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date: 25 June 2017

Populism in Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The topic of populism in foreign policy is receiving growing attention from scholars as populist parties and movements proliferate around the world. Yet FPA scholars interested in the role of populism in foreign policy have to deal with a concept that is notoriously slippery and contested. Designing and conducting comparative work on populism in foreign policy requires attention and conceptual clarity as to what exactly populism is.

The existing literature on populism and foreign policy has already offered interesting insights. Focused primarily on Europe, it applies the conceptualization of populism as a thin-centered ideology that attaches to thicker ideological traditions and reformulates them in terms of the elite-people divide. Populist parties of the right have foreign policy positions that reflect their nativism, opposition to immigration, focus on national sovereignty, and rejection of economic and cultural globalization. Populist parties of the left reject neoliberalism and open markets in their foreign policy positions. Together, European populist parties of all persuasions are Eurosceptic, anti-American, and pro-Russian.

Useful as these works are, the view of populism as a thin-centered ideology presents some problems: while it offers a handy framework for comparative research, it relegates populism as a source of specific policy ideas since these are presumably provided by the ideological traditions populist parties carry. This makes it unclear why one should study populism in foreign policy and not these thick ideologies that inform populist parties in the first place.

Apart from this comparative framework, scholars of populism and foreign policy can use a breadth of structural and discursive approaches, particularly since these approaches have been applied successfully to cases outside of Europe, where populists have long held political power and have influenced foreign policy in practice. One such conceptualization could be to view populism as a reaction to crises of political representation engendered by dislocations caused by globalization. These dislocations will take different forms, but populism in the West and populism in the Global South, despite more specific differences of outlook, can be seen at the very least as similar types of reaction to a conflation of political and economic crises in a rapidly denationalized and deterritorialized world.

Viewed this way, populism may be associated with a specific set of inclinations in foreign policy. Specific foreign policy positions will differ depending on the populist parties’ ideological profile. But we should expect populist foreign policies at the very least to reflect a preoccupation with popular sovereignty and unmediated projection of popular demands outside of established processes of global governance. Operating from within the economic and institutional core of globalization, populist parties in the West should particularly promote exclusivist national interest-centered foreign policies. In seeking not so much to withdraw from but to reshape the outlook of globalization, one should expect populist parties and leaders in the Global South to promote foreign policies that seek to infuse global governance with the demands of the unrepresented “people.” Thinking of the more parochial foreign policy positions of Donald Trump or the European populist right and left on the one hand, and the foreign policy posturing of leaders such as the late Hugo Chavez, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Recep Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin on the other, showcases the usefulness of this conceptualization of populism in foreign policy.