Populism and Extremism in Foreign Policy

1177_titleI’ve recently prepared some thoughts on foreign policy of populist and extremist parties in postcommunist Europe and have uploaded an annotated presentation–see Populist foreign policy annotated.ppt or Populist foreign policy annotated.pdf–for those who are interested. It contains some thoughts on definitions of extremism and populism, makes reference to the excellent expert surveys by Hooghe and Marks et al and suggests that the two most important dynamics in assessing extremists foreign policy involve the tension between foreign and domestic policy (with domestic political needs usually prevailing) and the tension between extremist parties and their proximate “non-extreme” neighbors (and the more v. less extreme factions within those non-extreme parties).  An excerpt below:

When thinking about the broader patterns and how policy-makers should approach these, it is important to note that there are two important dynamics, areas of competition whose outcome has a critical impact on party positions and government policy. The first dynamic is the give and take between foreign and domestic policy arenas. While it may sometimes be the case that foreign-policy issues are highly salient and come first in the public mind, the evidence here and elsewhere (see Liang, Europe for the Europeans) that it is domestic policy questions—and quite often the quest for electoral advantage—that drives foreign policy positions. It is notable, however that extremism and populism have distinct patterns in this regard. In cases of purely extremism, the desire to exclude is often a genuine party goal, and parties may take foreign policy positions to reward those who dislike the same enemies or punish those who champion those enemies (as in the case of extremists increasing their opposition to the United States in response to US recognition of Kosovo, regarded as hurtful to Serbs and metaphorically as hurtful to those countries with large, regionally settled minority groups (Slovakia, Romania)

The populist dynamic can be the same as the extremist dynamic, though the populists may be more likely to employing the extremist cause for the sake of votes rather than out of genuine (this is an assumption and therefore likely to prove wrong on further investigation). The populist dynamic may also have another aspect, however that is relatively unique to populism: since populist parties (by the definition I have used) depend on attacks on a corrupt elite, they face difficulties once in power since they become elites themselves. Rather than seek alternative bases of support, the populist parties may seek instead to look for other “elites” above themselves toward whom they can allege corruption and against whom they can campaign. This may cause them to turn their attacks to major powers and supra-national organizations (the US, the EU) so that they can say, “yes we were elected, but now we’re fighting the real corrupt elite: them”

There is a second key dynamic at play here: the dance between extremists and those closest to the extremists on the “non-exclusionary” side of the boundary (a boundary whose location varies depending on the perspective of the observer and the context). The extremist parties themselves are rarely strong enough to shape policy directly, but they can do so in coalition or through their influence on vote-sensitive “flirt” parties. Parties such as Slovakia’s Smer and Poland’s PiS have demonstrated a willingness to enter into coalitions with parties with similar but more extreme positions on “exclusion” issues. The question, of course, is in which direction the influence runs, whether it is the extremist parties that shape the more moderate (but often much larger variant) or the other way around. Extremist parties can also shift the positions of moderate counterparts by forcing such parties into more extreme positions to avoid the loss of voters to the extremes, but only if they think they can do so without losing centrist voters. More work on such dynamics can be found in Przeworski and Sprague’s Paper Stones (1986) among many others).

Of course the interaction between extremists and moderates may also occur within individual parties and indeed most of the “flirt” parties and larger non-extremist populists have internal factions that represent a range of opinions from those near (or as extreme as) the extremist parties to those who hold rather moderate views on the same questions. The resulting policy positions depend on the complex interplay of coalition partners, intra-party organization and decision-making and voter preference. These are obviously highly contextual and so deciphering (much less predicting) these developments in particularly countries requires considerable local knowledge, even as broader, big-N research can help to identify relevant variables.