Democracy, Populism, & Domestic Politics, Europe The Bark and Bite of Populist Foreign Policies: 2021 Distinguished Lecture in Global Policy

January 26, 2021
By Andrew Moravcsik | Perry World House

This is a transcript of our 2021 Distinguished Lecture in Global Policy by Andrew Moravcsik, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University.

Great, thanks very much for having me. And let me say at the start, I really appreciated my year at Perry World House and it's a great intellectual environment. Unfortunately, we were cut off halfway through by COVID. So I appreciate being invited back to engage with you on this topic. I understand it's a quite varied audience here. So I'm going to range from being a little bit more academic, and maybe most people in the crowd would want to hear to being less so, so I'll just try to strike a middle road. But I want to talk about this important question, which is how influential right-wing populist parties are in foreign policymaking these days. And certainly there is a lot of concern out there about it. These are scary parties in many ways, as you can see at the upper left and the lower left, they're anti European, they engage in strident rhetoric. There we have Viktor Orbán. Many people think that they may be encouraging the dissolution of democracies, they hang out with with Donald Trump and others. And so there's many reasons not to like them.

But I don't want to address that question. I want to address the question of how influential they are. And there's been an enormous amount written about these parties, both by journalists and by scholars. In fact, there's been more written about extreme right wing populist parties than all other parties in the Western world combined over the past 20 years. And this is explored many interesting aspects of these parties, but one thing I found to my surprise when I went to the literature is that there is very, very little written on what their consequences are for policy and almost nothing on foreign policy.

So to give you just one example, I've got a prop here, the Oxford Handbook on Populism, which came out a couple of years ago, 800 pages long. And in those 800 pages, there are two paragraphs devoted to their policies, the foreign policies of such parties, and none to the foreign policy consequences except for one sentence on migration. And that's quite typical of the literature as a whole. So I set out to ask, what kind of impact do they have? And my answer today will be perhaps somewhat surprising to you, which is I don't think they have very much in most cases. And I'm going to start by looking at the 28 countries of Europe, the 27 in the EU and Britain, and just ask this question, how much influence have they had and if not, why? So I start from a very simple assumption in trying to understand these parties, and that is that they are all run by politicians. So they look a lot scarier here than they look here. These are just regular politicians trying to get ahead in politics. And my assumption is that they therefore have to do the same things that politicians have to do everywhere. That's an intuitive sense of what it means to try to wield influence in politics. And what are the four things that a European radical right populist party needs to do?

First, they need to win a significant percentage of popular votes, so they're a player at all in the system. Secondly, they need to translate those votes into legislative seats and parliamentary systems. Third, they need to enter a governing coalition. So they're not just outsiders and they need to convince the people that are with them in that coalition to adopt their policies. And finally, because as it's foreign policy, they need to negotiate with foreign countries to try to accommodate whatever changes they want or just go it alone and act unilaterally. If you want to put this in more social-scientific language, the influence of populist, radical right parties on foreign policy is a function of public support, institutional bias in representing them in parliaments, their ability to dominate their coalition and their countries' relative power in negotiations. And my bottom line is that in practice, these four constraints mean that such parties rarely wield significant influence on foreign policy. And I don't mean just that they fail to achieve some ambitious goals. They fail to implement any distinctive policy at all. In other words, they're subject to the same constraints everybody else is. They aren't somehow scary or more effective because they're ideologically extreme. They still need to struggle to get stuff done.

And a glance at the numbers about these parties in Europe will show you why. So let's start at the beginning. Their problem is to get to 50 percent. That is, get an important say and convince 50 percent of the political system or the voters or the coalition of parties to pursue their goals. So here is the voting share that starts with getting a significant number of votes, and here is their voting share in the most recent election. So what you can see immediately is of the 28 countries, there are only a handful who get more than 20 percent of the vote. Even the coalition of all such parties in the system, and even with a rather generous definition of what a populist, radical right party is, the only party anywhere in the Western world to have achieved a majority in its coalition is the Polish ruling party. Nobody else has ever done it, and most parties are very far from it. In fact, there are lots of countries that don't really have any significant populist party at all.

Then political systems translate those votes into seats and this advantages some countries or some parties and disadvantages others. So you see at the top that the reason why the Hungarian and British parties are comfortable ruling parties today is not because they got a majority of votes, because they never have, but because the political system has biases in it, as many political systems do that award them those votes. In Poland, the bias is small. In Hungary, it's been manipulated, so it's very large. In Britain, it's traditionally rather large. And we should remember in the United States as well, it was a minority government under President Trump that pursued some of these policies. Most other parties seem rather limited in their influence. Now, what are they going to do next? They need to translate that into cabinet representation. And here again, the parties at the top do better than you would expect. And then certain smaller parties form coalitions with ruling parties, but most of them are left out in the cold. the yellow ones, so Italy and Estonia, are parties that were in the current electoral cycle, part of the government, but then were kicked out, the Estonians most recently. Now you'll notice that there are a lot of zeros there. And one of the reasons is because extremist parties are not very attractive coalition partners. So in many countries, say Germany, they're ritually excluded from government, something called a cordon sanitaire policy.

And in other countries, the system of representation makes them extremely weak. The striking example of this is France. If you look halfway down, the French Rassemblent National, Marine Le Pen's party, gets 14 percent of the vote, but only one percent of the seats and is excluded from government. This is striking, perhaps because if you read about these parties in the paper, you read a lot about Marine Le Pen and being part of the presidential election in France and being a spokesman for this kind of ideology in Europe. But it's, in fact, a striking example of how weak these parties really are. Here's Marine Le Pen's power as of last month. She got beaten two to one in the presidential election in 2017, never had any chance of winning. Has seven, almost one percent of the legislative seats, and less than one percent of the senators, no regional council presidencies, very few members of regional councils or departments or departmental councils, and does a little bit better in the European Parliament, but still relatively weak. That's typical for these parties.

Now, suppose you do get into government. That's the third step. You have to get into the governing coalition and then convince the other parties to accept your views. So the party that's had the best shot at this, that wasn't a single ruling party like in Hungary or Poland is in Austria, where the radical right populist party in Austria twice in the last 20 years has gotten into government for extended periods of time. And what's been the consequence? The consequence for foreign policy has been next to nothing, with the exception of migration, which we'll come back to. The FPO went along with moderate proposals by the larger parties in the coalition. I spoke to somebody very high up in the coalition, the most recent one with Mr. Kurtz, and asked that person, what was it like to be in a coalition with these people? And that person said, we told them, we agree with you on migration, so we'll have a restrictive migration policy. And other than that, we'll give you a bunch of civil service positions and leave the policy to us. And that's exactly what happened, and what's more, they self-destructed after only a couple of years and now Austria is in a coalition with the Greens.

This is quite typical, the lack of influence of these parties, even when they get into government. Now, we've in this study looked at 32 different issues. We've gotten down to very small issues, like the status of policies directed at helping minorities in Ukraine, and all manner of things. Here are some of the big ones. Green is when these countries and parties go along with the EU majority or the the Western majority in the case of NATO, red is when they don't. Yellow is or green is when the party may have a different view, may have pushed a different issue, but the government position is not quite clear. But what you see basically is lots of green. It's very, very difficult for one of these parties to change the basic policy of their country toward NATO, toward Russian sanctions or aid to Ukraine, toward external borders, where the majority position in Europe is to close those borders.

There are only really two kinds of exceptions. One is a country exception, which is the UK. And those two red boxes in the middle are Brexit, basically. And a vertical exception, which is migrant quotas that a number of countries of disproportionately populist, extreme right governments with populist, extreme right participation opposed European quotas for distributing migrants when they came into the EU. And then there's the issue of rule of law. Hard to know whether that's a foreign policy or domestic issue where countries had scattered views, resisted it for a time, and then in recent months caved.

So it's a very thin record of any kind of success. So that's the first thing we learn from this. What's the second thing? What do you do if you're this kind of party? You've made a lot of flamboyant promises. You have flamboyant rhetoric, but you understand that the policy that results, at least in the foreign policy area, is going to be pretty moderate. So what's your response and the answer is to bark, but not bite. OK, so a populist party's optimal strategic response, given all these constraints, is to try to satisfy both pragmatists, either pragmatists in their own party, if you're say in Hungary, or pragmatists in a party with which you're in a coalition, through what I call rhetorical logrolling, basically your base, the radical nationalists in your party, get symbolic statements, rhetoric, tiny concessions on small issues. And the pragmatists, the centrists, the moderates, your allies get the important concrete policies. You bark, but you don't bite. So we can divide parties into two types, they're the small ones in Europe who really have no hope of getting into office, so they just bark, they maintain extreme positions and just resign themselves to the fact that they're not going to be in government and somebody else is going to implement moderate policies.

The more interesting case is the big ones, because what do they do? They moderate their concrete policy positions in order to get into a governing coalition like the Austrians that I described did, and then they find things to bark about rhetorically. The master of this policy is Viktor Orbán. So Viktor Orbán gets lots of criticism in the West for his foreign policy actions, but almost all of those actions are symbolic, notably the fact that he cozies up to Vladimir Putin, that Putin has lunch or dinner with him a couple of times a year, says a few nice things. But as you saw from the table before, when it comes to the issues that matter and what are those things like supporting NATO, supporting the West in Ukraine, remaining part of the E.U. and so on? Orbán never even attempts to change the consensus policy in the West. Instead, what they do is try to find issues that are symbolically important, but in real world completely insignificant.

And interestingly, the one thing that created the biggest ruckus in Europe in recent years is something called the UN Global Compact for Migration. Now, in practice, the UN Global Compact for Migration is an institution that was voted through agreement or a resolution that was voted through by the General Assembly. It's not even a treaty. It can't even be signed. It's not binding legally. But all the populist parties in Europe jumped out against it, even though it was essentially meaningless. And the Poles, the Hungarians and the Czechs went so far as to vote against it in the UN, as did Trump. A few other countries abstained, like Italy, which then had radical right parties in the government and Australia and some countries didn't show up. But the effect of this was nothing.

But it made it appear as if they were doing something important. And this is quite typical. Another example, Mr Salvini in Italy. So Mr Salvini in Italy was Interior Minister and deputy prime minister for a year and a half, ending about a year ago. You may go back into government and his big calling card rhetorically was that he would close the ports of Italy to migrants, particularly. This is his Twitter feed. Did he really do that? No, and you can see that if you just look at the data on irregular Mediterranean migrants that entered into Italy, you'll see that it goes up and down. They come in the summer and don't come so much when the weather's bad in the winter. This is when Matteo Salvini was in office here. So you see high in the summer, low in the winter, high in the summer at roughly the same rates. No real change. The big changes in Italian migration, inward migration, or way back in 2015 and 16, when a technocratic government of Gentiloni worked with the rest of the Europeans to limit migration, and then a smaller blip here when the Italians signed an agreement with Libya, that was the former Democratic Party government.

What Salvini did was, said a lot of things, forced, in a very cruel way, migrants to float around in the ocean a while before he let them in the Italian ports, and run his Twitter feed so that he appeared to be the guy defending Italy. The other thing he did was to moderate his policies. So Salvini used to advocate exiting from the European Union. He used to advocate exiting from the euro. He doesn't anymore because he wants to be prime minister of Italy. And in order to be prime minister of Italy, he needs to moderate his policies to generate more votes. And even clearer example of this is Marine Le Pen in France 10 years ago, she inherited a party from her father that had Nazi rhetoric and so on. Five years ago, she still favored a Frexit, pulling out of Europe. And slowly over the past five or six years, she's moderated that policy until she's a much more mainstream politician. And there's nothing unusual about that. Five years ago, there were 15 parties in Europe that favored pulling out of the EU. Now there are only two and they're tiny and insignificant. So as you can see, basically, that's why this chart is green.

Now, final point. Final point here is that they're the exceptions. Remember, there is the horizontal exception of the UK, which is Brexit, and there's the vertical exception of migrant quotas. So why these exceptions? And I think the third thing we can say as a generalization is exceptions arise in two cases. That is to say parties can be influential in two cases. Number one, there can be a situation where everybody in the political spectrum, for some external reason, adopts a policy which happens to be similar to that of the radical right party. That's what happened in migration. So if you see tighten external borders, countries had various positions on how much they wanted to tighten external borders until 2015, when a million and a half people came over the border in 18 months from the Mediterranean, at which point every country in Europe, every party in Europe and indeed every country in the OECD became an advocate of closing borders.

In countries that were more conservative, every country, regardless of whether there was a radical right party in power, opposed migrant quotas. And so the far right benefited from this, but they didn't cause it. At most, they contributed to it. Now, what's the other type of exception, the other type of exception is what I call an exception that proves the rule and and that is Brexit. Here we have the Brexit years. So what do we mean in social science, if we say an exception that proves the rule? So it means two things, both of which are true about the Brexit case. The first is, it's an outlier, if you think back to those initial conditions for the success of a radical right party. One is that it is gets a significant number of votes and support for some radical agenda. Secondly, that it is advantaged by representative institutions in a way that gives it a majority. Third, is it that can control its coalition. And the fourth is that's a large enough country that it's even plausible to think that it could pursue a unilateral policy. Britain fits all four of those criteria, more than almost any other country or more than any other country in Europe. So if there were to be an exception, it would be in Britain.

But even in that case, it's only an exception that proves the rule in another sense. And that is that an amazingly unlikely set of circumstances converged, a kind of perfect storm, to make Brexit possible. Just think about it. First, a sitting Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, called an unnecessary referendum that he promised to do. Tony Blair promised to call one too, he just forgot about his promise, but Cameron went ahead with it. Then he didn't stop ministers in his own cabinet from campaigning against the government position, which he could have done. Third, a very talented individual, Boris Johnson, happened to be one of those ministers and went for it. The referendum was lost in the only two month period in the last five years when a majority of Britons favored leave over remain, according to polls.

It was ratified by a first election which brought in a lot of pro-Brexit candidates because the Conservative Party selects its candidates not by the parliamentary party, but by local groups who are very conservative. Parliament failed to call a second referendum, which almost certainly would have reversed the outcome, or reverse the outcome themselves on numerous occasions by only a few votes. Then another general election was held in which Boris Johnson had the good luck to run against the least popular opposition candidate in 75 years of polling of British elections. And finally, British tradition suggests that you can't now unseat or call a no confidence vote against the government until the end of its term. Without any or a few of these things, Brexit never would have happened. It was really extremely fluky. So I think we can even view Brexit, though significant, as a part of the evidence why these factors that I've pointed out are the ones that really drive for the radical right parties can affect foreign policy. And the overwhelming answer is no, thank you.