Research Program on Foreign Policy

For populists, legitimate power belongs to “the people,” and foreign policy should reflect the will of these “people” rather than “the corrupt” elites—including career diplomats. Nevertheless, making foreign policy is a specialized endeavour, and alongside elected representatives or appointees, it is by and large within the purview of an institutionalized bureaucracy. Populist parties or leaders, for the sake of domestic political gains, usually propagate a sense of crisis and brandish external threats to undermine the organizational capacity of the foreign policy establishment. In the age of data-driven political campaigns, populist officeholders use government-led media infrastructure and easily influence public opinion on foreign policy issues. Populist parties or leaders in power usually play on the ignorance-fed fears of the people, shape the public debate in the desired direction, and accordingly take a stance with respect to a particular foreign policy matter. 

The findings of the existing literature demonstrate that populism leads to the centralization and personalization of the foreign policy making process. The personalization of foreign policy happens because of the “heroic individualism’ of the populist leader in power—and usually serves their short-term personal interests. Personalized populist foreign policy may establish the ruler as the sole decisionmaker and turn international diplomacy into an inter-personal affair at the bilateral level. In fact, the foreign policies of populist governments often lean towards strict bilateralism in foreign engagements. However, the influence of populism on multilateralism highly depends on national and regional circumstances. For example, though radical right populist parties in the West tend to adopt nationalism, isolationism, or protectionism as opposed to multilateralism, populists are not necessarily against intergovernmental organizations.

The findings of the existing literature indicate that the populist surge is also becoming part and parcel of the ongoing systemic shift towards a multipolar global order. Populist political parties and leaders across the globe pursue a loudly nationalist vision to mobilize their supporters and seek to assert national sovereignty, often against Western-dominated, intergovernmental institutions. For instance, Trump’s foreign policy ostensibly eroded the US commitment to the rules-based liberal international order, and there has been a similar trend among populist actors both in Europe and the non-Western world. The phenomenal rise of China as an alternative model to liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and the resurgence of Russia’s anti-Western activism—especially in Europe—appear to be the two major factors emboldening minor populist actors. However, there are also cases, such as Bolsonaro’s pro-US stance, running counter to this overall trend, as well as the direct causation between populist foreign policy and an anti-Western stance.

The consequences of populism for foreign policy depends on the ideology of the populist party or the leader in power, as well as the domestic and regional dynamics at play. In Western liberal democracies, as centrist political parties lose ground, populist actors appeal to the “losers” of globalization, promoting isolationism, protectionism, and anti-immigrant measures. For various states in the developing world, populist parties are often driven by the desire to restore national sovereignty against the intrusive practices of international organizations. For rising or declining global powers, populism is part of (re)gaining or maintaining the great-power status. In the case of states in conflict, populist discourses can spill over into foreign policy in the form of ethnic or religious nationalism and scaremongering about perceived or real threats. All in all, the relationship between populism and foreign policy still remains largely under research and requires extensive empirical study and data collection.

The Aim and Scope of the Program

The aim of the Foreign Policy Program is to research the impact of populist parties, movements, and leaders on the foreign policy making process, foreign policy outcomes, and, by extension, global political dynamics. The Foreign Policy Program seeks to conduct both interpretive single-case studies and hypothesis-generating comparative studies in an attempt to explain the relationship between populism and foreign policy. In this scope, the Program expects to contribute to the growing scholarly research on the external dimension of populism.

For the purpose of understanding and explaining the external dimension of populism, the Foreign Policy Program focuses on the ways in which national populism spills over into the foreign policy arena. The Program surveys not just the influence of populist parties, movements, and leaders but also the roles that populist ideas, discourses, and narratives play in determining foreign policy agendas and objectives and, thus, how they shape new regional and global dynamics. The Program conducts research into how populism impacts national interests and respective policy objectives, as well as how they are defined; how international partnerships and alliances are promoted; and how territorial claims, conflicts, and threats are (re)framed. In this respect, the Program developed a research focus along the lines of the following main questions:

  • How does the populist reassertion of national sovereignty define national interests in foreign policy?
  • How do the populist leader’s self-interests shape foreign policy priorities?
  • What are the implications of populist foreign policies for international law?
  • What are the influences of populist foreign policies on multilateralism and global governance?
  • How do populist foreign policies reshape international alliance-building? How do we explain the solidarity among populist movements and leaders around the world?
  • How do populism and security narratives intertwine?
  • How do populist foreign policies impact international and transnational conflicts and peace processes?