The coronavirus forced an unprecedented emergency brake on liberal democracies in recent weeks. Governments enacted sweeping social distancing measures to buy time in learning to control the virus and prevent health systems from collapsing. This new normal under an external threat appears to have changed politics. Governments rally support everywhere, even where populists govern badly. In contrast, even populist opposition actors lose support and acquiesce to the national emergency, as citizen priorities have shifted starkly. Does the Corona crisis thus mark an abrupt ending to the oft-lamented divisive politics of recent decades? Does it rein in a phase of historical unity or even herald the beginning of the end of populism?
In contrast, the emerging political economy of social distancing suggests otherwise. The standard ingredients for populist political conflict are already visible. Existing challenges to material inequalities and privileged social status within constrained democracies which feed populists are likely to exacerbate over social distancing, particularly at the international level. The momentary lull of national unity is thus more likely to give way to the forceful return of familiar distributive and constitutional conflicts of the last decades, but at even higher stakes.
The ancient Greeks and Plato had this idea of the philosopher kings. In their kingdom, the people enjoyed all freedoms and were governed by wise, benevolent rulers—and by them alone. In practice, this never happened because every supposedly benevolent ruler eventually came to a point where he saw his power under threat. If he is unwilling to share power, he cannot allow demonstrations, the founding of parties, or critical opinions. He needs to curtail the freedom of his citizens.
Today, autocratic tendencies are intensifying worldwide, with China under president Xi Jinping often being seen as a vanguard. The economic success of the People’s Republic has made autocracy a real option for some states. Even in the EU, where membership criteria prescribe a stable democracy, undemocratic values are experiencing a revival in states like Poland and Hungary, as well as in the thought of right-wing populist parties.
Paradoxically, in order to sustain their power, autocrats will resort to means usually associated with liberty and democracy. Take elections as an example. Virtually every autocratic state holds elections to uphold the pretense of participation, transforming people and opposition into accomplices. Whoever doesn’t play along becomes a target. A second example is internet access. In China, for instance, almost everything is being handled online. This renders life more convenient, but the state is eavesdropping, censoring, and intervening when it gets critical. Moreover, cooperation among autocracies has tightened. They join forces and help one another cope with sanctions.
The rise of autocracy has surprised many. After the fall of the Soviet Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”. He thought that sooner or later, every state on the globe will eventually democratize and people will live freely and in peace. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a premature assumption. It gives us a headache to think about the many people who still do not possess the right to speak and act freely. Our wish is to overcome the remaining autocracies one day. And to overcome them, we need to understand them.
Note: This text was originally published in the latest issue of Leibniz magazine. Read it in German here.
To understand Italian politics today, look no further than Cappuccino. Originally a Viennese invention based on the exotic beans of the coffee plant, Italians adapted the beverage by adding hot milk and a layer of milk foam to a double espresso base. Made in Italy, it spread across the globe. Just like in the case of cappuccino, Italy has just put another layer on its adoption of another foreign invention – the country is about to offer a new blend of modern Western populism.
The new Italian governing coalition mixes right-wing extremist and left-wing elements in a way unimaginable for a traditional party. Some worry that the coalition amounts to Italy opening the door to ‘the modern Barbarians’: The ‘odd couple’ is considered an unprecedented formation of ‘magical thinking’, whose implications for Italy, Europe, and the larger international order are expected to be dramatic. In this post, I explain how the ideological nucleus of populism serves as the common foundation of the coalition. Besides fighting economic stagnation and pushing back on immigration, the plans to overhaul a morally corrupt establishment in Italy and Europe form a key part of the new coalition’s programme and appeal.
Are we witnessing the end of the Liberal Order as we know it? Two important new books on this pressing question were presented and discussed at a recent WZB event. You can watch the full video recording below.
Populist parties challenge democracy, European integration, and international order. At the same time, authoritarian states openly challenge liberal values. Counter-revolutions and counter-institutionalizations abound. Many people wonder how the liberal world could get into such a crisis. Is Europe disintegrating? How can the resistance to the global governance be explained? Is there a way to overcome the multiple crises?
A specter is haunting the liberal political order—the specter of authoritarian populism. Antiliberal and antipluralist, authoritarian populist ideology questions individual and, especially, minority rights. It questions the rights of “others” to limit the “rights” of the majority culture. Part of this antiliberalism is founded on unconditional support for national sovereignty and the rejection of any political authority beyond national borders, in spite of externalities and interdependencies. Authoritarian populism is also “antipluralist” in the sense that it usually contains a deproceduralized and thus homogeneous notion of the majority. These sentiments are often linked to the “silent majority,” those who—according to Richard Nixon—do not express their opinions, but represent the will of the people. Authoritarian populism asserts that this collective will is known without public debate or other procedures to generate it. Authoritarian populists pit this supposed homogeneous will of the people against immoral, corrupt, and parasitic elites.
The EU is currently marked by democracy problems at both the community and the member state levels. In the past decades, European decision-making authority has grown exponentially in breadth and depth without providing for appropriate mechanisms of democratic (input) legitimation. This is referred to as the EU’s democratic deficit. On the other hand, there has been a widespread surge of nationalist populism in the member states that has an authoritarian inclination. In some cases, such as Hungary and Poland, they have started to effectively undermine the domestic institutions of liberal democracy. I argue that these two developments are causally linked and mutually reinforcing, fueling a vicious cycle of increasingly authoritarian rule at the national as well as the supranational level.
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?
Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire Destruction (1836)
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (‘The Liberal Order is Rigged’), Jeff Colgan and Robert Keohane have highlighted some shortcomings of the liberal international order. They point out that not everybody has been a winner from economic globalization, and they are worried about the emergence of ‘populism’ and the threat that this may pose to institutions such as the United Nations, European Union, World Trade Organization, and NATO.
Episodes of introspection and self-doubt amongst many scholars and policy makers have been common since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. What is interesting about this one in particular is that it comes from one of the foremost scholars in the field of International Relations, who is in large part the originator of the liberal institutionalist approach to international politics.
In der ersten Folge unserer neuen Interviewreihe spricht Lynda Iroulo mit dem Direktor der Abteilung Global Governance am WZB und Professor für Internationale Beziehungen an der Freien Universität Berlin – Michael Zürn. Dabei geht es um unseren neuen Blog, Populismus und internationale Beziehungen – und wir finden heraus mit welchem politischen Theoretiker Michael gerne Abendessen gehen würde.
Eine gekürzte und ins Deutsche übersetzte Version des Interviews finden Sie weiter unten oder Sie hören sich das gesamte Interview (auf Englisch) hier an:
Iroulo: Können Sie kurz die Abteilung Global Governance und den Blog vorstellen?
Zürn: Die Forscher*innen unserer Abteilung arbeiten hauptsächlich zu internationalen Institutionen. Wie funktionieren diese? Welchen Einfluss haben sie auf die Weltpolitik und wie kooperieren diese Institutionen im System, das wir Global Governance nennen? Aber auch die Theorien internationaler Politik interessieren uns. Wir sind eine lebendige und bunte Gruppe aus rund 25 Mitarbeiter*innen – Doktorand*innen, Postdocs, Forschungsassistent*innen und mir.
In the first episode of our new interview series, host Lynda Iroulo is interviewing Michael Zürn, Director of the Global Governance Research Unit at the WZB and Professor of International Relations at the Free University in Berlin. Topics include the new blog, populism and international relations – and finding out with which early political theorist Michael would like to dine.
Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:
Iroulo: Could you briefly introduce the Global Governance Unit and the Blog?
Zürn: The Global Governance Unit at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre consists of a group of scholars who work essentially on issues related to international institutions – such as how they work, what effect they have on world politics, and how they collaborate in a global governance system – as well as on the institutional theory of international politics. We are a lively and diverse group of approximately twenty-five people, consisting of doctoral students, postdocs, research assistants, and myself.