Liberal sovereigntism, new nationalism and the illusion of choice
Joe Biden is not alone in exhibiting a contradictory foreign policy model of outward liberal discourse and my-country-first actions
As Joe Biden’s presidency reached its first 100 days, most retrospectives highlighted the ‘transformative’ and ‘radical’ decisions of the new US president, such as his surprisingly progressive fiscal policy. Less attention was paid to the warnings of observers who noted that Biden’s policies present quite a few continuities with those of his predecessor, particularly in foreign policy.
Indeed, Biden has kept in place most of Donald Trump’s tariffs. Far from returning to pre-2016 orthodoxy, he is doubling down on protectionism with his ‘Buy American’ campaign. The US still has not returned to the Iran nuclear deal, nor does it show signs of easing tensions with China. Even the recent announcement of support for a waiver on COVID vaccine patents was unilateral, catching allies such as the EU and the UK off guard, and does little to offset the effects of the Trump-inspired export ban on vaccine materials that Biden has retained. In sum, even as he pays lip service to alliances and partnerships like NATO, Biden does not seem willing to break fully with the Trumpian mindset of prioritizing immediate material US interests and domestic popular grievances over the needs of allies and the international order.
But Biden is not alone in exhibiting this contradictory foreign policy model of outward liberal discourse and my-country-first actions. Other leaders who previously were viewed as bulwarks of liberal internationalism against advancing populism have followed policies that, in reality, do not conform much to their rhetoric or the lofty expectations vested in them.
French president Emmanuel Macron, whose 2017 victory against Marine Le Pen was widely celebrated, has led efforts to create a ‘European sovereignty’, uploading to the EU level a classical nationalist agenda of protectionism and militarized borders. In New Zealand, prime minister Jacinda Ardern, praised for her handling of the COVID crisis, has avoided antagonizing Beijing over human rights abuses in order to protect her country’s exports. In the Netherlands, the nominally liberal Mark Rutte’s decade-long reign as prime minister has been possible thanks to his adoption of anti-EU themes from the populist Right. The doyen of this mode of politics is German chancellor Angela Merkel, proclaimed after Trump’s victory the ‘leader of the free world’, but in reality presiding over a ruthlessly mercantilist foreign policy that promotes Germany’s export interests in authoritarian states like China, Russia and Turkey.
The irony is that this crop of sovereigntist politicians is still praised by media, pundits and think tankers as the great foes of nationalist populism. Of course, there are many ways that Biden, Macron, Merkel and Ardern differ from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan or Trump. In terms of political esthetic, the populism vs anti-populism divide that captured expert and popular imagination alike in previous years still holds to some degree. But in practice, the policy spectrum within which these two camps compete is much narrower than appearances suggest.
Neoliberal globalization in crisis
How did we end up here? The transformation of national political systems followed successive crises of neoliberal globalization in the past 15 years, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis to the COVID pandemic. These moments of crisis accelerated two long-term disruptive trends: the rise of China and a new great-power technological competition.
Both challenged the ideal of unfettered trade and open markets underpinned by international institutions and an ideological discourse that presented the nation-state as antiquated. China made it necessary for the state in the West to step in to protect national interests and markets, as well as powerful business actors, from foreign competition; while technological developments in the digital sphere are pushing governments to aggressively pursue advantages lest they are left behind by competitors.
In many ways, the populist explosions of the previous decade reflected the adaptation of national political systems to this process of fragmentation of globalization. Whether on the Left or on the Right, populist movements shared a common aversion to the erosion of popular sovereignty at the national level, the empowerment of unaccountable supranational institutions, the exposure of domestic economies to international competition, and the unwillingness of elites to address the downsides of global economic integration and technological advances like automation.
Populism has been the midwife of a new equilibrium, crushing the neoliberal parties of the center Right and center Left
In some cases, these populists entrenched themselves in power. Yet even where they were deposed or never won an election, their imprint has been unmistakable. Even ostensibly non-populist leaders have ended up following the populist playbook of, invariably, geoeconomic competition, a transactional and selective approach to international rules, and the prioritization of national material interests over universal values.
Populism has been the midwife of a new equilibrium, crushing the neoliberal parties of the center Right and center Left as they were supplanted or conquered from the inside by a new unapologetic nationalism on the Right and a liberal sovereigntism on the Left. In the process, societal frustrations with globalization and loss of sovereignty were harnessed to meet the needs of the state in a new competitive environment.
To be sure, the upending of the neoliberal globalization consensus was long overdue. From an economic perspective, more state activism is welcome. From a democratic perspective, there is nothing wrong with national governments acting with the interests of their constituents in mind, rather than those of the transnational financial and technocratic elite. Returning to an international order akin to the post-war Western-based ‘embedded liberalism’ writ global may be the best available alternative, given the opposing demands on this order emanating from inside Western societies and from rising non-Western powers.
Yet the price for this more viable equilibrium internationally may be a new political equilibrium domestically where genuine democratic choice is still crowded out. Truly radical demands are easily deflected by a rhetoric of ‘build back better’, ‘buy national’ and ‘levelling up’ employed by both nationalists and liberal sovereigntists.
The demand for democratic representation is stifled by the proliferation of a mediatized, personalized and virtual style of top-down politics practiced by leaders who play the domestic arena off the international one, while the erosion of parties, unions and other vehicles of mass mobilization continues unabated. In this environment, polarization over intangible, identity-based issues may actually reflect the function of the new competition to offer an illusion of choice under an essential agreement on how domestic society must adapt to the geopolitical, economic and technological pressures faced by the Western state.
To be clear, there may always be good reasons why, between a nationalist and a liberal sovereigntist, a voter should choose the latter. But this must not obscure the fact that both camps have emerged as different responses to the same structural development: the territorial reconstitution of previously transnational capitalism that is now trying to shelter itself behind the political and regulatory power of the state it once spurned. While progressive reforms like Biden’s or a cooperative discourse on international affairs by leaders like Merkel are welcome, neither addresses the representational and material inequities that gave rise to populism in the first place. As such, this new equilibrium carries within it the seeds of its own undoing.
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