benevolent model for developing countries to follow. Consequently, the focus shifts from multilateral relations to the ability to choose bilateral relations.
Nevertheless, multilateralism still holds certain advantages for developing countries, providing opportunities to build alliances and access a diversified cooperation landscape with various financial prospects. On the flip side, adhering to multilateralism poses challenges, including dependence and marginal roles for developing countries, along with the need for more political consensus on development policy. This contributes to institutional and fiscal fragility in the face of international market mechanisms.
Dr. ZHANG Xin: The Chinese Perspective of Multilateralism, Power Transition, and the So-called New World Order
Highlighting the four levels of connotation regarding the concept of multilateralism, Dr. Zhang Xin stated that China positions itself as the champion of genuine multilateralism. This stance is guided by the ‘Silk Road spirit’ of openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutual benefit, positioning China as the defender of ‘free trade and globalization’. To achieve this, the Chinese discursive approach focuses on values such as ‘whole-process democracy’ and ‘total security’, built upon the effort to disseminate China’s ‘indigenous knowledge’ to the outside world.
Dr. Zhang Xin, Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Deputy Director of the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai, focused his intervention on how the concept of multilateralism shapes China’s foreign policy. In other words, he delved into how the Chinese government takes, uses, and perceives diplomatic and multilateral political strategies in its foreign policy and international relations.
According to Dr. Zhang Xin, we can observe four levels of connotation regarding the concept of multilateralism. First, multilateralism is most often contrasted with unilateralism and is used in conjunction with either protectionism or hegemonic thinking. Second, multilateralism has been associated with the concept of multipolarity. An interesting case is Russian foreign policy, where the term multipolarity is extensively used. Concerning China, multipolarity emphasizes the concept of the pole as singular and unique and is understood as a way to avoid the idea of a world consisting of different and several poles with specific spheres of influence related to them. Third, multilateralism represents a possibility of socialization against isolation, as China experienced, especially in the 1980s. Fourth, multilateralism expresses an institutional or rule-binding behavior instead of non-institutionalized behavior.
Historically, Chinese multilateralism underwent diverse phases. In the 1980s, there was a clear strategy based on observation, learning, and a careful disposition to wait actively before engaging. By the 1990s, a gradual shift occurred, and the rate of participation in joining organizations slightly increased, leading to a deep engagement in international institutions by the early 2000s. From the mid-2000s, there was an effort to establish parallel institutions, followed by a progression towards openly proposing policies and reforms. Eventually, China sought to maneuver existing regimes in new directions. In summary, the evolution witnessed an initial avoidance of contact with multilateral practices, a reactive and conservative attitude, and then a shift towards more actively shaping and employing the concept.
Regarding multilateral practices, according to Dr. Zhang Xin, Chinese behavior can be characterized as neo-revisionist. Neo-revisionist powers are generally dissatisfied with the hegemonic nature of the current inter-state system. They often support and abide by the foundational principles of the ‘primary institutions’ of the current international society without directly challenging the logic of liberal internationalism. The strategy involves constantly questioning the practices and the main actors for deviating from the principles underpinning these practices. Sometimes, the results of that strategy are contradictory, leading to a systemic stalemate and deadlock situation. Consequently, the international system is often stuck in a sub-optimal condition that leaves most international actors dissatisfied. An example is the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO (World Trade Organization) about free trading negotiations: rising powers were increasingly participating, but the anti-hegemonic stance of the previous rounds of negotiations blocked further progress.
More recently, as stated by Dr. Zhang Xin, multilateralism has been employed alongside the concept of global governance and integrated into the idea of a ‘Community with a Shared Future for Mankind’. Additionally, American hegemony is criticized for engaging in what is perceived as fraudulent multilateral practices, including the unequal relationship between big and small states, the formation of bloc alliances, and violations of the UN Charter and international law. In other words, ‘fake multilateralism’ is viewed as undermining the international order and fostering confrontation and division under the guise of agreed-upon rules. This perspective is reinforced by the narrative that there was no real liberal international order to begin with. Consequently, China positions itself as the champion of genuine multilateralism, guided by the ‘Silk Road spirit’ of openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutual benefit, and as the defender of ‘free trade and globalization’. To achieve this, the Chinese discursive approach focuses on values such as ‘whole-process democracy’, ‘total security’, and is built upon the effort to disseminate China’s ‘indigenous knowledge’ to the outside world.
Dr. Ibrahim OZTURK: The Belt and Road Initiative: Tracing China’s Perspective on Globalization and Multilateralism
Dr. Ozturk explained that because China is employing a mercantilist approach characterized by visible exclusion from its lucrative markets, enforced partnerships and technology transfers, weak property rights, and restricted information flows, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should not be considered a game-changer. Nevertheless, the BRI has been used and abused by some governments for kleptocracy, corruption, and shaping governmental policies to dominate the use of technology and cut foreign competitors. It is also detrimental both for citizens and global stability, serving as a form of debt-trap diplomacy with many countries failing to pay back their debts.
Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of East Asian Studies, and ECPS Senior Researcher, focused on the Chinese multilateral strategy from the perspective of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this context, the BRI is considered a governance attraction and, following the logic of a global public good argument, a reincarnation of the Chinese historical world system approach based on the Investiture System. According to this concept, China has been actively working to increase its global influence. For instance, it attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume their diplomatic relations. Additionally, China has been strengthening strategic partnerships with Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, while also seeking to persuade Saudi Arabia to join the Shanghai Security Organization.
According to Professor Ozturk, as both a local and global public good, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should encompass core activities aimed at addressing collective problems faced by countries and motivating them to tackle global challenges. To achieve this, China should offer updated knowledge platforms, material technologies for energy transformation, and artificial intelligence tools. Specifically, an open platform should be provided for exchanging information, articulating joint behavior to achieve convergence among various actors’ preferences, and enhancing the ease of compromise to secure high-quality contracts in principal-agent relations.
Describing the Chinese strategy, Dr. Ozturk highlighted the idea that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is attempting to position itself between Western liberal multilateral practices and socialist ones, aiming to construct a new and distinct governance structure. While the initiative is expected to adhere to some established international rules, China is also anticipated to export some of its unique terms and conditions. In essence, Chinese state capitalism embodies unfair economic protectionism by implementing liberal economic principles outside of the country while adopting protectionist policies internally. It also involves selective market opening, licensing, and restrictions on foreign investments. Consequently, the share of state-owned firms in terms of bank loans granted has risen to almost 70 percent, while the share of the private sector has stagnated. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has imposed some of its party members on the boards of private companies (mainly foreign ones) to oversee and control their business strategies. This is reflected in the asymmetric and hierarchically shaped transactional world that the BRI seeks to achieve. Partner countries are not compelled to participate in such a scheme but are incentivized by the potential trade and security benefits.
From the Chinese rhetoric and perspective, there exists a community of common destiny, emphasizing relational interactions, responsible behavior, generality, and equality. The choices made should be independent from one country to another, but actions should be interdependent, facilitated through a memorandum of understanding. Consequently, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is characterized by the absence of conditionality and enforcement, a lack of delegation of sovereignty, no binding everyday decisions, and no autonomous reviving committee. In essence, it is built on institutional minimalism with high flexibility and bargaining.
From the UN’s viewpoint and in accordance with sustainability criteria, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) must offer an updated knowledge platform for data classification, adhere to common standards such as transparency, fair competition, local inclusion, social responsibility disclaimers, and employ a multi-factor assessment of projects. Additionally, it should prioritize multidimensional capacity building in developing countries. As an illustration of weak accountability-related issues, almost 75 percent of Chinese companies operating abroad, including those involved in the BRI, do not disclose corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.
The BRI initiative is thus encountering some systemic problems, according to Dr. Ozturk. Firstly, China needs to gain global experience in creating local public goods; it excels in national complementary activities but is weaker in core activities that possess a cross-border nature. Secondly, the projects are often of significant size and complexity. Additionally, government involvement in these contracts, the concealment of work, entrenched national interests, and opportunities for skimming, corruption, fraud, and money laundering hinder the achievement of set goals. Thirdly, limited local capacities, coupled with asymmetries with China’s opaque behavior and the non-transparent, authoritarian governments involved in the projects, undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of the initiatives themselves. As an outcome, BRI’s contracts are susceptible to ‘pressure-resistance-negotiation-pragmatism,’ leading to a weaker structuring of principal and agent relations.
Summarizing his presentation, Dr. Ozturk stated that China is employing a mercantilist approach characterized by visible exclusion from its lucrative markets, enforced partnerships and technology transfers, weak property rights, and restricted information flows. As a result, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should not be considered a game-changer or a pathbreaker. In any case, due to several asymmetries, the project is destined to rejuvenate the Chinese Tributary Investiture System in the upcoming years. Moreover, the BRI has been used and abused by some governments for kleptocracy, corruption, and shaping governmental policies to dominate the use of technology and cut foreign competitors. Finally, the BRI is detrimental both for citizens and global stability, serving as a form of debt-trap diplomacy with many countries failing to pay back their debts and thus undermining their financial stability.
Reported by Andrea Guidotti & Johann Mathies Diethelm
The ‘New Globalization’ and Countering Populism
The third panel of the symposium, titled “The ‘New Globalization’ and Countering Populism,” was held on March 31, 2023, with Dr. Helmut Wagner, Professor of Economics at Fern Universität in Hagen, serving as the moderator. The three presentations collectively provided stimulating insights into the latest developments of the “new globalization,” denoting the high growth rates of international markets and their interconnections, with a specific focus on the reactions of populist parties to these transformations.
Dr: Oscar MAZZOLENI: Economic Populism and Sovereigntism: The Rise of European Radical Right-wing Populist Parties
Dr. Oscar Mazzoleni’s presentation provided an enriching new perspective on the issue of economic populism. The scholar emphasizes the importance of considering this phenomenon as a specific dimension of populist claims. Economic populism, according to Dr. Mazzoleni, addresses contemporary societal problems and plays a pivotal role in explaining electoral support for European populist radical right parties, particularly concerning economic stability and security.
Dr. Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne, commenced the Third Panel with a presentation that illustrated the linkages between populist radical right (PRR) parties in Europe and economic aspects, developing an analytical framework for this phenomenon. His approach involved exploring the populist standpoint on economic issues through an unconventional discursive lens, examining socio-psychological reactions of voters.
Dr. Mazzoleni aimed to elucidate the support for PRR parties from both the supply and demand sides by assessing the significance of economic factors, such as economic crises, unemployment, socioeconomic conditions, public policies proposed by populist actors, and protectionist measures for citizens. Rather than concentrating on material economic conditions or public policies, as canonical studies do, his work delves into socioeconomic discourses and citizens’ attitudes regarding wealth and prosperity, examining how populist economic narratives sway individuals to vote for PRR parties.
Economic populism is characterized by a discourse framework that relies on the traditional opposition between “the pure people” (representing the ultimate holder of democratic legitimacy) and “the corrupt elite” (seen as betraying the people’s interests). This dichotomy is infused with economic elements, where “the people” correspond to the national economic community of consumers and taxpayers. The economic well-being of this community is perceived as being damaged, ignored, or betrayed by “the elite,” which could include neoliberal forces or globalizing elites. Populist parties, operating within this framework, pledge to restore prosperity by purportedly defending the people’s interests. In this context, two central concepts are pivotal: “producerism” and “sovereigntism.”
Producerism frames the dichotomy in economic terms, dividing society into “producers” and “parasites,” where producers contribute to the economy, and parasites exploit the work of others. Economic populism positions the “real people” as producers. Sovereigntism, on the other hand, presents the people as sovereign over their destiny, political life, and prosperity. In essence, this framework advocates for the reclaiming and restoration of a fair society where people can enjoy prosperity.
Through a survey conducted in Switzerland and France, Dr. Mazzoleni, in collaboration with Dr. Gilles Ivaldi (SciencesPo Paris), examined the impact of producerism and sovereigntism on voters’ attitudes. Specifically, they aimed to highlight the statistical relevance of what they termed “Economic Populist Sovereigntism” in mobilizing and influencing voters of PRR parties in France and Switzerland. On the supply side, the authors identified the significance of the “Threatened Producers” frame, suggesting that individuals’ prosperity is in jeopardy, and mainstream parties’ economic policies and decisions are detrimental to it. Additionally, PRR leaders advocated for greater citizen involvement in decision-making processes related to economic issues.
Overall, Dr. Mazzoleni’s presentation provided an enriching new perspective on the issue of economic populism. The scholar emphasizes the importance of considering this phenomenon as a specific dimension of populist claims. Economic populism, according to Dr. Mazzoleni, addresses contemporary societal problems and plays a pivotal role in explaining electoral support for European PRR parties, particularly concerning economic stability and security.
Dr. Micheal LEE: “Populism or Embedded Plutocracy? The Emerging World Orders”
Dr. Michael Lee briefly explained how populist governments interact on the world stage. He described that, at the international level, governing populist parties are not isolated but cooperate in unusual and informal ways. In other words, these actors do not use more institutional channels or tools typical of the current international order, which relies on cooperation through institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in the case of economic crises.
Dr. Michael Lee, Professor at CUNY-Hunter College, New York, presented an interesting comparison between populist and non-populist governments in the international economic scenario at the national and international levels. His speech revolved around two key questions: “Do populist parties govern differently from non-populist actors?” and “How do populist parties interact on the world stage, particularly concerning financial and economic issues?”
Lee began with a definition of populism as an ideology dividing society between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” He argued that the central challenge in democratic politics is providing public goods to secure the next election. While liberal democracy is theoretically suitable for producing and broadly distributing public goods, the reality is more complex due to various socioeconomic and sociopolitical cleavages in a democratic society. These divisions pose obstacles for leaders developing policies, forcing them to select specific strata of society, thereby increasing competition among parties.
Dr. Lee also argued that after the economic crisis of 2008/2009 and the European debt crisis in 2011/2012, many populist parties worldwide gained power, challenging the functioning of democratic regimes. He contended that while populism is thin at the level of elites (being a political strategy to gain votes), it is not necessarily thin at the level of the people. However, understanding the triggers for voters to form the notion of “the people” remains puzzling. Moreover, for elites, populism is advantageous as it effectively persuades citizens, while liberal democracy is not, given its need to divide public goods and face various obstacles and delays inherent in the democratic process. Liberal democracy often involves delegating power, such as to scientific experts during the decision-making process in Covid-19 pandemic years or giving autonomy to Central Banks on financial issues, which can lead to potential discontent among the citizenry.
Hence, Dr. Lee argued that populism serves as a tool to construct a narrow but solid electoral base. However, parties inevitably need to broaden their electorate to win elections. To stay true to their nature, populist actors maintain a Manichean dichotomy of us-against-them but adapt to contingencies by modifying their positions or ideas on particular themes. The distribution of goods is intended to be a tool to gain votes and win elections, but even the most populist party must be open to adaptation (e.g., the Italian Five Stars Movement supporting Mario Draghi’s government). This adaptability has been observed in various instances, including Matteo Salvini in Italy, the institutionalization of Brexiters, the softening of Eurosceptic parties, and the approaches of leaders like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.
In conclusion, Dr. Michael Lee briefly explained how populist governments interact on the world stage. He described that, at the international level, governing populist parties are not isolated but cooperate in unusual and informal ways. In other words, these actors do not use more institutional channels or tools typical of the current international order, which relies on cooperation through institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in the case of economic crises.
Dr. Marcus TAUBE: “Chinese “Hub and Spoke” – Multilateralism and the Notion of Populist Economic Policy”
According to Dr. Marcus Taube, as in the typical populist dichotomy, China claims to represent the “global south” against the “elitist Western multilateralism” (but mainly the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, then, it is conceivable maintaining that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is a mere economic reaction towards the US political and economic (assumed) hegemony and that Beijing is attempting to spoil it by allying with underdog countries.
Dr. Marcus Taube, Professor of East Asian Economics/China at the Mercator School of Management, Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST), Duisburg-Essen University, offered an overview of Chinese populist multilateralism, an economic reaction towards Western markets’ implementation policies during his presentation. His presentation provided an unusual and thrilling perspective on a hot topic in current politics: the (economic) opposition between Washington and Beijing and, more generally, on the latest international relations moves of a central player within the current global order.
Referring to the visit of the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to China and her meeting with Xi Jinping in early 2023, Dr. Taube emphasized the importance of the EU-China relationship in terms of commercial cooperation, as an attempt to dissuade Beijing from supporting Vladimir Putin too far in his invasion of Ukraine. However, the first notable developments of Chinese multilateralism must be traced back to Donald Trump’s presidency and the harsh protectionist norms that forced China to change its attitude towards the global market. Contrary to what several columnists thought, China did not retreat from the international economic scenario but developed its populist multilateralism, according to Dr. Taube.
Indeed, in recent years, Western economic measures, particularly US protectionist norms, have compelled China and Chinese elites to defend their case. The famous Trumpian slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” prompted a Chinese reaction through decoupling and the imposition of protectionist barriers. Western countries established a form of “qualitative multilateralism,” explained Dr. Taube, based on the respect for shared principles, the indivisibility of the group’s beliefs, and the acceptance of diffuse reciprocity. This Western “qualitative multilateralism” is driven by mutual trust and shared principles, fostering cooperation among Western nations to achieve long-term goals.
In contrast, China has developed a form of “true multilateralism” that does not necessarily include shared values. Instead, China recognizes clauses such as the respect for national sovereignty, the recourse to consultations to manage global affairs, and opposition to international sub-groups that rely on values beyond the UN Charter. China’s “populist multilateralism,” as Dr. Taube argues, implies a concentric and asymmetric relationship where Beijing is always at the center. This dynamic is evident, for instance, in many of China’s multilateral initiatives, such as the Global Development Initiative (2021), the Global Security Initiative (2022), and the Global Civilization Initiative (2023).
Therefore, China has established various “hub-and-spoke” systems with asymmetric power relationships, where China holds the most significant influence in the dialogue. Undoubtedly, China is distributing goods, but it is also wielding political influence and influencing national decisions. It achieves this through the “civilization process,” disseminating Chinese technological know-how to expanding areas of interest.
In conclusion, Dr. Taube explained that China organizes its identity-building process by presenting a narrative of itself as a knight fighting against evil powers and protecting the most vulnerable countries hierarchically positioned below China. According to Dr. Taube, these metaphorical arrangements are nothing more than the externalization of the Chinese Communist Party’s national populist rhetoric. In this typical populist dichotomy, China claims to represent the “global south” against “elitist Western multilateralism” (primarily the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, it is conceivable to argue that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is merely an economic reaction to assumed US political and economic hegemony, with Beijing attempting to undermine it by aligning with underdog countries.
Indeed, as in the typical populist dichotomy, here, China claims to represent the “global south” against the “elitist Western multilateralism” (but mainly the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, then, it is conceivable maintaining that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is a mere economic reaction towards the US political and economic (assumed) hegemony and that Beijing is attempting to spoil it by allying with underdog countries.
Reported by Luca Mancini