From Western liberal democracies in the United States and the European Union, to historically democratic developing countries such as the Philippines, ignored, disenfranchised, and disempowered local communities emphatically made themselves heard in elections and referenda around the world. For better or for worse, the international economic order will be remade, somehow. It would be specious and condescending to merely say that this is the rise of “populism” without truly understanding the concerns of local communities who have driven electorates all over the world to reject any form of the “establishment” – whether they be traditional politicians and parties, State apparatuses, international organizations, mainstream media, or multinational corporations.
The supranationalist structures of modern international law’s prominent institutions – the United Nations (UN), the Washington Consensus behemoths such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), among others – are premised on deepening inter-State cooperation while still ensuring full respect for the basic UN Charter of the “principle of sovereign equality” of all States. However, the actual power and felt impact of these global institutions on the daily modern lives of individuals, groups, and local communities reveals serious fissures that expose an obvious imbalance between the terms of international cooperation and States’ sovereign equality – from the micromanagement of Greek agencies by EU fiscal managers and inspectors during the worst nadir of the EU’s financial crisis; the enforced austerity and structural adjustment programs of World Bank technocrats harnessing the leverage of the Bank’s conditionality lending to developing countries; the loss of jobs and social dislocations caused to communities throughout manufacturing states in the United States of America when multinational corporations move operations offshore to China or Mexico; as well as the drastically increased competition for resources and the rise in challenges to religious, social, ideological and group identity posed by cleavages within multicultural societies emerging from formerly hermetic communities now overrun by refugees and other immigrants fleeing political persecution, climate change-related natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises.
Restive “Westphalian” political elites push back against the seeming tyranny of the international system and its global institutions, in order to increasingly assert the sovereign prerogative of states and their supposed ‘independence’ from any form of international governance that ultimately erodes any of these elites’ real bases of power. The recent rise of populist, anti-establishment, anti-trade, and anti-internationalist leaders throughout established democracies – from France’s Marine Le Pen, the United States’ Donald Trump and (to a certain extent) Bernie Sanders, the United Kingdom’s Nigel Farage, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, among others – is no coincidence. ‘Silent’, faceless, and individually powerless, electoral majorities are clearly voting for leaders who project themselves as best able to roll back the worst excesses of inequality, insecurity, and uncertainty faced by households from an (actual or imagined) unrestrained international order. The rise of an unstable, deep populism throughout liberal democracies around the world does not only express what IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde calls “a groundswell of discontent” against globalization, but rather, a return to a much harder ‘Westphalian’ version of State sovereignty insulated from the common interests and shared concerns of this century’s community of nations forged and united in the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars.