By Michael DeFeo, Guest Columnist
In 2016, Donald Trump captured the American Presidency. Several months earlier, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union; thus triggering a wave of populism that spread across the globe. Although these have been labeled “populist” movements, they incorporate nationalism along with traditional populism. This extreme “national populist” ideology poses a grave threat to the stability of the international order.
National populism in the United States may lead to a decline in international American power upon which the world has relied since the end of World War II. A realist, leaderless world presents far greater opportunities for destabilization, conflict, and even war. President Trump has established an “America First” foreign policy focused on strengthening the interests of the American people. This policy may injure American international influence instead.
Multiple European nations have recently experienced national-populist movements as well. In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. In 2017, Germany’s leftist populists lost their political influence, while the extreme right (Alternative for Germany) gained seats in the Bundestag, the first time a far-right party had done so since the fall of the Nazis. Though Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats maintained power, there is undoubtedly cause for concern in Germany.
Likewise, the far-right Freedom Party in Austria saw its best election results in two decades. The young and charismatic Sebastian Kurz managed to utilize conservative Austrians’ anger over refugees to win votes for the Freedom Party. Although it is unclear how far right Kurz is willing to move his party, it is clear that including anti-immigration rhetoric in his platform aided him politically. Even more vitriolic movements have been brewing in Poland and Hungary, where disdain for the EU coupled with outright anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric litter the politics of their far-right parties.
Much of this national populism was present in the 2017 French elections as well where the moderate Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine LePen and the populist National Front. Though LePen was defeated handily in the final round of elections, sixty-three percent of French citizens ages 18-24 did not vote in the final election. They were LePen’s strongest supporters in the preliminary elections. With Macron’s shaky approval rating, the youth vote may lead to a surge in French populism in 2022.
If national populism turns the United States inward, it may signal to the rest of Europe (and the world) that America is no longer a reliable ally in the international system. Fear of vulnerability could lead to individual European countries adopting realist policies and isolate themselves from the EU, thus diminishing interdependence in Europe and potentially destabilizing decades-old alliances.
A divided Europe would also be vulnerable to Russian power projections. Any economic, political, or military threat to Eastern Europe could bring NATO face to face with a direct military confrontation with Russia. That is the danger of national populism spreading throughout and dividing Europe.
The greatest threat to the international order is a populist, declining America coupled with an autocratic, growing China. Hegemonic Stability Theory states that the international system is most stable when there is one hegemon that is willing and able to maintain relative order.
This hegemon may also be assisted by a weaker, ideologically compatible great power. But President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and introduction of “Xi Thought” makes China highly incompatible with American democratic values. The world saw relative stability in post-World War II global unipolarity. A populist United States will inevitably lead to a weaker United States and a shift in the balance of power.
The Theory of Hegemonic War predicts that a great power war will ignite when a great power approaches the might of a hegemon, while the hegemon’s power declines simultaneously. Theoretically, this war occurs when the two states reach comparable military and economic strength.
Fortunately, despite its rapid development and military advances, China is still a developing country and any prediction of Sino-American military conflict in the immediate future is probably premature. China’s economy is extremely interwoven with America’s and considerable Chinese investment in American debt is a deterrent for war between the two countries.
There is, however, cause for concern regarding a declining, populist America’s inability to check China as President Xi consolidates power and pursues Chinese geopolitical ambitions in Asia. Allowing China to simply grow into Asian hegemony may not be in the interest of global stability, as China could decide to project its power onto India, who China fought a war against in 1962 over border disputes similar to the current dispute over Doka La. As China continues its Belt and Road initiative, it may gain considerable influence in the Global South. If the United States is not careful, China may someday challenge it as a global hegemon.
The world has enjoyed great power peace since 1945 because the United States has been a steadfast hegemon that provided great power safety and stability. If President Trump’s “America First” policy leads to a decline in US power abroad, faith in alliances that have stood for over seventy years could disintegrate. An international system without a strong America and steadfast alliances is far more dangerous than any system since World War II. National populism is a threat to global stability and if it is not addressed and defeated, all manner of interstate conflict is possible.