The West: An (Il) Liberal Outpost?

As unthinkable as this could have seemed just a decade ago, the forces of populism have been gaining momentum recently in the United States and in Europe, propelled by the current anti-liberal wave.

 While seeking to appeal to the interests of the social groups suffering from globalization, the populists have formed a wide front against the liberal establishment, from Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, all seeking to surf the wave of growing social discontent. By proclaiming national revival as the mission, they have been promising to defend the “noble people” from the abuses of the “corrupt elite” and build a fair social and political order. 

The main negative effect of populism resides in its propensity to ignore social diversity in its concept of a “united people,” thereby threatening liberal principles such as pluralism, inclusivity, individual freedoms and minority rights. The reinforcement of anti-liberal trends has highlighted serious contradictions in the domestic politics of Western countries, and this has not failed to affect international relations. Populist elements have challenged not only the liberal democracy, but also the liberal world order as a whole.
What Does America Really Want – Our Money or Our Life?
Alexander Vorontsov
The above question is what is troubling most people in China today. And the answer is: “If they want our money, which means cutting the trade deficit and making the Chinese environment more comfortable for US business, this challenge can be easily met. But if they want our life and are blocking our technological development, as in the case of Huawei, and are impeding the further economic growth in order to take it, then we have an intractable, long-lasting conflict on our hands.”

Populism vs. Liberalism

These notions can be interpreted very broadly, which compels us to clarify their exact meaning. Rooted in the ideas of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, liberalism is a classic 19th century ideology along with conservatism and social democracy.

For the purposes of this paper, liberalism is viewed as a way to conceive and practice politics based on a number of core principles such as rationality, individualism, progress, the common good, and limited and responsible government. In terms of international politics, liberalism is built around the idea of peace as the natural state of relations between nations, and “steady progress in world politics, underpinned by faith in human rationality and the ability to rely on the principles of common good to reshape the world.” 

As for populism, it is viewed as a political strategy and concept that revolves around the idea of setting the people and the elite against each other with the ultimate objective of making good on the will of the people. Importantly, the populist view of the people as a homogenous entity entails discrimination against minorities, immigrants, intellectuals and the elite that do not fit into this concept. Populists believe that only they can frame the definition of the people and stand up for its genuine interests. The existence of a people with its own destiny is another important assumption populists rely on.

This leads to a question of how populism and liberalism relate to each other. On one hand, populism is considered to be a threat not only for liberalism, but for democracy. On the other hand, populism is invariably set against liberalism only, while allowing for the existence of an illiberal democracy. Ivan Krastev, a prominent scholar in European politics, illustrated this point of view eloquently by saying: “Populism is antiliberal but it is not antidemocratic.” 

A number of analysts have gone even further in conceptualizing populism by defining it as a “democratic illiberalism,” whereby populism is believed to be compatible with democracy in its radical rather than liberal form. All in all, the populist concept of democracy boils down to the politics of the people’s rule where decisions are based on majority opinions, the system of weights and balances is rejected and minority opinions are ignored. 
Transatlantic Relations Are Uneasy, but a NATO ‘Collapse’ Is Not in Sight
Reinhard Krumm
Relations between the US and its European allies reached a new low: the trade war with the EU, Donald Trump’ criticism of NATO allies in the context of military expenditure, and his discontent with the Nord Stream-2 project added fuel to the fire.

(Il) Liberal World Order

In the sphere of foreign policy, the effect of populism has been especially apparent in weaker democracies, including the so-called illiberal Central European democracies in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and to some extent Turkey as a NATO member. That said, populism has also had a major impact on foreign policy in long-standing democracies such as the United States, Great Britain and France.

Populists have relied on their fundamental idea of a dichotomy separating the people and the elite in the foreign policy debate to criticize the liberal world order. First and foremost, for them this world order threatens what they view as the core traditional values of the people. This explains their stiff opposition to immigration with what they call a “diluting” effect on social and cultural identity. In order to justify their calls for restricting immigration populists also point to increased competition on the labor market for low-skilled workers who tend to sympathize with the populists. Standing up to the economic interests of the people, populist groups also call for bringing manufacturing back home, as well as favor protectionism and isolationism.

Criticizing supra-national organizations is another important dimension of populism. Its adepts believe that these structures are undemocratic by their very nature, while promoting democratic values on the international arena. A study on the deficit of democracy in the European Union showed that national governments often are unable to have any meaningful impact on the agendas of supra-national associations. Therefore, efforts by the populists to combat international organizations and the weakening of state sovereignty enhance their legitimacy as the defenders of the popular interests.

In addition, anti-elitism also affects how the populists view the liberal world order by mostly targeting the agents of globalization and those who call for sticking with an open door policy for immigrants. Populists believe that the liberal world order is geared toward what they call a “corrupt” elite and serves as an extension of its global dominance.
Trumpery and Knavery: Looking for the Virtuous
Richard Sakwa
A coalition of knaves has formed to oppose Donald Trump's foreign policy shift. These knaves are no less prone to inventing ‘facts’, generating ‘fake news’, and pursuing neo-McCarthyite vendettas as the Trumpians themselves. All this represents a substantial degradation of American political culture.
Valdai Papers

Transatlantic Discord

President Donald Trump’s right-wing populist program with its calls for withdrawing the US from a number of international agreements and supra-national organizations, including NATO and the UN, have called into question the country’s leadership on security matters in the Transatlantic region.

Having emerged in the early years of the Cold War as a Western military alliance with a mission to ensure collective security, the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization has been emphasizing its political role after the demise of the bipolar system of international relations. Today, NATO’s ability to guarantee collective security is increasingly called into question, especially with the urgent need to resolve the mass illegal migration issue, tackle organized crime, international terrorism and the pandemic. Populist leaders tend to emphasize these differences.

There is another fundamental question that sets the populists and NATO apart. While populists tend to gravitate toward authoritarian rule, NATO’s fundamental objective is to defend the liberal democracy. In this context, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban challenged the entire Western world when he announced his intention to build an “illiberal democracy” in his country. Turkey is another case in point where the regime shaped by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a far cry from the liberal ideal.

This leads to a number of fundamental questions. If NATO allies no longer regard liberalism and democracy as core values for all of them, what is the purpose of this huge military machine? What does it stand for? To what extent are NATO members committed to collective security when their fundamental concepts are called into question? One way to answer these questions would be to suggest that in today’s world the fact that NATO members no longer share the same ideas could undermine the effectiveness of Article 5 whereby an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.


The rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic has been affecting international relations and foreign policies. Seeking to stand up for the interests of the people, populists challenged the cosmopolitan elite and the liberal world order that ensure its dominance. The populist opposition to liberalism has brought power politics back into international affairs, producing a serious ideological divide in the West and calling into question its status as an outpost of international liberalism. In this context, it could be argued that populism threatens the effectiveness of collective security in transatlantic relations and could jeopardize the stable development of the European Union, especially the eastern members.
The Future Is Not Enough. Key Expectations from 2020
Andrey Sushentsov
We are already accustomed to the fact, that every new year brings more and more unpredictable events. The uncertainty of international processes is intensifying. But at the same time, here comes an understanding that the catastrophic nature of changes is decreasing.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.