Dubai: Populist movements were until recently on the rise in many countries. Inspired by the triumph of Donald Trump who stormed his way into the White House three years ago on a populist ‘Make America Great Again’ platform, several populist parties won elections, mainly in Eastern Europe.
In the October 17, 2019 polls, Poland’s rightwing populist Law and Justice party won 43.6 per cent of the vote and regained its majority in the lower house of parliament. Not far from Poland, Hungary had just a year earlier gone the same route, with its populist ruling party gaining ground.
On April 8, 2018, the Fidesz–KDNP alliance, led by rightwing Prime Minister Victor Orban, won two-thirds majority, powered on by a purely nationalist campaign platform that focused mainly on immigration and foreign meddling. The election results were seen as a victory for right-wing populism in Europe.
Like Trump who began his term in 2017 by closing United States borders, starting to build a wall on the border with Mexico, ordering sweeping protectionist trade policies, including heavy tariffs on imports from China and Europe, and renegotiating the NAFTA trade pact with Canada and Mexico, Europe’s populists looked inwards and put their countries’ international commitments into doubt. International cooperation and multilateral approach in international relations seemed to be on the defensive, and isolationism and unilateral polices were on the rise.
Empowered by the anti-foreigner policies
As the coronavirus struck the world, the populists tendencies started to shake. Governments that were a few months ago empowered by the anti-foreigner policies and slogans began asking for help. International organisations, such as the United Nations and World Health Organisation (WHO) that were ridiculed by President Trump and other populist governments, are gaining prominence.
Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, this week said that the coronavirus outbreak would change our world forever. “The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus,” he wrote in an article on The Wall Street Journal. The 91-year-old is a widely respected political theorist, who has never been an admirer of multilateralism in international relations.
In his book, World Order, published in 2014, Kissinger described former US President Woodrow Wilson as ‘naïve’ for seeking to set the world on an ideal course based on respect for international law and diplomacy rather than force. He had much praise in his book for former president Theodore Roosevelt who promoted policies primarily focused on national interest, geopolitical considerations, and the use of raw power.
Not a purely national effort
But in his Wall Street Journal article, Kissinger seemed to change course. He stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic does not know borders. The key to combat the virus, he wrote, is not a purely national effort but greater international cooperation.
In Poland, the retreat from nationalist solutions to national crises as propagated by the Law and Justice party is faster than the virus assault. The government last month pleaded with the European Union to increase the aid amount allocated to Warsaw.
The European Commission in early March announced a plan worth over €37 billion ($40 billion) of investment for EU countries, with Poland as the top receiver, with over €7 billion. The funds would go towards coronavirus-related health care expenditure like buying ventilators, masks and hospital equipment, as well as short-term employment schemes and support for small and medium-sized businesses impacted by the pandemic. Echoing the government’s complaints, the Polish media voiced concerns that the EU was not doing enough to help Poland fight the coronavirus.
In the US meanwhile, Trump has been sounding reconciliatory lately when discussing the global response to the pandemic and its impact. He held virtual meetings with the G20 to discuss an international solution to the coronavirus crisis and its global economic impact. He discussed the plummeting oil prices with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Russia. He even extended promises of help to other countries, like Italy.
The coronavirus may not knock out populism outright. These right-wing parties will not embrace internationalism today. But, surely, multilateralism is gaining important ground as more governments subscribe to the increasingly recognised belief that the right response to the pandemic is an international one.