Populism and World Politics

Exploring Inter- and Transnational Dimensions


This volume is the first to analyze populism’s international dimension: its impact on, and interaction with, foreign policy and international politics. The contributions to this volume engage conceptual theoretical issues and overarching questions such as the still under-specified concept of populism or the importance of leadership and the mass media for populism’s global rise. They zoom in on populism’s effect on both different countries’ foreign policies and core international concerns, including the future of the liberal world order and the chances for international conflict and cooperation more generally.

  • First book-length treatment of populism from an International Relations (IR) perspective
  • Discusses what populism means for world politics (including foreign policy, global governance, international conflict and cooperation, security communities, regional and world order, etc.)
  • Addresses the question, how does the “global rise of populism” (Moffitt) manifest itself in foreign policy and international politics?


Frank A. Stengel, David B. MacDonald, and Dirk Nabers
Introduction: Analyzing the Nexus Between Populism and International Relations

Although populism research has become somewhat of a cottage industry in recent years, the phenomenon’s international or global aspects remain yet to be explored. While populism researchers have mainly focused on theoretical and methodological issues, or studied individual cases (whether in single case studies or in a comparative fashion), International Relations scholars have, aside from not even a handful of studies, until recently ignored the phenomenon. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the US presidency, the need for research on the nexus between populism and world politics has become blatantly obvious. This introduction (1) explores the disconnect between populism research and IR, (2) makes the case for an increased engagement between the two, highlighting populism’s potential impact on foreign policy, international cooperation and conflict, regional and world order (s) as well as international effects on populist successes (“second image reversed”), (3) provides an overview of the chapters of the volume and situates their individual contributions within the larger framework of the populism-world politics nexus.


Jan Zeemann
Populism Beyond the Nation

Populism is commonly intertwined with nationalism. This chapter asks the question if the idea of the nation is a mandatory part of populist articulations. After discussing how contemporary academic approaches presume the national character of populism, the chapter continues with a plea for Ernesto Laclau’s emancipatory concept of populism, in which unanswered demands become popular demands and spawn collective identities. Leaving content behind and concentrating on form enables us to think populism beyond the nation-state: the entity of the people is not necessarily a nation’s people. Thinking populism without the nation brings new problems and possibilities to light. A global populist movement might be part of the solution to contemporary challenges like climate change or economic crises. Possible pitfalls during the construction of global chains of equivalence involve language barriers, the question of a charismatic leader and the dilemma of pluralism versus hegemony.

María Esperanza Casullo
How to Become a Leader: Identifying Global Repertoires for Populist Leadership

Ernesto Laclau’s description in his book On Populist Reason of the creation of popular identities centered around a leader posits that the formation of a people is an impersonal social process. In clear opposition to other theories of populism (such as, for instance, Kurt Weyland’s) that define it as a strategy for accumulating personal power that can be deployed at will by ambitious politicians, for Laclau the populist leader can only become the empty signifier that unifies the chain of equivalences by virtue of a collective coalescence that is largely beyond her control. But Laclau does not explain the transition from individual to leader in detail. Is it ruled purely by chance? It cannot be completely contingent, even if it is not voluntary. This chapter argues that a certain number of socially available discursive scripts exist that mediate between the social and the individual levels. A fair number of populist leaders present themselves as either patriotic military man, social movement leader, or selfless bussinessman. The paper will analyze the global diffusion of these scripts and their differential impact for the possibility of a popular project.

Precious N. Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley
Populism and Contemporary Global Media: Populist Communication Logics and the Co-construction of Transnational Identities

The study of populism has often focused on specific leaders or movements within nation-states. Such accounts approach the media as a dissemination tool of these ‘populist actors’, rather than as a producer of populism in itself. However, the ongoing development of new media technologies makes such an approach untenable. With populism understood as a particular set of communication logics in which core appeals are articulated, the contemporary global media environment has fundamentally altered the processes by which such appeals evolve, including the range of voices that contribute to that evolution. Where empirically-observable populism was once predominantly a national phenomenon, this is decreasingly the case. On- and offline transnational collaboration is becoming increasingly common, together with the emergence of genuinely international movements. This chapter updates discussions of populism and the media, by offering an empirically-grounded discussion of how new media technologies facilitate transnational co-production and dissemination of populist appeals amongst both core and peripheral audiences. Our discussions of legacy media developments, online grassroots campaigning and state-funded international broadcasting show how media actors themselves (including particular platforms) contribute to the production of populist messages and identities, especially because new media logics closely correspond to the needs of populist communication.

Dirk Nabers and Frank A. Stengel
Sedimented Practices and American Identity in Donald J. Trump’s Election Campaign

This chapter makes the case for increased attention to the discourse theoretical notion of sedimented practices in populism research and International Relations (IR). Sedimented practices circumscribe the domain of credibility and intelligibility of a society’s socio-economic setting. In contrast to previous studies in both populism research and IR that stress populists’ radical break with traditional policy, a focus on sedimented practices shifts our attention to the need for any successful project to resonate with established discursive patterns to gain credibility. We illustrate the theoretical argument drawing on an example that, at least at first glance, seems to be a prime example for populists’ proneness to break with tradition—Donald J Trump’s campaign statements on foreign policy. We argue that the notion of sedimented practices helps tease out how even Trump’s foreign policy vision draws on deeply established traditions of US foreign policy for legitimacy.


Brian Budd
The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian: An Analysis of Kellie Leitch’s Failed 2016–2017 Conservative Party of Canada Leadership Campaign

A new wave of populist leaders, parties, and movements have emerged across establish Western democracies. These leaders have received considerable support while challenging the socio-political status quo at both national and global levels of governance. While largely a spectator to the rise of some of the more notable populist leaders, Canada has not been immune to the current global populist zeitgeist. Notably, the campaign of 2017 Conservative Leadership candidate Kellie Leitch relied heavily on a populist discourse and policy agenda. Leitch’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, as her rhetoric and policies were widely condemned among members of her own party and the Canadian public. My paper examines why Leitch’s populist campaign failed to resonate with and appeal to Conservatives. Using Moffitt’s (The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2016) theoretical framework that conceptualizes populism as a distinct political style that is performed, embodied, and enacted across different political and cultural contexts, I argue that the failure of Leitch’s campaign is due largely to her inability to convincingly perform core tenets of a populist style of politics in a manner that resonated within the social and cultural milieu of Canada. More generally, Leitch’s campaign demonstrates the difficulties facing female leaders intending to practice populism due to the inherent masculinity of the populist style.

Grant Alan Burrier
Populists and Foreign Policy: Evidence from Latin America

Populists enact dramatic change, does this penchant extend to foreign policy? While the literature assumes increasing nationalism and protectionism, few studies directly test whether populists produce tangibly different foreign policies. I analyze defense and trade policy to ascertain the substantive consequences of populist presidencies, using an innovative longitudinal cohort study (LCS) from contemporary Latin America. After discussing three populist waves (classical, neo-populist, and Bolivarian), I compare neo- and Bolivarian populists with their non-populist counterparts. The quasi-experimental research design includes six cases that are broadly representative of Latin America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, splitting countries into cohorts of similar economic and social development. Among cohorts, there is a control group and a treatment group, permitting comparison among non-populists and populists. While I find little evidence of divergent military policies, populists occupy economic extremes of the policy spectrum, particularly when compared with non-populists. Policy variation among populists reflects the structural position of their country in the international economic system. In more developed countries, populists from both the left- and right-wing are more likely to reduce trade openness and erect tariffs. In less developed, smaller countries, the opposite occurs as populists embrace international trade and lower tariffs.

Daniel F. Wajner
Making (Latin) America Great Again: Lessons from Populist Foreign Policies in the Americas

Contemporary politics is increasingly entering an era of global populism. Within this challenging context, the lessons from past experience on populism, in which Latin America and “Latin-Americanists” have particular prominence, can contribute to provide a satisfactory response to many pressing questions concerning the foreign policies of today’s populist regimes. This chapter explores possible patterns in the formulation of foreign policies among Latin-American populist regimes during the periods known as “classic populism” (1930sִ–1950s), “neoliberal neopopulism” (1980s–1990s), and “progressive neopopulism” (2000s–). The Latin American experience serves as a multi-dimensional case study for analyzing a range of populist eras in the same region and comparing, with significant variance in time and space, how populist regimes conducted their policies on the regional, sub-regional, interregional, and global levels. The findings of such a comparative study indicate that it is difficult to define a coherent “populist foreign policy” in Latin America in terms of ideological or programmatic content. Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish a greater tendency among Latin-American populists to support regionalist and globalist policies by empowering identity-based solidarities, and thus legitimizing themselves locally, regionally and internationally. This chapter aims to contribute to a growing research program focusing on populist foreign policies.

David B. MacDonald
Between Populism and Pluralism: Winston Peters and the International Relations of New Zealand First

Aotearoa New Zealand is a small but wealthy country, geographically located in the South Pacific, yet strongly interlinked economically, culturally, and militarily to other western settler states as well as to Western Europe. NZ is known for punching above its weight in international relations, and for being a committed liberal internationalist player and promoter of a rules-based global order. NZ may therefore seem an unlikely host for an electorally successful populist party, which is known for its disdain of political correctness and identity politics, its anti-elitism and its dog whistle politics against Asians, Muslims, and some aspects of biculturalism between settlers and Indigenous Maori. Yet New Zealand First (NZF) has played an important role in the electoral system since its formation in 1993, routinely taking a key role in coalition governments. In this chapter, I use the example of NZF to problematize the relationship between populism and democracy as it is often articulated in the recent populism literature. Jan-Werner Müller in particular has argued that populism is by its very nature opposed to pluralism. Yet, electorally successful populist parties can demonstrate their longevity by embodying elements of both populism and pluralism, depending on whether they are in government or not, and whether or not they are in the midst of an election campaign.

Thorsten Wojczewski
Conceptualizing the Links Between Populism, Nationalism and Foreign Policy: How Modi Constructed a Nationalist, Anti-establishment Electoral Coalition in India

Drawing on a poststructuralist, discourse theoretical framework, the chapter analyzes how the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi have used foreign policy as a site for the construction and maintenance of a populist electoral coalition. The chapter understands populism, nationalism and foreign policy as discourses that construct collective identities by drawing and institutionalizing distinct political boundaries between Self and Other. Identifying these distinct political logics, the chapter argues that Modi’s BJP has shaped a populist-nationalist discourse that asserts to represent the ‘true’ people that must be protected from a corrupt establishment that is accused of siding with and appeasing the foreign Other. In this context, the chapter also illuminates the ideological dimension of populism and explains why subjects desire to identify with such discourses. In contrast to common understandings of ideology as ‘distortion of reality’, it argues that the ideological dimension of populism lies in masking over the discursive character of what we view as social reality and the resulting impossibility of a fully constituted subject such as ‘the people’.

Robert G. Patman
The Liberal International Order and Its Populist Adversaries in Russia , UK and USA

This chapter explores the proliferation of populist threats to the liberal international order during the last decade. It includes consideration of an external challenge from the Putin regime in Moscow; internal challenges following the Brexit victory in the UK referendum on EU membership and the advent of the ‘America First’ strategy after the election of Donald Trump to the White House; and the apparent convergence of these internal and external threats. Such challenges indicate that the current populist wave is symptomatic of deeper structural shifts in the evolution of the liberal order since the 1980s and unless the underlying causes—the downsides of globalization—are directly addressed the populist change is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Shane Markowitz
The Global Rise of Populism as a Socio-material Phenomenon: Matter, Discourse, and Genetically Modified Organisms in the European Union

Among the most influential perspectives examining populism are discursive and ideological approaches. The recent “material turn” though has put to challenge many of the conventions of social science scholarship, highlighting the vibrant and agentive capacities of material things. Employing Karen Barad’s agential realism perspective premised on the notion of phenomena as constituted by the entanglements between matter and discourse and facilitated by interview fieldwork, this chapter interrogates the global rise of populism as a socio-materially constituted process, specifically examining the case of plant biotechnology in the European Union. Farmer mobilization patterns and the nuances therein—rejection of GMOs in food but tolerance toward GM animal feed—are argued to have not simply emerged from social contestation, but rather to have been contingent phenomena constituted socio-materially through the relations between pollen, soybeans, and landscapes and different practices, including production and consumption patterns, regulatory frameworks, and food retailer branding moves, within and across conventionally conceived political borders. The broader intelligibility gained is that certain policy prescriptions, deemed populist (or not), emerge out of decision-making landscapes that materialize socio-materially through complex relations between local and global with implications on the types of political interventions that can be introduced to improve the world.

Amy Skonieczny
Populism and Trade: The 2016 US Presidential Election and the Death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

In 2015, it seemed all but certain that President Obama would succeed in ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Senate approval during his last year of office. The TPP, the largest regional trade accord in history, would have set new terms for trade and business investment between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. However, despite record-breaking corporate spending and broad support for the TPP among democrats and republicans, the TPP encountered domestic challenges when the 2016 US presidential campaign featured two popular, anti-trade candidates. The political climate abruptly shifted and the TPP was never introduced to Congress for ratification leading to a surprising failure for President Obama’s signature trade initiative. This chapter examines the surprising failure of the TPP and the rise of economic populism—anti-trade rhetoric that specifically targeted the free trade agreement during the 2016 presidential campaign. The chapter examines the rise of populism through the 2016 presidential candidate narratives of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to examine how an anti-TPP story came to signal a commitment to the working class and American identity against a rising China.

Frank A. Stengel, David B. MacDonald, and Dirk Nabers
Conclusion: Populism, Foreign Policy, and World Politics

This conclusion draws together the different arguments of the individual chapters and provides a preliminary agenda for further research on populism and world politics. Specifically, it proposes a three-step model for the analysis of populists’ impact on foreign policy and international politics, consisting of (1) populists’ specific ideologies and foreign policy positions, (2) domestic opportunity structures and (3) the international context. In contrast to widespread claims that populism per se is a danger to world order, democracy or “the West,” we argue that a systematic and careful analysis that differentiates between different populisms is a necessary precondition for any meaningful assessment in regards to their impact. Moreover, the latter not just depends on populists’ foreign policy demands but also on whether populists are in government or exerting pressure from the outside as well as the extent to which they can act in an unconstrained fashion, both in terms of domestic veto players and international context. This chapter argues that any worthwhile analysis of populism’s effect on foreign policy, international cooperation and conflict or regional and world order(s) has to move beyond the all too common mistake to treat populism as a monolith and to ignore both domestic and international contexts.