Moral Combat in International Politics – Part 1

Some Thoughts on Populist Foreign Policy in the EU

András Radnóti
7 August 2017

This paper was written for the ‘V4 for Europe — Developing positive scenarios for Europe’s future’ workshop, organised by the Hungarian Europe Society in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Budapest on 16 May 2017.

“The positions of the opposing forces were clearly outlined in 2016. Nations rose up against the globalists, and the middle class rose up against the leaders. In our community, the European Union, this means that we, sovereign countries are facing the unionists, and the voters are facing the Brussels bureaucrats. This did not happen in a lightning, it did not happen from one day to the next. It is the spiky, sour fruit of many years’ dissatisfaction that has grown ripe.”[1]

Thus spoke Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orbán, at the beginning of this year. He was speaking to a domestic audience, but his words shed light on the interpretation of global trends that is the root of Hungarian foreign policy. No doubt, for Orbán, international politics is a battlefield, a scene of fights — deadly fights — between us, sovereign countries, and them, globalisation and the forces that drive it. This dichotomy between sovereignty and globalisation is, I believe, what organises the foreign policy thinking of Central European (CE) populists. Yet populists are riding the tide, not blowing it. Contradiction and conflict are coded in the way we think about international politics: as a game of sovereign nation states bearing the trust of their populations. Populists exploit the sovereignty\globalisation dichotomy; democrats, if they are to take back control, must challenge it. That will require conceptual innovation.

That conceptual innovation is what this paper seeks to encourage. It will attempt to do this by presenting an overview of what I believe is a new kind of foreign policy thinking in CE and beyond: the phenomenon of populist foreign policy. I begin this overview by discussing populism itself and the concepts that shape populist foreign policy. I will then look at some of the ways in which these concepts are operationalised by the region’s populist actors. I am especially concerned with the complex and contradictory way in which the EU context conditions populist international action, as well as the effect the latter has on European integration itself. I argue that populist foreign policy is cynical in that domestic considerations always take precedence over international ones — short-term considerations over long-term ones and party interest over national interest — and in claiming that values are but a hypocritical cloak to bare interest, denigrating the European project to an exercise in international balancing and bargaining. I argue, furthermore, that by introducing a morally charged rhetoric into international politics, populists widen the array of legitimate political means in that space.

Theorising about populist foreign policy, I start from and arrive at empirical experience; the scope of the theory is limited to the empirical reality of our region. I rely on — mostly Hungarian — examples to support my points, but I leave the detailed discussion of actual policy to the distinguished participants on this panel. This is a discussion paper in the sense that it offers some hypotheses but makes no attempt at properly proving them, hoping instead that the ensuing debate will confirm or refute them. This way I hope we can provide the tools to tackling the problem out in the CE political stage. That is why the V4 for Europe project endeavours to bring together academics, think-tank researchers, social and political activists, and politicians from across the region.

What is populism?

I should first address the question of what populism is. In order to maximise empirical usefulness, I think it is best to attempt a middle-range, rather than general, theory. Such a middle-range theory must treat populism as an essentially contemporary and essentially European phenomenon. (Global trends are a significant part of the explanation, but for the sake of simplicity — and exactness — extra-European parallels are better omitted.) It must look at both form and content, in a method of observation befitting a phenomenon that is more than a technique but less than an ideology.[1] It must take Ernesto Laclau’s technical point (while dismissing his normative judgments) that populists channel diverse demands into a single, central, binary — and zero-sum —, demand.[2] It must take Jan-Werner Müller’s point that populists, who claim to be the only true representatives of the people, are essentially anti-pluralist,[3] but it must not consider its job done and stop there. Because, although this is true, it is thin: it is a central characteristic of Kaczynski and Orbán but not of the Brexiteers, even though Nigel Farage famously said after the 23 June referendum that ‘this is a victory for real people, for common people, for decent people.’ This last point, decent people, takes us closer to the essence of populism.

Populists operate with moral categories but offer no moral content; their moralising is not substantiated by stable set of moral judgments, an ideology. Their distinction between us and them, the people and the elite, is essentially moral; the identity they offer is a moral identity, that of the decent, or pure, people — who face a morally corrupt elite. Yet because populists’ moral categories hold no moral content, the contours of the identity they offer are hazy, we cannot be sure what makes decent people decent other than their opposition to the corrupt elite. (This emptiness, or versatility, is one reason for populists’ success.) More significantly yet, populists turn the moral combat of democratic politics into a mortal combat. Instead of using persuasion, they portray opponents as illegitimate and threatening to the political community. Opponents bear, then, no rights: in the fight against them, anything goes. This suggests that populism is essentially illiberal, thus antidemocratic.[4]

Populists have taken power in Central Europe: certainly in Hungary and Poland. That means that populists now make policy; policy we need to understand if we are to challenge it. In most but not all cases[5] Fareed Zakaria’s thesis that populists are swept to power by a group of people who fear a certain cultural and social change,[6] stands: populism is reactionary. Whether that change is immigration, competition, or simply Europe or globalisation, the origin of the threat is in the ‘foreign,’ that is, beyond national borders — which is why, populists reason, a strong national government is needed. Foreign policy, then, ought to be a prime site of populist policy. It may not be an area where changes take place very quickly, but it is one where the executive has more room for manoeuvre than in domestic politics. The condition of anarchy stifles moral combat in international politics. Moralising the international sphere by shifting this stifled moral combat into all-out mortal combat, populists widen the range of acceptable means there, too.

What concepts shape populist foreign policy?

Of the concepts that shape populists’ international action, three stand out: nation, national sovereignty and national interest. The concept of the nation, I believe, is used interchangeably with that of the people by populist actors. It is used in an exclusive sense — ethno-culturally defined — on the domestic scene, and in a more inclusive, citizenship-based sense on the international scene. It is their primary vehicle of association with the forces traditionally considered nationalist; that is why the exclusive definition is needed for the domestic audience. However, this concept must be crafted to allow for building coalitions beyond borders — and for national sovereignty within borders —; that is why the inclusive definition is needed for the international audience, thus producing a degree of dissonance. Populists’ call for the nation’s unity serves three political goals. First, it rallies supporters, complementing and explaining the regular calls to arms. Second, it reinforces voters’ perception of we, and the people/elite dichotomy with it. Third, it grants legitimacy to populists’ claims to alone represent the nation’s interests.

This claim reveals the essentially anti-pluralistic nature of populism and explains their formulation of the national interest. As Müller argues, ‘in addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people.’[7] This anti-pluralism has more purchase yet when it comes to international politics, quite simply because the legitimacy of any power other than national power in the international sphere is easier to dispute than the existence of a plurality of legitimate political positions in a domestic context. The very concept of national interest, in the singular, is problematic in pluralist societies; there can only be national interests, and debate over their definition is the norm. As Peter Trubowitz puts it, ”there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defense should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the persistent failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.”[8] The national interest populists represent can therefore be nothing but a particular conception of pertinent foreign policy goals that has universal ambitions, with the pretence of being the only true interest of the nation.

Yet it is the concept of national sovereignty that populists use as the primary justification of their international action. But how do they understand national sovereignty? Based on Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s speeches, Balcer et al. write that for PiS, national sovereignty is “the real dimension of independence,”[9] the capacity of the state to define and realise its national interest. This is in line with Orbán’s understanding. In his speech on 15 March 2017 he cited Lajos Kossuth saying that “we are a nation, we have the right and the power to follow our own goals and not to be the means to foreign goals.” This, of course, is a blend of popular or internal sovereignty and national (Westphalian) or external sovereignty. If we understand sovereignty as a concept of freedom, the ‘power to follow our own goals’ is the freedom of a nation to achieve self-fulfilment, while not being the ‘means to foreign goals’ is its freedom from interference or inhibition in doing so.[10]

András Radnóti is a foreign policy analyst, a regular contributor to the output of The Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford Analytica on Central and Eastern European, Ukrainian and Russian affairs. He has completed his studies at the London School of Economics and is currently working on his doctoral research at Central European University in Budapest. With an emphasis on the world’s post-national transformation and concepts of sovereignty, his research interests position him in the near-vacuum between political theory and international relations.

The second part of the article to be published on 9th of August.


[1] Cas Mudde argues that populism is a ‘thin-centred ideology.’ Cas Mudde: Populism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2017.

[2] Ernesto Laclau: On Populist Reason. Verso, 2005.

[3] Jan-Werner Müller: What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

[4] The most interesting and erudite theorists loyal to Viktor Orbán — most notable of whom is the political scientist Gábor G. Fodor — are avowed Schmittians. The core Schmittian idea of politics as a deadly fight between Freund and Feind, in which no aspects of life are spared, goes a long way to explain — though not to excuse — CE populist politics, including in the international sphere. Carl Schmitt: The Concept of the Political (expanded edn, trans.: George Schwab), University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[5] Hungary is an exception. There, Fidesz’ 2010 landslide was a product largely of the scandals which discredited the previous Socialist governments. Fidesz then proceeded to manufacture these cultural and social fears through aggressive government communications as a means to stay in power.

[6] Zakaria, F. (2016) Populism On The March: Why the West Is in Trouble. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016.

[7] Jan-Werner Müller: What Is Populism? Pp. 22-23. Emphasis in the original.

[8] Peter Trubowitz: Defining the National Interest: Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 12.

[9] Adam Balcer, Piotr Buras, Grzegorz Gromadzki, and Eugeniusz Smolar: Change in Poland, but what change? Assumptions of Law and Justice party foreign policy, Stefan Batory Foundation, May 2016. P. 3.

[10] This is Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction. Isaiah Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty. In: Four Essays on Liberty (ed.: Henry Hardy), Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] http://www.miniszterelnok.hu/orban-viktor-19-evertekelo-beszede/. Emphasis mine. Translations mine throughout the text.

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