Moral Combat in International Politics – Part 2

The essence of populism is the empty moral distinction between us and them, people and elite, as well as the shift from a moral combat to a mortal combat

András Radnóti
9 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.

How is populist foreign policy made?

Populists approach national unity through rallying their voters against an external enemy; by playing, that is, international politics, but playing it in the domestic public sphere. That is how we can make sense of the Hungarian government’s national campaign to ‘stop Brussels.’ A superficial overview of the same government’s behaviour in international negotiations and, crucially, at Brussels tables, reveals, however, more conformity with expectations than domestic rhetoric would suggest. We could perhaps say, then, that in populist foreign policy style matters more than content; that when PiS tells us that ‘we are rising from our knees’[1] or Fidesz, that this will be ‘the year of the global revolt’[2] they are driven, as Michael Foley writes, ‘by temperament rather than ideas.’[3] This would be a premature conclusion, however. Populists in government never play on the domestic scene only, much less in the context of dense interconnectedness in Europe. Certainly, a foreign policy conducted at home is very undiplomatic, lacking any trace of the ‘intelligence and tact’ that is the essence of diplomacy in Ernest Satow’s classic formulation.[4] But it is a foreign policy nonetheless.

In a famous essay, Robert Putnam outlined the logic of what he called two-level games,[5] where national leaders play at a domestic and an international table at once, and any move at either level influences both games. Populists morph the two-level game into an all but overt doublespeak. For populists, only the domestic game matters: action at the international table serves only to bolster their position at the domestic one. Their radical aims and actions at the domestic table justify significant fallout at the international table. Examples of this abound: from the trouble Poland had in the European Parliament and the European Commission for its tussle with the Constitutional Court to the many things European institutions found issue with in Fidesz’ comportment from the new Hungarian media law in 2010 to their attempt to shut down CEU just a few weeks ago. The rally-round-the-flag effect of domestic aims, as well as the transposition of the morally charged us-them, people-elite dichotomy into the international justifies such trouble. Any commitments, legal or institutional, that the country, including the populists, has previously signed up to, any international relationships that are considered, including by the populists, as key to the country’s security, come second after domestic aims, institutional or otherwise, as Balcer et al. foresaw in a speculative piece about PiS’ foreign policy.[6] Populist foreign policy is, then, a cynical foreign policy, one in which domestic considerations always take precedence over international ones.

What does populist foreign policy do?

The essence of populism, we have said, is the empty moral distinction between us and them, people and elite, as well as the shift from a moral combat to a mortal combat. That is true in the international as it is in the domestic sphere. It is these malleable categories — the we, the people, and the them, the elite — that populist leaders play with, pushing and pulling on the transitory line dividing them. While in domestic politics, CE populists appeal to a culturally and ethnically defined people — by and large excluding ethnic (although not necessarily national) minorities and appealing to traditional values, represented by the Catholic Church in Poland —, in the international their definition becomes more inclusive domestically and the exclusivity is transposed to the international sphere. The ‘people’ in populist foreign policy is synonymous with the ‘country.’ What happens to the elite? While a rhetorical fifth column is retained for internal mobilisation, the primary other becomes external, foreign. Nations and national sovereignty, populists say, are threatened. The threat is named as immigrants, as ‘Brussels’, as multinational companies, as philanthropists, as NGOs, or, most recently, as (English-language) places of study: products and agents, if you will, of globalisation.

Earlier this year, Orbán made the divide very clear in a speech. “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.”[7] The division is not only morally charged; the threat the ‘globalists,’ ‘unionists,’ and ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ pose to sovereign countries means that virtually all means are legitimate. It is a mortal combat we have before us. Orbán often highlights as much: ‘here, in the Carpathian Basin, the clash zone of cultures, empires, and civilisations, we can be proud of the greatest honour: in the end, we have always won the war, the war for the sustenance of the homeland and the nation.’[8] A rhetoric of war is the only pertinent accessory of a mortal combat.

The charge most often levelled at populists is that their claims — for a pure people, against a corrupt elite, and certainly in relation to external enemies — lack a solid evidential base. This is no doubt often true. (We know there is no myth that does not find opportunists for its political representation.) Not in this case, however. The problem populists react to is real. Globalisation threatens national sovereignty in a very direct way: nation states’ ‘positive liberty,’ their capacity to act is limited when faced with issues — migration, terrorism, climate change — much larger than themselves, issues that become more and more common as the world grows more interconnected and interdependent. Their ‘negative liberty,’ their freedom from external meddling, is sacrificed when they cede sovereignty to supranational institutions to deal with them. Nation-states, and only nation-states, remain legitimate in the eyes of their inhabitants, because national sovereignty continues to order the way in which we think about international politics. They may no longer be truly sovereign, however. This is the state of affairs populists have put up a fight against.

How does populist foreign policy relate to Europe?

Populists’ attachment to national sovereignty stands in contradiction with the principle of the ‘ever closer union,’ and this goes some way to explaining their Euroscepticism. Their opposition to the liberal democratic values the EU is founded upon drives the explanation further. They present themselves as champions of democracy and opposed only to (globalising) liberalism, with Orbán saying in February that “the liberal school of thought has turned against the idea of democracy, that is, the idea of a community organised based on the will of the majority.” Clearly, Orbán understands democracy as majority rule only, without the rule of law, minority rights, or press freedom — or EU political values, as listed in the Copenhagen criteria and Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. Values that make the EU, in the words of Stephen Walt, ‘the clearest embodiment of liberal ideals on the planet’[9] — what populists call to arms against.

In this they are supported by the well-meaning theorists, including the great Cas Mudde,[10] who treat liberalism and democracy as distinct objects of analysis. Doing so is not only conceptually erroneous; it is politically dangerous. This reasoning provides the bone to populists’ rhetoric of ‘arch-democracy’ — that is, it legitimises their minimalist definition of democracy — saving their conformity to a basic norm. Space does not afford a detailed rejection of this tenet here, but in any case I could not do this more eloquently than János Kis. Kis writes that ‘the qualifier, “liberal,” does not constrain the concept of democracy but explains it,’ liberal democracy and illiberal democracy ‘are not variants of democracy but mutually exclusive interpretations of the same concept of democracy. If liberal democracy is democracy, illiberal democracy is not.’[11]

Populists’ worldview is complemented by a sincere belief that the demise of the EU and, more broadly, the West, is imminent, and a truly multipolar world is around the corner.[12] Since mortal combat leaves no room for values-based cooperation, populists are left with an essentially arch-realist vision of the international as a Hobbesian state of nature; status belli, pure and simple, mediated by great power balancing and bargaining. This vision has been bolstered by Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump, as well as Vladimir Putin’s advances in Ukraine and in Syria. ‘Nations have risen up again in the past year. They have risen up against the unholy alliance of Brussels bureaucrats, the liberal world media and the insatiable hunger of international capital. First the English, then the Americans, to be followed this year,’ Orbán said on 15 March.

Beyond being essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy — to wit, if nations were in a ‘state of revolt’, as Orbán thinks they are, the EU’s demise would in fact be imminent — this reasoning calls for coalition-building within and beyond the EU. A strong Visegrad coalition, or a Carpathian Group, populists think, should form the new ‘pole’ that is needed for the region to exert influence at the Brussels table and elsewhere. The ‘nationalist internationale’ need not be conceptually possible in order to be politically possible, of course. Still, it can and should be questioned; strategic conflict, for example over issues of kin beyond borders or varying attitudes to Russia should sooner or later come to fore. The ruling parties’ nationalist, traditionalist ideological leanings, best expressed in their opposition to immigration, holds the alliance together for now. It is granted a certain resilience, furthermore, by populist politics itself: populists frame the region as a whole as the morally pure people, who face a corrupt, liberal Brussels elite.


In domestic politics, populists turn the moral combat into a mortal combat through denying their opponents’ legitimacy. There, this means a breakdown of the checks on the executive and of the guarantees of fundamental rights. At the same time, populists introduce empty but radical moral division into international politics, whilst portraying opponents as enemies of the political community they claim alone to represent. This amounts to closing the door to international cooperation. It leads to the dissolution of values-based international political projects, and a reversal to a world of balancing, bargaining, and war. In international politics, coolness, reason, and tested institutions: trade, diplomacy, and international organisations may be the answer to the populist tide.

Yet the problem the populist foreign policy phenomenon reacts to is real. National sovereignty and globalisation stand opposed to one another. Instead of forcing either national sovereignty or globalisation, pro-European political forces must resolve the contradiction. This will require revisiting the essential organising principle of thinking about international politics, national sovereignty. A key EU principle, subsidiarity, and regionalism — the post-war concept of the ‘Europe of regions,’ — might be part of the way forward.

In this short paper, I attempted to outline a way of approaching populist foreign policy. I looked at the concepts it employs, nation and national unity, national interest, and national sovereignty. I discussed the way in which populists operationalise these concepts following domestic, rather than international, considerations. I argued that the empty moral distinction between the people and the elite — the hallmark of populism — in populist foreign policy morphs into one between the nation and its sovereign nation-state on the one hand and the forces of globalisation on the other. Since all means are legitimate in the fight against the Feind, which must be fought to the last breath, this dichotomy brings with itself an illiberal agenda and a belief in, and hope for, the decline of a values-based Europe, militating for a Eurosceptic stance.

My hope is that this discussion — both at the conference and subsequently — will add to our understanding of a phenomenon that shapes our region, and our Europe, in a fundamental way. I am expecting both theoretical and empirical addenda and criticism from the colleagues in the room — all of whom are better qualified to speak about the subject than I am. I do hope, however, that this sketch has succeeded in balling up the initial bit of snow. Now, let us give it a gentle nudge.

The first part of the article was published on 7th of August.

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.

[1] Balcer et al.: Change in Europe. P. 2.


[3] Michael Foley: American Political Ideas: Traditions and Usages. Manchester University Press, 1993. P. 140.

[4] Ernest Satow: Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice (5th edn, ed.: Lord Gore-Booth), Longman, 1979. P. 3.

[5] Putnam, R.D. (1988) Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games. International Organization, 42:3.

[6] Balcer et al.: Change in Poland. P. 1.




[10] Not incidentally, Mudde’s recent book (Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017) is the best contribution to the debate on populism to date. It captures, and sharply analyses, the moral nature of populist discourse. Mudde’s error is in overlooking the inseparable nature of liberalism and democracy and therefore to draw all the wrong conclusions about the relationship of populism to democracy and about possible responses to populist politics.

[11] János Kis: Demokrácia vagy autokrácia? A szürke zóna felosztásáról, forthcoming. Emphases in the original, translation mine.

[12] Balcer et al: Change in Poland. P. 2.