Can a Populist be the Leader of the Free World?

Populism and the liberal international order don’t mix well: The more populism there is, the less liberal the international order appears to become. Moreover, judging by the year-long presidency of Donald Trump, the liberal international order seems to be in particular danger if the most powerful state in the system catches the populist bug. Why is this so? Are populism and the liberal world order fundamentally incompatible? Can a populist be a leader of the free world?

Let’s briefly go back in time. In the early 1940s, the U.S. Office of War Information commissioned Frank Capra, a movie director, to make a series of war propaganda films. Capra found a perfect good-versus-evil dichotomy: a clash between the “free world” of the Allied powers and the “slave world” of the Axis powers. The dichotomy, however, did not disappear with the end of the Second World War. Instead, it found its way into mainstream U.S. politics where it continued to inform the relationship between the U.S. and its friends and foes for the next seven decades. The only thing that changed over time was the actor embodying the “slave world”: The Soviet Union succeeded the Axis powers, and rogue states and terrorism succeeded the Soviet Union.

In many ways, this dichotomy has made possible the creation and maintenance of the liberal world order. U.S. presidents who invoked it essentially agreed to perpetuate a particular link between U.S. national identity and its foreign policy. As long as they could point to a “slave world” out there, they could argue in favor of the superiority of American freedoms and values and gain legitimacy for projecting these ideas abroad. Given the relative size of the U.S. power, they could also quite comfortably put themselves forward as the leaders of the free world. This mix of identity, purpose, and leadership has enabled U.S. presidents to be instrumental in establishing an international system based on rules, norms, and institutions, a system whose ultimate purpose has been to embody the very idea of the “free world.”

This system has been criticized left and right. It has been depicted as either draining U.S. resources for the benefit of other nations or as a hypocritical arrangement that enables the U.S. to freely pursue its interests on the pretext of providing common good. Yet, despite criticism, no U.S. president has turned his back on the project of the liberal world order. Until Trump, that is.

Trump, a master populist, is the first post-war U.S. president who has dared to drop the dichotomy of the “free” and the “slave” world. And that’s only half of the story. Despite rejecting this dichotomy, he has not rejected the idea that there is a radical Other against who the U.S. can gauge its national identity and chart the course of its foreign policy. The trouble is that he cast the very liberal international order for that role. With this radical move, Trump has in effect transformed the U.S. from the leader of the free world into one of its main victims.

Both Trump’s words and his actions point in this direction. In his recent national security speech, he described U.S. trade deals as “failures of the past” that had brought nothing but “trading abuse” to the American people. The U.S. economy, he concluded, required “liberating,” and he pledged to do just that by either renegotiating these deals or pulling out of them. In a similar vein, when discussing U.S. alliances, he put emphasis on the unfair financial burden these arrangements create for U.S. taxpayers rather than on common values underpinning them. Representing the international liberal order in precarious terms has also been central to Trump’s treatment of Muslims and Latin Americans as he has mostly dealt with these ethnic groups through attempts to tighten control over U.S. borders – the borders allegedly made dangerously porous by liberal trends towards free movement of people.

How does populism figure into this story? A straightforward answer is that it is not Trump’s populism that is harming the liberal international order but his radical reinterpretation of the U.S.’s Other. His choice to blame the Washington elites for the ills of the American people, a quintessential populist move, did not have to include the “othering” of the liberal international order. It is a connection Trump has chosen to make. After all, he is not the first president to pit ordinary Americans against political elites. Ronald Regan’s conservativism also rested on strong anti-elitism, yet he never brought the liberal international order into the mix the way Trump has.

Bernie Sanders is even a better example of why populism and the liberal international order are not inherently at odds with each other. Sanders’ populism is leftist. His targets are primarily corporate and business elites. Coming from this ideological position, he arguably has more reasons than Trump to portray the liberal international order as an unfair arrangement. Yet, he has chosen not to do so and has quite comfortably accepted the traditional “free world” versus “slave world” dichotomy with the U.S. leading the former. Take, for example, this excerpt from his foreign policy speech: “Foreign policy is about whether we continue to champion the values of freedom, democracy and justice, values which have been a beacon of hope for people throughout the world … As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we have got to help lead the struggle to defend and expand a rule-based international order in which law, not might, make right.”

To sum up, populism and the liberal world order are not fundamentally incompatible. If he so wishes, Trump can be both a populist and the leader of the free world. He has, however, chosen not to go down that road.

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