The Adamant World Order: Is Populism a Threat to the World Order?

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Populism is rising. With the victory of Donald Trump, Brexit, and growing influence of other populist parties in Greece, France, Germany and so on, seem to undermine the world order which has stabilized the international relations for over 70 years. But whether it poses an actual threat to the world order remains unclear.

In order to fathom the effect of populism toward world order, we first have to understand what populism is. There are a lot of definitions, but the bottom line of them is that populism is characterized by its “people versus elite” rhetoric[1]. This is the core of the ongoing rise of populism and shows what populism really is.

It is considered that the reason why populism now gets momentum is the economic severity and cultural crisis[2]. These predicaments of mass create anxiety and fear, and even anger, and turned into demands of populism. So basically, populism reflects people’s deep concern about current harsh situations and demand for government to change it. When people are in a harsh situation, they tend to think only about themselves. When we think about the populism effect on the world order, this egocentrism is the core.

Domestically, this egocentrism is exemplified by the demand for direct diplomacy, keeping national culture and way of life, anti-refugees and immigrants attitude, and pro-border control policy[3]. Internationally, it’s economic nationalism, the priority of national sovereignty over the international institution, and tendency to avoid interference in foreign countries[4]. All these policies do make sense with the notion that these are just the reflection of people’s anxiety for their own.


Populism’s Threat to Liberal World Order

I argued that the core of the populism is its egocentrism. Is it a threat to world order? In order to make this question easier to answer, I assume that the world order consists of two elements, which are liberal world order and military hegemony. Firstly, I examine the threat of populism to liberal world order.

Liberal world order was established right after the World War Ⅱ, architects of which envisaged peaceful and stable world, achieved by free-trade, international organization such as the United Nations, and the spread of democracy[5]. This international order, seemingly being based on liberalism worldviews like that of Kant or Wilson, was built on supranational cooperation. This order has contributed not only to increased cooperation but also to the national defense of the U.S. and other western countries. However, this liberal world order is now challenged by the rise of populism[6]. The important question is, what exact degree populism undermines world liberal order? To examine this question accurately, we have to specify components of liberal world order and investigate the effects respectively. To this end, I consider economic liberalism, international institutions and organizations, and democracy as components of liberal world order.


Economic Liberalism

According to John Ruggie, the post-war economic system is characterized as “embedded liberalism”, where both interests of states and international cooperation are considered[7]. Given the fact that populism is characterized as egocentrism, populism is theoretically opposed to economic liberalism, exemplified by the protectionism of populists. In order to assess the effect of populism on the liberal economic order, one should focus on the number of actual policy changes among liberal states. Based on this standard, it can be hardly said that populism has a devastating effect on the economic liberalism. One reason is that even though populism is on the rise, it’s still hard to win in an election. Although populism won in the U.K. and the U.S. but lost in France and Germany. Secondly, even if they won in an election, it’s also hard to change the traditional economic rules and practices, especially treaties or agreements among states. Even if populists can change them, this should be at least marginal one. Lastly and most important reason is that guardians of free trade are not just the U.S. and the U.K. States such as Japan, Germany, and even China have been benefited substantially in this system and has a strong interest in preserving it. In sum, the expansion of populism is not necessarily equivalent to its effect on the economic liberal order, such as free trade. While populism is a threat to economic liberal order in terms of ideology, the actual threat to today’s economic liberal practices is less than what it is perceived.


International Institutions and Organizations

International institutions and international organizations are also important components of world liberal order. Populism is at odds with international institutions and organizations, criticizing these for depriving their states of sovereignty, and by so doing, making people’s voiceless influential.  Is it possible that populism will devastate international institutions and organizations? To answer this question, we must remember the merits of them. In a word, international institutions and organizations, including which Robert Keohane call “regimes”, facilitate cooperation among states in three ways[8]. First, regimes provide legal liability. It is not to say regimes are for exercising international laws. Regimes help to form a stable and expectable pattern of behavior. Second, regimes changes transaction costs favorably. It is much easier to cut a deal with a platform rather than without it. Plus, regimes raise the cost of a transaction that contradicts institutional principles. Third, regimes help to deal with uncertainty by preventing asymmetric information, moral hazard, irresponsibility. Through these three ways, international institutions and organizations facilitate cooperation or even make it possible. Thus, while international institutions can be perceived as bad by populists in one way, it is also beneficial in another way. So, it would be hardly the case that populist parties will try to change all of the international institutions and organizations because at least on secondary issues, populists tend to flexibly change its policies along with situation and interests[9].



While populists aspire “direct democracy”, their democracy is not illiberal due to their narrow definitions of “us”, the people, hence undermining the right of minority and immigrants[10]. In this way, populism contradicts liberal democratic values. However, it should be reaffirmed that even though egocentrism of populism is not aligned with liberal democratic values, it is undebatable that it is still part of the people’s voices that politicians should hear that[11]. In another way, it can be seen healthy response to inactive government, who has neglected deep concern for globalization. In addition, populism is no more than change within the democracy. It can rise within the democracy, and it can decline within or, because of democracy. The rise of populism should lead to policy change and that could eventually satisfy supporters of populism. If not, populist parties will just fizzle out and mainstream parties will come back. Thus, although populism is a threat to liberal democratic values, it is still a result of the healthy function of democracy and when the policies change (regardless of whether it is liberal or illiberal), populism movement will cease out.


Military Hegemony

Military hegemony is the backbone of current international order. Liberal world order was built by the dominant power of the U.S. However, Donald Trump criticized the cost of maintaining the hegemony[12], and claimed that the U.S. should put “America First” and withdraw its commitment over the world. Which bring us to next important question that in what degree populism pose a threat to American hegemony?

Hegemony is hard to sustain. That’s the famous conclusion drown by Robert Gilpin since the cost of preserving dominance gets bigger, and recourse and power to keep it get bigger more slowly[13]. The current rise of populism can be seen as the reflection of those change of cost in the U.S. Most relevant policy of populism with regard to the decline of hegemony is the U.S.’ retreat from global military presence. This change is exemplified by the critics of NATO, as it is withdrawing its military from Iraq. However, such strategic retreat did already happen before the rise of populism. Populism may highlight the increasing cost of hegemony but is not a cause of that.


What to Do with Populism?

Through the examination of ‘populism as a threat to world order’, I showed that populism does not pose an actual threat to the world order. However, it does pose a threat to liberal values, which is the ideological backbone of the liberal order, so we should do something about it. I argue that best way to deal with this is to listen to the concerns of the populists and its supporters, and grapple with root causes of populism. It is not to say that governments should obey populism’s advocates. They should find a way to ease people’s anxiety while preserving liberal values. Maybe, it is difficult and takes some time, but the important thing is to remember that populism is not a serious threat to world order, so we can take time to discuss and think over how to deal with it. This attitude is the genuine liberal way to face populism and to try to confront or contain it is just illiberal at the first place.


[1] Stephan De. Spiegeleire, Clarissa Skinner, Tim Sweijs. 2017. “The Rise of Populist Sovereignism: What it is, where it comes from, and what it means for international security and defense.” The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

[2] Ronald F. Inglehart, Pippa Norris. 2016. “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash”, HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series; Dani Rodrik. 2017. “Populism and the Economics of Globalization.”

[3] Stephan De. Spiegeleire, Clarissa Skinner, Tim Sweijs. 2017. “The Rise of Populist Sovereignism: What it is, where it comes from, and what it means for international security and defense.” The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Robin Niblett. 2017. “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream”. Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017.

[6] Michael J. Mazarr. 2017. “The Once and Future Order: What Comes After Hegemony?” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017.

[7] John Gerard Ruggie. 1982. “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order.” International Organization, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 379-415.

[8] Robert O. Keohane. 1984. After Hegemony. Princeton University Press.

[9] Rosa Balfour et al.., 2016. Europe’s Troublemakers. The Populist Challenge to Foreign Policy. Brussels: European Policy Center.

[10] Stephan De. Spiegeleire, Clarissa Skinner, Tim Sweijs. 2017. “The Rise of Populist Sovereignism: What it is, where it comes from, and what it means for international security and defense.” The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

[11] Stephan De. Spiegeleire, Clarissa Skinner, Tim Sweijs. 2017. “The Rise of Populist Sovereignism: What it is, where it comes from, and what it means for international security and defense.” The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

[12] Joseph S. Nye Jr. 2017 “Will the Liberal Order Survive?: The History of an Idea.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017.

[13] Robert Gilpin. 1981. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge University Press.