Are We Ready for a Populist World Order?

By Spiff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37813731

The far-right politicians coming to power in Europe and around the world are trading multilateralism for nationalism, changing the world order as we know it. In light of the recent election of another far-right politician in Brazil, Rafael Goldzweig explores what this new order may look like.

Less than a year from now, in September 2019, we may witness an unusual opening at the UN General Assembly. One of the toughest voices of the far-right wave that is sweeping the political class of many democracies around the world will open the General Assembly. Since 1955, Brazil has traditionally been the first country to speak at the UN, and the recently elected president Jair Bolsonaro will fulfil that role. Elected with a political agenda of lowering human rights standards and favouring the agribusiness sector over environmental protection—which could lead to disastrous consequences for the Amazon forest and indigenous people’s rights—his voice is likely to resonate with Trump’s and other populist voices worldwide.

It is symbolic that the first voice to speak at the UN will be from a “neonationalist” in a time when multilateralism should be strengthened to address the challenges of migration, climate change, and escalating conflicts around the world. The past few decades have witnessed the quest for more integration to solve issues not easily addressed by individual countries, and the distaste for this approach seems to be shared by far-right leaders on the rise. With an increasing number of core countries of the current international order turning ever more towards national interests, what does the future hold for the current international order?

One Further Step Towards a Post-Liberal Order

Together with other world leaders, Bolsonaro might shake the foundations of the world order as we know it. Over the last two years, the Trump administration has used international negotiations to signal national interests to negotiating partners and to the constituency that elected him. Leaving the Paris agreement, entering a trade war with China, and proposing a wall at the Mexican border while imposing higher restrictions on Latinos and Muslims entering the country can all be viewed as signals to his constituency, rather than honest attempts to master global public policy issues.

With a strong campaign to increase border controls and curb environmental standards for the sake of national interests, international obligations have become secondary to America’s short-term economic gains, and the efforts of the international community to strengthen multilateral organisations, including the European Union, and agreements in the last decade seems to be going down the drain. Prioritising bilateral ties and nationalist solutions has been the core of Trump’s strategy, and was also at the center of the Brexit campaign and the recent electoral debates in Germany and France.

Bolsonaro will likely follow these steps in his international agenda, signalling his ideological positions to his electorate rather than prioritising the needs of the international community. His campaign centred on attacks on governments in Venezuela and Cuba and a rapprochement with Israel and the US, projecting the left–right ideology that pervaded his electoral campaign strategy into the international arena. Hence, we must expect him to turn back to multilateral agreements and regional integration processes such as Mercosur (Southern Common Market) and Unasur (Union of South American Nations), which were fostered in the 13 years the centre-left Workers Party was in power, prioritising bilateral ties with like-minded countries.

What Comes Next?

The lack of support for multinational organisations raises some questions about what the future world order will look like. Concomitant with China fostering institutions that coexist with the current post-war structures (such as the New Development Bank, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), is a movement of such far-right leaders towards finding common points of future cooperation. Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and one of the architects behind Trump’s successful campaign, was also an informal advisor to Bolsonaro. Recent developments show that Bannon now is trying to bring his strategies to the European continent: He is leader of ‘The Movement’, attempting to bring Eurosceptics and populists together to bring back economic nationalism instead of multilateralism, to increase restrictions to migrants and make countries regain control of their sovereignty and citizenship.

Over the course of 2019, we may have a greater indication of how far-right voices want to shape the world order. Bolsonaro’s recently appointed foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, has strong nationalist and antiglobalist beliefs, and on many occasions praised Trump for his approach to foreign policy. Mr Araújo’s appointment confirms that Brazilian foreign policy will align with Trump’s, and suggesting that alliances among far-right administrations will likely get stronger in the years ahead.

The newest member of their club addressing the UN General Assembly next year will not only set the tone for this increasing nationalistic approach to the international order, but also play a critical role in the next steps of the climate agenda. Two months after winning the bid to host the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP25) in 2019, the newly elected government withdrew the offer, allegedly due to the transition in government and budget restrictions. The country was an active player in forging alliances to implement the Paris agreement, and the COP is a result of the country’s growing influence on the environmental agenda built upon the Earth summit in 1992, Rio+20 and other important initiatives. During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to leave the Paris agreement and went as far as to say he would leave the Human Rights Council of the UN.

While it is unlikely that he will keep all of his campaign promises, his sceptical approach to the international arena indicates that multilateralism will not be his priority. Hence, we should expect one of the leading voices in the environmental agenda to fade into silence. Economic nationalism may lead him down the same path Trump walked, creating tensions with China and putting the future of the BRICS—the international forum comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—at risk. While it is clear that international institutions are growing farther from the values that led to their creation, it is hard to predict how these new forces will shape them. What is clear, though, is that the threat to the world order as we know it is more alive than ever.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.