Empowering Populism Worldwide
REVIEWS, 25 Sep 2023
24 Sep 2023 – We are living in an alarming period in world history where the ecological balance of the planet is in jeopardy due to anthropocentric negligence and malfeasance. As well, the geopolitical structures are beset by tensions that threaten to repeat the terrible experiences of global warfare with an increasing danger of recourse to nuclear weapons on a large scale, bringing about ‘a nuclear winter,’ which threatens to be a near extinction event for the human species as well as many animal and plant species. It is by any reasonable calculation a ‘planetary state of emergency’ yet the behavior patterns around the world exhibit almost no adaptive ingenuity and fail to engender the political ambition to put aside anachronistic concerns to focus of these urgent 21st century challenges that are trending toward catastrophe.
I am posting my foreword to a new book on the rise of ultra-nationalist populism around the world by the distinguished British author and historian, Deepak Tripathi. What is depicted in the book is emblematic of the populist and inter-governmental myopia that has become a menacing characteristic of the global setting. I highly recommend reading this book, which can be obtained from the usual online book sellers, published this month by Springer in Europe.
Modern Populism: Weaponizing for Power and Influence, by Deepak Tripathi (2023)
Foreword by Richard Falk
We are living at a time when liberal democracy has lost much of its charm. Reflecting back on 1989 perspectives highlighted by the collapsing Berlin Wall it was not supposed be that way. On the contrary, there was a triumphalist optimism rampant in the West that liberal style democracy (wedded to a market driven world economy) was the wave of the post-Cold War global future, typified by Francis Fukuyama’s End of History: The Last Man (1993). A blazing torch for such a democratizing future was carried by two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who despite coming from supposedly opposed mainstream parties, both championed ‘democracy’ as the path forward for all peoples living on the planet, and especially those in the Global South. To be sure there were more pessimistic voices who were making their voices heard, most prominently, that of Samuel P. Huntington with his conflict-laden view of political life after the Cod War, captured by his arresting phrase, ‘clash of civilizations,’ supposing that the struggle of the future would be ‘the West against the rest,’ [Huntington, Samuel P., “Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (1993) Another grim voice gaining attention in that period was the dark forebodings of Robert Kaplan whose historic sense was preoccupied with chaos and disorder. [The Coming Anarchy (2000)].
Bill Clinton, as the U.S. president in the 1990s fashioned and promoted a doctrine of ‘enlargement’ that justified tilting American foreign policy in a pro-democracy direction, claiming also that a democratizing world would inevitably lead to world peace as history supposedly documents that democracies do not fight wars against one another. What was called ‘the strategy of enlargement’ was set forth most influentially set forth by Anthony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, who was an unconditional advocate of promoting democracy after the Soviet collapse. In his words, “America’s core concepts, democracy and market economics, are more broadly accepted than ever before. We have arrived at neither the end of history nor a clash of civilizations, but a moment of immense democratic and entrepreneurial opportunity, and we must not waste it.” [Lake, “The Four Pillars, Emerging ‘Strategy of Enlargement,’” Christian Science Monitor, Sept 29, 1993]
Then George W. Bush came along to push the same line with more ideologically self-serving language, most notably in the introduction to the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise… We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” Such a statement still reflects the ideological orientation of that time, but if uttered today its lack of plausibility would make it seem like an emanation from a quaintly out of touch worldview. When I first read this prideful utterance by Bush back in 2002 it struck me then as a perfect example of an ideological framing of imperial hubris. Now I regard it as a dangerous confirmation of the delusional ideas that held sway in the misguided efforts after the Cold War to construct viable and equitable arrangements supportive of the global public good without paying heed to giving greater independent authority to the UN or according increasing respect for international law.
More than two decades after Bush, Deepak Tripathi ventures to tell us quite a different story about the political tides sweeping across the world in a manner that exposes the fragility of even those political arrangements that had seemed the most stable and deeply rooted within liberal democracies such as the sanctity of elections and the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to the next. Beyond this issue of systemic precariousness, the extraordinary rise of China, and Asia more generally, in a period when the West stagnated, drew into severe question the assertion that ‘free enterprise’ was an indispensable foundation of political sustainability and economic prosperity for all sovereign states with its boastful implication that the West had developed a superior model of economic and political development that all should follow.
Indeed, Tripathi’s stunningly comprehensive and historically grounded survey of populist politics, whether from right or left, or from above or below, articulates a quite different narrative from the earlier post-Cold War perspectives that attempted to interpret the future of politics within states and their international spillover effects of the transitory, if globally reverberating, Soviet implosion in 1992. Rather than the transformative development that the West welcomed, this spectacular, if temporary end of Cold War geopolitics, resulted in fundamental changes in the structures and processes of an evolving world order. It could have been different if the victors had seized the historical opportunity to make the world safer and more equitable by finally eliminating nuclear weapons and constructing more communally organized institutional arrangements. Above all, this would have meant strengthening the UN—its capabilities, responsiveness to human suffering and societal vulnerabilities, cooperative and equitable approaches to climate change and natural disasters. But this window of opportunity was never opened. It was shut down rather quickly by the militarist combination of predatory capitalism and a revitalized geopolitical ambition, which failed to address global scale challenges that posed dire threats to human security.
What Tripathi brilliantly shows is that such a historical context gave rise to populism rather than the expected expansion of democratic patterns of governance by a variety of populist moves at the level of the sovereign state. Instead of addressing problems by the aggrieved even in rich and powerful societies through the social protection of its own poor and vulnerable, as well as responding in an effective and equitable manner to climate change, the U.S. and several European countries became preoccupied with unwanted migrants diluting territorial nationalism and meeting Asian, mainly the Chinese challenge, with new modalities of militarist containment rather than enhanced competitive prowess and a genuine advocacy of inclusive multilateralism. Moderation and pluralism associated with the practice of democracy cast aside, mass frustration leading to severe inequalities, polarization, resentment, and pointed fingers, with the left blaming elites and the entrenched forms of public order while the right blamed overreaching and irresponsible government that served the interests of globalized elites (Wall Street) rather than ordinary people. the soul of the nation. Such polarization gave rise of extremist interpretations, movements, and leaders usually seeking vindication and legitimacy by claiming to be the voice of ‘the people.’ This political mood allowed demagogues and authoritarian figures to flourish, often by proposing snake oil solutions that promised unhinged governance guided by abstract invocations of ‘the will of the people,’ casting aside in fits of populist fury the sanctity of constitutional constraints on the exercise of state power associated with checks and balances, the sanctity of civil and political rights, the rule of law, and a host of other populist tropes.
Although populism is presently spreading its around the world at the expense of more moderate democratic approaches to governance, although not without such partial countertendencies as the defeat of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in America illustrate. Perhaps, partly to reassure us that populism is no more of a permanent fixture than was democracy seemed to be at the turn of the century, Tripathi surveys the political development of the past two centuries in the major regions of the world to educate readers by populism is not new and always diverse as expressive of the particularities of national, regional, and global contexts. Populism is part of the fabric of long dominant sovereign states, including the U.S., Russia, and India, partly less so of China. This helps explain the prevalence of autocratic and radical reform movements throughout Latin America, North America, Europe, and Asia. On the one side, dictatorial populists of the left as Juan Peron and Chavez who serve workers and peasants. But there are also leaders such as Trump who come along with promises ‘to drain the swamp’ of corrupt bureaucrats that are crafting policies for the benefit of special interests, supposedly standing up for the people against the alleged encroachments of globalists, migrants, and ‘terrorists.’ And others like Boris Johnson who championed Brexit as a way of restoring pride and economic vitality to the British nation. Johnson mobilized ‘the people’ by promising to make the nation great again, by various means including disentanglement from the EU, and presumably other forms of internationalism.
The provocative title chosen by Tripathi suggests to me acute anxiety about past and present unleashing of populism. The idea of ‘weaponizing’ politics portends both intense internal conflict and a free hand to act beyond the law on the part of a government leader who enjoys the confidence of an enraged people, prepared to follow along rants on paths that lead to repression, intolerance, and violent conflict. If this is correct, then this book amounts to a warning to be heeded by all who value restraints on political leadership and state power, favor rationality of public discourse, support the repudiation of wild conspiracy theories, and discredit searches for scapegoats upon whom lay blame for the misfortunes of the nation and its people.
Tripathi is disciplined and knowledgeable enough not to project populist trends into the future. As I read him, however, he does appear to believe that populism will not get the job done to the satisfaction of those oriented toward either the balancing of national interests against human interests or against global public goods as the 21st century unfolds. What makes this book so timely and essential reading for an understanding of the world is the conceptualization of populism its depiction as a worldwide phenomenon emergent at times of acute social, economic, and political stress.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.
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