United Nations headquarters
Category: Global Governance

Title: Cooperation and Compromise: Populism, Multilateralism, and International Law

Author: Kristian Humble
Date Published: January 13, 2023

The political climate and political ideology of many states around the world are increasingly falling victim to populism. Populist ideals are gaining a foothold by challenging the liberal discourse and offering an alternative to the perceived established order. International lawyers and academics have shown concern about the rise of populism globally. The very basic notion of international law, based on cooperation and at times compromise between states, will be challenged by the rise of populism. This rise of the populist government is a direct threat to democracy and human rights.


The populist movement gained significant ground through the election of the Trump administration, one that was skeptical of the value of and need for international law. The challenge to international law can be seen across the international community via populist governments such as those in various Europe countries including Poland, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czech Republic. In the rest of the world, there have recently been governments in the US, Brazil, Venezuela, UK, Israel, Bolivia, Russia and Turkey that have implement strategies or political policies which are aligned to the notion of inward looking populist political ideals. The United Nations (UN), in particular the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has identified the rise of populism as a serious challenge for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Academics have warned against “the increasing rhetoric of scepticism against international law and the precipitation of larger scale retreat into nativism and unilateralism.” It is important to remember that populism is occurring in both the left and right of the political divide.


What is Populism?

This article will use the more common definition of populism from Jan-Werner Muller: “Populism is both anti-elitist and anti-pluralist […] it opposes a morally pure and fully unified people to elites, while claiming exclusive moral representation of the people.” The definition of populism is complex and can be nuanced in its approach; it is commonly defined by what it stands against. Populists and populist leaders are against constitutionalism, democracy, liberalism, and the established order. The populist ideal is to establish an alternative and to make the established order something to fear. The ideology of populism, at its core, is a collective grouping of ideas which are based on domestic, inward-looking policies that have the protection of national interest as their main aim. This feature, of course, is in direct conflict with international law, with its basis on an outward-looking compromise and cooperation between states.

Populist governments look to undermine international law in two distinct ways. First, by broadcasting that international law is based on coordination between international states, populist governments identify this coordination as a threat to national interests. Second, populist governments undermine international institutions and actively reduce the funding of international experts, including NGOs and others tasked with the protection, promotion, and/or investigation of the infringement of individual rights. The Venice Commission (2019) found that thirty-nine European countries had restricted funding to NGOs, while twelve did not fund NGOs at all. There are of course different forms of populism, which still have national interests at their core but are fine-tuned towards their electorate. For example, in Poland the populist ideal is aligned with fundamental Christian beliefs whereas in Italy, particularly in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the ideal is conflated with economic strategy and immigration.

There also exists a problematic link between populism and nationalism; oftentimes, the factors that constitute national identity (based on race, religious or sexual orientation) are used to define the lines in political opposition and enhance conflict. Therefore, the ideals of populism become more aligned to the differences between people rather than protecting national interests. Some governments, such as the current Indian leadership, could be argued to be based more so on nationalistic ideals rather than populism. There is also a link between populism and authoritarianism. The current populist Russian regime is unique in the fact that it could be described as both nationalistic and authoritarian. The danger here is that a government that moves into a more authoritarian mode of governance will then erode the rights of its own people to achieve its agenda.


Multilateralism: The Way Forward

Populism is anti-pluralist and thus the idea of multilateralism, which is used as a basis for agreements between states and is common throughout international law, will be dismissed by populist groups because it does not align with the ideals of nationalism and national interest. Yet, multilateralism remains the most effective way for the international community to counter this growing threat.

International law is based around the ideal of pluralism which suggests that a society is made up of diverse groups with different needs and interests. Multilateral structures offer discourse, bringing together the needs of a wide variety of competing values. Therefore, multilateral agreements have the power to unify competing states to agree on principles aligned to international law, which will reduce the threat of populism by isolating populist actors from the international community. Even though isolationism could be seen as the goal for the populist government it would not be the goal of the state’s wider population.  To be isolated from the international community would leave a state out of international agreements on such matters as the enhancement of fundamental rights or environmental protection. On the other hand, bilateral agreements between populist states present a significant danger to multilateralism because they benefit only the national interests of the few states involved, enhance the power of populist ideals, and further erode multilateral structures within international law. Hungary, for example, supports a bilateral approach to international law and has made such agreements with China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Another example is the recent agreements between Venezuela and Turkey. Historically, these agreements have then led to populist governments supporting each other through difficult political situations.

The international community has identified populism as the new danger to international institutions and the progress of international law. States which are less populist-inclined should push for greater cooperation, the protection of international law, and the need for multilateral agreements. International law needs more multilateralist agreements that are inclusive of national interests to become a progressive international movement made up of diversity of ideals. After nearly eighty years since the inception of the UN, there is still no permanent member of the Security Council (SC) from Latin America or Africa. The permanent members of the UNSC still possess veto power, which is used in the national interest and can halt or derail the movement of progressive concerns of the international community. A reform of the UN would ultimately lead to a more multilateral approach in international agreements.

International law is at a crossroads. The international community needs to be forward looking and must become entrusted with upholding the protection and common interest of all individuals. In the face of growing populist movements, the international community must be ready to challenge and protect the fundamental elements of international law. The best way to achieve this goal is by leveraging the diversity of different states through multilateralism.

. . .

Kristian Humble is an associate professor of international law in the School of Law and Criminology at the University of Greenwich, London. He is widely published on topics within international law including human rights, artificial intelligence, the right to privacy, populism, modern warfare, and international relations.

Image Credits: Ayaan Institute, Tom Page