Globalization and the populist surge

The results of the Italian election this past weekend have crystallized in my mind a set of longstanding general concerns. What worries me is less the surging populist sentiment than the tendency of pundits to cast it in pejorative, even sinister terms. Populists are often treated as benighted, insular, and prone to violence. Their electoral inroads in Britain and across the United States and the EU have summoned up in the mind of the most alarmist observers shades of Hitler. By seemingly opening doors to a fascist revival, populism foreshadows the doom for a liberal West. Heaped on top of this mish-mash of associations is the fear that the rise of authoritarians in China and Russia not to mention the United States is feeding a crisis of confidence in democracy. This set of worries is often breathlessly expressed and casually developed.

Turning something you want to understand into a pejorative is never a good way to begin. Working toward a definitions is a better approach if illumination rather than condemnation is the goal. What do we mean by populism? What has given rise to it? Is the answer the same from country to country? Can we lump Sanders and Trump with Orbán, Le Pen, and Di Maio? Should we see the U.S. Tea Party in the same light as Italy’s Five Star Movement? Did the populist challenges that Macron and Merkel weathered have the same features as populism that made gains elsewhere? Where to draw the line between groups commonly deemed populists and those that are characterized as neo-nationalist or neo-fascist such as the British National Party, Italy’s League, or Greece’s Golden Dawn?

If there is a common denominator that offers a place to start analytically, my vote is with the long-building process of globalization with its broad and deep ramifications. (This point builds on my post of 24 January 2017 on “Giving historical context to the Trump presidency.”) This focus has the virtue of countering the emotive jump back to the 1930s favored by critics of populism and directing our attention to a more recent, pertinent past. The accelerating inroads of globalization from the 1970s gave rise to the range of problems that populism has been responding to. We need to look at the effects over the past half century of rising free trade, unleashed capital, and accelerated immigration. These are the forces celebrated by the neo-liberal proponents of globalization. The neoliberals with their vision of the best of all possible worlds in the making have exercised a cross-party appeal for decades with Clinton moving toward Reagan and Blair toward Thatcher, shaped the EU project, and and inspired a proliferation of international institutions and trade agreements.

This is not to say that populists in fact understand that globalization in its neo-liberal guise is itself the underlying source of the problems that rouse them. But in point of fact across the board it has been the deleterious effects of globalization that populists have directed their fire at. Their targets range widely but have a common source in the consequences of globalization whether stagnant economic growth, youth unemployment, income inequality, a parasitic financial system, relentless deindustrialization, or an entrenched and unresponsive political class. Anyone seeking to understand or for that matter critique populism should not repeat the populist mistake of overlooking the fundamental role of a disruptive globalization in creating the current political crisis.

This analysis has implications that differ in detail from country to country depending on demography, national identity, and economic and social structures. Different kinds of stress generated by globalization require different kinds of ameliorative policies. And arriving at those policies can involve difficult choices and forbidding obstacles. In the United States, for example, Democrats may understandably be outraged by the misogny and racism unleashed by the Trump administration. Ethnic inclusiveness and gender equality are to be sure worthy causes, but to fixate on them is to ignore the underlying source of the populist challenge and is likely to have the paradoxical effect of tempting populists to push identity issues to the fore and thereby further deepen a paralyzing polarization. The Republican Party will have even more difficulty finding a way to meaningfully address the discontent now roiling the country. Standing in the way is an obsession with market-based panaceas, an addiction to budget-busting tax breaks, and an indifference to the damaging social and economic effects of inequality not to mention its embrace of a know-nothing narcissist as party leader.

My line of argument can be taken as a reassuring message that the populist rise is a good thing in that it seeks to address real, fundamental problems. Things have not been going well for a considerable part of the voting public for a long time. Many Americans have watched their income decline, their communities break down, and their family lose hope. Those who have voted on the basis of their greivances are acting rationally if perhaps belatedly and on the basis of poor information. However ill-informed, they see before them a choice between trusting in more of the same or giving a new course a try. A substantial part of the electorate with their long simmering frustrations finally coming to a boil have opted for the latter. It is possible to bemoan the illusions and misinformation that have attended that populist choice. But the fact remains that the choice has been, however crude, not only a rational one but also one entirely in keeping with the premise of democracy: that citizens know their own interests, are entitled to promote values they prize, and get to select leaders whose views correspond to their preferences.

The message for critics of populism is that they should set aside gloom and despair and quit worrying about a new dark age in the making. They need to have some confidence in the democratic process, and make sure that the process provides full play to discontented voters rather than marginalizes or denigrates them. Perhaps most important of all, they need to direct the national conversation to the topic of globalization. Beginning that conversation is the necessary first step toward the more challenging task of defining and securing support for policies that address a collection of deeply unsettling and deeply rooted problems in a deeply difficult political environment.

Addition 16 March 2018: For an excellent analysis of the Italian election results in relation to EU fiscal policies, see Helen Thompson, “Want to Understand What Is Wrong With Europe? Look at Italy” available at

Trump foreign policy a year in

January was a month that promised insights on Trump administration foreign policy. The President and his team have had a year to settle in and sort out their priorities. Two pieces of evidence on where they are now appeared mid-month with the publication of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. That was followed at the end of the month by the President’s State of the Union address.

I have to confess that surveying this material is no fun. The products that came out of the National Security Council and the Department of Defense are built from bureaucratic boiler plate. They are numbing to read. The President’s address is flaccid and cliché-ridden but more entertaining for its invocation of nationalist tropes that delight historians with their familiar sounds. Thus we get: “Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans. If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.”

Having suffered through the three documents, I have one overall impression: Donald Trump and his team need to talk to each other. In approach at least they are all over the map.

The National Security Strategy, prepared by the President’s National Security Council headed by H. R. McMaster and released on 18 January, offers a conception of U.S. strategy that involves doing everything imaginable. It marches the reader through a long, unremarkable, and (for this reader at least) stultifying list of every topic remotely related to U.S. external relations from regional rivals to cyber warfare to energy production. This encyclopedic approach is inherently unconvincing as a strategy, and the idea of a full court press on a multitude of fronts seems especially dubious coming from administration short on skill, with many senior posts unfilled, and facing a rapidly rising federal debt and a partisan Congress.

While professing in conclusion to take its guidance from a “principled realism,” this creation of the National Security Council seems anything but. It is as ambiguous on its ends as it is inattentive to means.

The National Defense Strategy, announced by the Department of Defense on 19 January and bearing the imprimatur of Secretary James Mattis, was as focused as the NSC approach was diffuse. It pointed to two revisionist powers (Russia and China) and a pair of rogue regimes (Iran and North Korea) in making the case for regional powers as the prime U.S. security concern. Almost as an afterthought the Pentagon announced it resolve to “defeat terrorist threats” and “consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

How exactly the U.S. was to clip the wings of revisionists, rogues, and terrorists (except of course by ever larger military budgets) was not clear. Nor did the document spell out the likely consequence of going after this terrible trio: endless tension at points all around the world that would in turn continue to drain U.S. resources and damage U.S. international standing.

The State of the Union Address, delivered on 30 January as the capstone of the month-long campaign to clarify the administration’s approach to world affairs, hewed closely to the agenda Trump had staked out during his 2016 presidential campaign. In a speech dominated by domestic problems and achievements, Trump first brought international affairs into the picture by taking up trade and immigration and giving them the aspirational gloss that buoys his base. Beyond those issues he gave a brief nod to the Defense Department’s preoccupation by pointing to “rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” He paid only perfunctory attention to North Korea, brushed the UN aside as an annoyance, and threw in a word of praise for nuclear deterrence.

What did stand out was his concern with the Middle East. There that he paid more attention, focusing on familiar reference points. He was determined to combat ISIS. He was going to pacify Afghanistan. He was determined to support Israel. He was intent on undermining the government in Iran.

Lining up Trump’s State of the Union presentation with the executive summary of the National Security Strategy that bears his signature gives a good idea of the President’s chief preoccupations. Foremost is his view of the world as “extraordinarily dangerous.” Rogue regimes were “developing nuclear weapons and missiles to threaten the entire planet.” Terrorists “had taken control of vast swaths of the Middle East.” Criminals were taking advantage of “porous borders and unenforced immigration laws.” Rivals were guilty of “unfair trade practices” and “aggressively undermining American interests around the globe.” Even allies were a problem with their penchant for “unfair burden-sharing.” It’s a wonder Trump can go to sleep at night.

At the end of this executive summary though not in the State of the Union, Trump claimed for the administration “a strategic vision” that has as its ultimate goal “a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom, and peace.” This goal is far removed from the dangerous world he imagines himself living in, and it is not at all clear how he hopes to get from the current grim reality to what he calls “this beautiful vision.”

Conclusion: To judge from the results of a month of heavy intellectual lifting, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at something that could be deemed a grand strategy. It’s pulled in multiple directions without an evident sense of priority or focus.

What the documents do have in common is a grim view of the world. The Pentagon neatly encapsulated the “dangerous world” thesis: “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order — creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”

This alarmist vision of the world provides the foundation for an all too familiar policy of global entanglement. That approach was forged during the Cold War; it led to costly and frustrated commitments; and it has helped make the world a dangerous place (though not in the way the administration imagines). This globalist commitment has become so ingrained in the thinking of Washington strategists that it now seems to constitute dogma and thus defines the default position even for an ostensibly populist, insurgent administration insistent on the failures of its predecessors.

Nowhere is there a forthright recognition of the dimensions of overall U.S. decline since the 1970s, the forces in play that have produced that decline, or the steps needed to slow if not reverse it. The Trump administration, not to mention the President, has no overall conception of globalization as a process in which the U.S. is enveloped and to which it needs to respond. If there was any intelligent design behind these conceptually anemic and predictable articulations of U.S. policy, it was carefully hidden. We are left with slogans — not least the President’s call to put America First and Make America Great Again — but no discernible road map that indicates either our precise destination or our likely route.