Prof. Bertjan Verbeek: Populist foreign policy weakens soft power

Secretary of Northern League, Matteo Salvini, and PVV leader, Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF congress at the MiCo center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Discussing the impact of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) on the countrys foreign policy, Professor Verbeek highlighted his observation that the reputation and soft power of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened. Dutch diplomats had to rescue the image of the country and Dutch economic interests abroad.

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Bertjan Verbeek of Radboud University in the Netherlands argues that—depending on how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—various populist parties may approach international politics differently.

According to Verbeek, a left-wing populist party often defines the “pure people” in terms of class. Class is not a national concept; in principle, it is a transnational concept. So, a left-wing populist party would look upon the “pure people” as the working class globally, and the “corrupt elite” may well be then policymakers within international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. On the other hand, Professor Verbeek underlines that for right-wing populist parties, the “pure people” is the native population of the country, whereas the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the “pure people.” Thus, right-wing populists judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the “pure people” within the nation.

The following excerpts from our interview with Bertjan Verbeek have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your work has drawn on Cas Mudde’s notion of populism as a “thin-centered ideology.” Could you clarify how you understand populism in these terms?

First of all, the work I have written is co-authored with my colleague Andrej Zaslove at Radboud University. He is more the populist expert, and I am the foreign policy expert. We feel a focus on thin-centered ideology is important because there is so much debate on what populism actually is. And there are many ways of approaching and defining it. They all have their merits, but we see value in drawing a distinction between those who are really populists and those who use populist strategies for other purposes.

For instance, mainstream parties can adopt populist tactics and strategies because they want to fish in the same pond as the populists. So, we feel that it is difficult to tell whether an actor is a genuine populist or whether he or she is just using populist rhetoric. If you focus on populism as a strategy or as a style—which are two different alternative definitions of populism— you risk confusing the people who imitate the populists and those who really are.

So, that is why we preferred Cas Mudde’s suggestion of populism as “thin ideology” because it makes clear, first of all, what populism is really about. Populists see the world as the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” That is the core of all populist thought. The basis of that is ultimately a notion of the sovereignty of the people, which may result in proposals that relate to what we might call “direct democracy.” In such cases, the people are given more say in politics in whatever form. That is the core of the populist ideology.

But, as we all know, it is not enough for a political party to emphasize the notion of “the people.” You need to have additional ideas about what you want to do in a society policy-wise. This is where the idea of thin ideology comes from—these parties usually borrow from other ideologies to have a more or less coherent and efficient way to link their perceptions of society with what they want to accomplish in terms of policy. They might borrow from the left; they might borrow from the right. They might borrow, as we argued elsewhere, from more regional notions or liberal notions.

So, depending on where they borrow from, a populist party or organization or movement is more or less left- or right-wing. However, the core is always the notion of the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” More importantly, populist parties can differ on actually who constitutes the “pure people” or the “corrupt elite.” Beyond this, they can differ in terms of the kind of thick ideology they borrow from to develop a comprehensive vision that presents a whole variety of potential populist positions.

You argue that research on populism has focused more on domestic politics, thus neglecting the links between populism and foreign policy. In what ways does populism influence the foreign policies of states and affect relations between states?

There are several dimensions to the question. The first concerns how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populist parties—let’s focus on parties for the moment—may have a different idea of what international politics looks like. So, if you are a left-wing populist, you often define the “pure people” in terms of class. And class is not a national concept, in principle—it is a transnational concept. Thus, they would view the “pure people” as the global working class or the global poor. And the “corrupt elite” are—in the perspective of a left-wing populist—typically international organizations or their representatives like the IMF or the World Bank. This is a different kind of perspective to the more nationalist or nativist populist party that would say the “pure people” is the native population of the country, and the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the former. This party would judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the native population. That is the first dimension in which populist parties might differ vis-à-vis what international politics is about in the first place.

The second important element is the position of power or influence of a political party or a movement. Some populists are outside the parliament. They mobilize people in the streets and put pressure on the government. Some are in the parliament but not in government, so they can have some influence. Some are an official part of the government or even dominate a government like Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary. Other parties are not formally part of the government, like the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). The PVV is a nationalist, right-wing populist political party in the Netherlands that formally supported the Dutch government between 2010 and 2012 but did not hold cabinet seats.

In contrast, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) is a right-wing political party in Denmark that has been in government for many years. Nevertheless, while outside the cabinet, the PVV still negotiated a formal agreement with the governmental parties on policy. That agreement gives them more impact on formulating policies in general and hence also on foreign policy. The second dimension is the relative power position of the political party in the system and how close it is to governing.

The third potential element is how the rest of the world views a robust populist movement or a solid populist party. What do international and transnational actors think? How do they react? This is ultimately what global politics is about. So, my colleagues and I investigated the impact of the Dutch PVV on the country’s foreign policy. One of the most interesting points was that the reputation of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened when the PVV was supporting the coalition government between 2010 and 2012. This is curious since the foreign minister was not from the PVV (because the PVV did not join the cabinet). Yet Dutch diplomats were still concerned. The soft power of the Netherlands suffered from this reputational loss. Dutch diplomats then had to rescue the Netherlands’ image somehow and protect Dutch economic interests abroad. The case shows the impact of this third dimension — how other countries or international players view a populist party’s role in the system — can affect a country’s reputation and its soft power. This is true even when the party is not strictly in the government.

Brexit May Intensify Scottish Nationalism and Separatism

Brexit suporters, brexiteers, in central London holding banners campaigning to leave the EU on January 15, 2019.

You argue the rise of populism in Europe in the early 1990s coincided with three major international transformations—the end of the Cold War, the advent of globalization, and the intensification of the European integration process. How do you relate the success of populist movements within this international context?

Well, again, in very different ways… But first, I think it is a good question because I feel like this has been one of the most neglected elements in the study of populism. At the end of the Cold War, the ideological balance of power between left-wing and right-wing in many European countries—both West European and Central and Eastern European—ended. When communism died as an ideological enemy, domestic political systems became ripe for ideological realignment. In many countries, there were specific political parties that had been in power for a long time, partly based on the idea that “Well, you have to choose us because if you don’t elect us, then the communists will come to power.” The Christian Democratic parties often played this game, but not only them. The room for electoral volatility increased a lot because people became less attached to the dominant political parties.

The most disturbing effect of Brexit is that it has bolstered, not quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

In addition, the established parties—particularly the Social Democrats—had no ideological alternative to appeal to voters. Indeed, in a way, neoliberalism captured the field ideologically and in terms of political discourse. The end of the Cold War, in this sense, created the possibility for a new politics.

Now, in different countries, that void was filled with different types of parties, and in some countries, it was populist parties that stepped into the breach. Some of them—for example, regional populist parties like the Lega Nord (a right-wing, federalist, populist, and conservative political party in Italy) or the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, originally the Vlaams Blok (a Flemish nationalist right-wing populist political party. It dissolved after a trial in 2004 condemned the party for racism and was reconstituted as the Vlaams Belang). The VB had already been engaged with European integration, not necessarily in a negative way.

As the Lega Nord did in northern Italy and VB in Flanders, they were also mobilizing masses, saying that Europe is an advantage because we can use it to promote the regional aspect central to our brand. So, the European Union’s (EU) importance was significant for some populist parties because they saw an opportunity to strengthen their regional position vis-à-vis the mainstream parties. Later that changed because of migration and the perceived adverse effects of European integration. Populist parties often took a much more negative attitude toward Brussels, but that has not always been the case. So that is how the EU comes in. But we should also interpret the role of the EU in the context of globalization.

Neoliberalism has become increasingly dominant on a global scale. European integration, just like any other regional integration scheme in the world, has served partly as a kind of protection from the effects of globalization by creating a bigger common market. And globalization has produced winners and losers. The EU, to a certain extent, protected some of the losers and maybe promoted some of the winners. The critical point is that some of the losers felt that the EU was not protecting them. Thus, the EU created its own perceived losers and winners through its integration scheme. So, in very different ways in different countries, globalization and European integration have provided grist to the mill for both left-wing and right-wing populist parties, who can cast these dynamics as threats rather than opportunities.

The fourth and final dimension is how the end of the Cold War changed matters in Eastern Europe. Populism in Eastern Europe has been driven by a failure to reckon with the role that politicians and parties played during and immediately after the collapse of communist regimes. Sometimes, like in Hungary, it relates to events that happened after the end of World War I in terms of loss of territory and prestige. That is a different type of populism, and sometimes we miss the point that it is more complicated than just anti-immigration. It taps into something much more profound. It relates as well to the end of the Cold War, which opened the possibilities for new parties and the possibility of pursuing a foreign policy that reflects less the current circumstances than the international politics of Europe in the 20th Century.

What is your take on the role of populist forces in the Brexit process?

Well, I’ve always been a little bit in doubt about whether or not to call UKIP (the UK Independence Party, a Eurosceptic, right-wing political party in the United Kingdom) a populist party. It seems more like a single-issue movement driven by a mission to correct a single historical mistake — namely, Britain’s entry into the European Community in the 1970s. At the same time, though, it is clear that the UKIP and later the Brexit Party have clear populist elements. They claim to represent the “pure people”—the citizens of Great Britain—and they perceive the presence of an apparent “corrupt elite,” the so-called Eurocrats. And they started with typical populist notions of trying to give the “pure people” a direct say in politics.

So, yes, I accept that we could call UKIP populist. But we cannot understand their success without looking into the less-than-politically-astute actions of then Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party, who deliberately took a gamble in putting this before the English public. His bet was that whatever he had negotiated with the EU to improve Britain’s position in the EU would see the British people back him unreservedly so that the internal critics within his Conservative Party would be silenced. Instead, he harvested a rejection of the very idea of Britain’s membership.

Even seeing UKIP as a populist party, we cannot understand its success without that strategic error or miscalculation of the Conservative Party and its leader. But, in the end, Brexit is still not over. The negotiations are over, but its implementation is still ongoing, as is often the case with international agreements. I find the most curious effect of Brexit—which drew most of its support in England outside of London and the southeast—is that it seems to have boosted, rather than quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

A right-wing populist party considers diplomats to be representatives of the national elite, wasting resources on cocktail parties and global jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, populists seek to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Do you think there is a populist foreign policy? How shall we understand the foreign policy outlook of different populist parties based on the demarcation–integration cleavage?

Well, what my colleague Andrej Zaslove and I tried to do was first to establish how the various populist parties define “pure people” versus the “corrupt elites.” Next, if we know what type of thick ideology they draw on to complete their political program, we felt it should be possible to make some tentative predictions about what different populist parties might put forward in foreign policy.

If you are a real left-wing populist party that has a global outlook in which class contradictions are central, then you would favor foreign policies that are distributive on a global scale and that are somehow directed at opening up and gaining more influence over international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO. You would link up with transnational movements that seek to open up such international institutions, make them more pluralistic and inclusive. So, that is what we would expect from a left-wing populist party.

Meanwhile, we would expect a more right-wing populist party to see the “pure people” as a kind of national element, maybe even a nativist one. Arguably, representatives of the national elite in foreign policy would be the diplomats who are—from their perspective—mainly engaged in cocktail parties and jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, we would expect populists to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Moreover, we would expect populists to protect the “pure people” through their foreign policies by spending less on development assistance and transfers in the EU. Because they are likely to be particularly critical about migration, we would expect them to toughen up migration policies or engage in anti-migration policies in general. So, in that sense, we believe that we can formulate expectations about those foreign policies, but again—as I indicated before—whether they materialize much depends on the relative strength of such parties or individuals in their respective political systems.

All politics, in the end, is about compromising unless you enjoy an absolute majority like Fidesz in Hungary. The latter may be the best case to observe populist foreign policy. Hungary under Viktor Orbán clearly displays populist foreign policies—keeping out migrants, not complying with EU external policy (such as vis-à-vis Russia), or ignoring attempts to create European solidarity regarding Covid-19 vaccinations. All in all, they pursue a much more unilateral foreign policy. So, I guess that comes, reasonably, close to a populist foreign policy.

How do you make a distinction between the often-conflated concepts of populism and nationalism? How does a populist foreign policy differ from a nationalist foreign policy?

Well, we attempted to tackle this conceptual problem at some point. We are not sure whether we succeeded at that. The problem is the notion of nationalism. That is a complicated concept in the first place. One idea of nationalism suggests a common identity related to a shared past, present, and future. This identity is usually connected to a particular territory. The nation embracing the identity usually asks for and might be prepared to strive for some degree of autonomy or even full-blown independence.

Sometimes nationalism and populism may overlap. In foreign policy, nationalism is usually linked to promoting the nation’s interests abroad or protecting it from foreign interests (say, by subsidizing exports rather than opening up to the free market or by trying to conduct one’s own monetary policies despite fiscal and economic globalization). There are other things we can think of that might constitute some kind of nationalist foreign policy. If that is done by a country representing one nation, forming one sovereign state, then this notion of nationalism is unrelated to populism. This will also be the case if the sovereign state pursuing a nationalist foreign policy represents several nations within the state that somehow have built an inclusive set of institutions.

The populist element will only come if the nation is not considered an inclusive entity —namely, a situation in which some groups would not be considered part of the “pure people” that the sovereign state is supposed to represent in its foreign policies. In that sense, populist nationalism is much more internally divisive, rather than uniting the entire country behind the idea of the nation.

How do you explain the influence of populist foreign policies on multilateralism and global governance?

In the first lesson, a teacher of international relations would tell you that you should not just focus exclusively on the domestic side because any country with similar national interests would act similarly. For instance, Italy is a country that has very few natural resources. It depends on gas and oil from so many countries. For this reason, Italy often pursues unilateral foreign policies, sometimes deviating from the EU line. So, Italy strikes its own deals—like energy deals with Russia, Iran, and Libya—in the national interest, not because it is a populist thing to do.

It is a thing that may be any government would do given the dependency of this country on energy sources. Therefore, we need to be careful in that sense to explain everything based on party politics. After all, party politics is just one aspect of a more extensive system.

Trumpism Is a Product of a Divided Society

A Tea Party rally at the Federal Building, Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2009. Photo: Joseph Sohm

The Trump administration pursued a populist foreign policy dubbed “America First,” as the president put it. Donald Trump’s unilateralist foreign policy constrained multilateralism in the WTO (among other intergovernmental organizations) and created the impression that a wave of neo-mercantilism against free trade was in the offing. What do you think about the implications of the mercantilist tendencies of populist parties or leaders in power? And do you believe populist parties may trigger a process in which global trade becomes fragmented along neo-mercantilist lines in the near future?

I am going to take a very long road to answer this question. I may, at first, underestimate the importance of Trump’s personal style and his individual actions also in foreign policy. Having said that, though, I still feel that the success of Trump, being elected in 2016, can only be because a minority, but still, a sizable group of Americans voted for him. In that sense, Trumpism is also the product of a society that it is divided, of a society where at least some people have a clear notion of what we may call populism. I mean, Trump’s success heavily depended also on the organizational strength of the populist Tea Party for a long time.

The Tea Party was populist, I would say, in at least one important way. One wing of the Tea Party represented the traditional fear of an overweening federal government. So, it is about limiting the federal government based on the “pure people.” The “pure people,” of course, are the gun owners who consider bearing arms a legitimate way to protect themselves from government overreach.

Moreover, there is a potent populist sentiment that is traditionally very well organized within the Republican Party. On the one hand, I think that this thin ideology is pretty much unique for the United States. Of course, there are populist elements of style, some of them copycat behaviors, particularly the way Trump engaged in political debate in the first place—namely, the divisiveness that is part of his style. But I find the fundamental idea of the “pure people” very peculiar to the United States. I don’t think that is easily exportable to other countries, even though we may see everywhere little Trumps but not backed up in the same way or so forcefully by that type of populist organization.

The Conflict Over Global Trade Is Likely to Continue

The second element is that the United States is in relative decline. China is growing faster. India is growing faster. Foreign producers outcompete many American economic sectors. In that sense, no matter whether we have a Democratic or a Republican president, they will never be able to ensure global free trade on solely American terms. However, as we have often claimed, there will always be protectionist elements, neo-mercantilist elements in American foreign policy, if only to secure certain vital voters every two years in the midterms and their presidential elections. This mechanism will not readily disappear.

Trump has made a difference as Joe Biden will make a difference. But they have different styles. They have different interest groups to protect or to cater to. Within those boundaries, I think there will be a little bit less neo-mercantilism because Biden is slightly more open. He is engaging with the world, and he wants the United States to play a significant role. He wants the damaged reputation of the United States to improve. But I don’t expect him to be a complete free trader. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party of protectionism more than the Republicans.

It will mean that the United States will still play a very active protectionist role in international trade. We should not forget that the American reluctance to engage in multilateral agreements has been there maybe even since Clinton, but certainly since Bush and Obama. So, the United States has always had a kind of preferred strategy to strike bilateral deals with states before engaging in multilateral deals on the same subject because the bilateral approach strengthens their hand. First, having concluded the bilateral agreement, then going to the WTO for multilateral agreement— helps ensure the multilateral deal is closer to US interests.

That would, in general, of course, be an improvement in terms of more free trade. That is true, too. But that approach to global trade has been there under four presidents already, which will only continue, given the rise of China and India. After all, China and India —and Brazil for that matter— want to have more say in global trade and global finance, and the United States is getting weaker economically.

Gradually, but slowly, we will have to compromise if these countries want to stay in the same institutional framework. We know that if China is unhappy with the prevailing international arrangements, it is prepared to start its own international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And Washington will probably find out that if they don’t compromise, or at least open up in a way to China’s interests, then China will work its way around the United States. So, briefly speaking, I don’t expect the United States to suddenly return to being the hegemon that it may have been in the past and magnanimous toward the rest of the world. In that sense, conflicts over global trade and global finance are likely to continue.

Professor Bertjan Verbeek

Who Is Bertjan Verbeek?

Bertjan Verbeek is a professor of international relations at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is an expert in the influence of populism on foreign policy, the role of international organizations during crises, and the learning ability of governments during and after crises. He is currently undertaking an international comparative study on crisis decision-making in foreign policy. He argues that, despite the populist radical right’s popularity among political scientists, little scholarship has focused on its influence on foreign policy. For Verbeek, this lack of study is due, in part, to a general lack of attention to the role of political parties in foreign policy, both in comparative politics and international relations.

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