The Angry Populist as Foreign Policy Leader: Real Change or Just Hot Air?

By Drezner, Daniel W. | The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Angry Populist as Foreign Policy Leader: Real Change or Just Hot Air?


Drezner, Daniel W., The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs


Since the start of this century, bellicose populists have been winning elections in democracies. It started with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and spread to other Bolivarian leaders in Latin America, such as Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa. In Europe, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy came and went, but Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary's Viktor Orbán have cemented their grip on power. Last year, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. As ofJanuary 2017, the most powerful angry populist would appear to be President Donald Trump.

Most analysts would describe the leaders listed above as populists. Defining the concept beyond "I know them when I see them," however, can be a tricky enterprise. Populists fit uneasily along the traditional left-right political spectrum. They are not always angry-see India's Narendra Modi, for example. Some politicians, such as Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, campaign as populists but govern more conventionally; others, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, only turn to populism late in their tenure. Russia's Vladimir Putin cannot claim the same degree of democratic bona fides as Duterte or Trump. On the other hand, all of the available data show that Putin is much more popular than elected populists like Trump. Nonetheless, the delayed post-2008 wave of populist nationalism that fed Brexit has undeniably nourished a new generation of angry populists to be heads of state.

The emergence of populist politicians as foreign policy leaders raises an interesting question: does it matter for foreign relations? A great deal of international relations theory is devoted to the proposition that individual leaders do not matter all that much in world politics. At the same time, it seems difficult to believe that President Donald Trump will pursue the same foreign policies as, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Recent research suggests that the traits of individual leaders affect their foreign policy behavior. Furthermore, the nature of populism itself suggests a different approach to world politics. The way that angry populists have swept to power is unorthodox enough for them to pursue policies at variance with the status quo. These leaders rely on techniques that will roil other actors in world politics. The result is likely to be foreign policies that could be "off the equilibrium path" for quite some time. This holds with particular force for Donald Trump.

Until recently, international relations research did not focus on individual-level variables, much less on the traits of individual leaders. The major international relations paradigms in recent decades have been systemic in nature. These approaches argue that the international system imposes powerful structural constraints on state behavior. The bible of academic realists is Waltz's Theory of International Politics, which explicitly states, "The texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly. The relations that prevail internationally seldom shift rapidly in type or in quality. They are marked instead by a dismaying persistence." Waltz adds, "Over the centuries states have changed in many ways, but the quality of international life has remained much the same."1

For realists, little has changed in international relations since the days of Thucydides. Realists do not deny that individual leaders can pursue policies at variance with realpolitik precepts, but they predict that such behavior would be at odds with the national interest. Eventually, the anarchic system would punish an individual leader who acted in an idealpolitik manner. Other structural approaches are less dogmatic on this point, but nonetheless posit a world in which structures and institutions impose powerful constraints on individual actors. Decision-makers have limited autonomy in the liberal or constructivist paradigms as well.2 At the dawn of the century, the structural grip on international relations scholarship was so strong that it triggered laments about the deficit of research on individual decision-makers. …

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