Prior to 2016, debates about the global order mostly revolved around its structure and the question of whether the United States should actively lead it or should retrench, pulling back from its alliances and other commitments. But during the past year or two, it became clear that those debates had missed a key point: today’s crucial foreign policy challenges arise less from problems between countries than from domestic politics within them. That is one lesson of the sudden and surprising return of populism to Western countries, a trend that found its most powerful expression last year in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
It can be hard to pin down the meaning of “populism,” but its crucial identifying mark is the belief that each country has an authentic “people” who are held back by the collusion of foreign forces and self-serving elites at home. A populist leader claims to represent the people and seeks to weaken or destroy institutions such as legislatures, judiciaries, and the press and to cast off external restraints in defense of national sovereignty. Populism comes in a range of ideological flavors. Left-wing populists want to “soak the rich” in the name of equality; right-wing populists want to remove constraints on wealth in the name of growth. Populism is therefore defined not by a particular view of economic distribution but by a faith in strong leaders and a dislike of limits on sovereignty and of powerful institutions.
Such institutions are, of course, key features of the liberal order: think of the UN, the EU, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and major alliances such as NATO. Through them, the Washington-led order encourages multilateral cooperation on issues ranging from security to trade to climate change. Since 1945, the order has helped preserve peace among the great powers. In addition to the order’s other accomplishments, the stability it provides has discouraged countries such as Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This peace-building aspect of the liberal order has been an extraordinary success. So, too, is the way in which the order has allowed the developing world to advance, with billions of people rising out of crippling poverty and new middle classes burgeoning all over the world. But for all of the order’s success, its institutions have become disconnected from publics in the very countries that created them. Since the early 1980s, the effects of a neoliberal economic agenda have eroded the social contract that had previously ensured crucial political support for the order. Many middle- and working-class voters in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere have come to believe—with a good deal of justification—that the system is rigged.