The rise of right-wing/populist governments and the decline of cooperation

Observing international politics in the past weeks provides one a fantastic view on why inward-looking, nationalistic flavored politics ends as it invariably must end – in confusion, gridlock and heighten animosities without any tangible benefit. But let’s wind the unfolding movie back a few years to get the overall picture. I am starting off very briefly with the political changes in the last years and then continue with the visible paradoxes unfolding in international politics right now.

For reasons, which I am not going to debate here, there has been a swing from the social democratic apex in Europe during the 2000s to nationalist/right-wing/populist governments in the 2010s. Countries like Poland and Hungary led the momentum, being caught by countries like Italy, Czech Republic, Austria. Germany observes its right-wing party (AfD) evolving to the strongest opposition party, whereas in France the “En Marche” – movement of Macron only defeated in the second round the Front National. In the UK, just the election system prevents UKIP from playing a bigger role in the parliament which did not hinder to push together with conservatives from the Tory party the United Kingdom out of the EU. Complementary, in the United States the difference of the Obama era and Trump administration could not be more striking.

Interestingly, those conservative forces seemed to get along with each other pretty well. Trump called Brexit a “great thing”, in turn former British foreign minister Boris Johnson “admires” Trump. Leaders of AfD (Germany), Front National (France), FPÖ (Austria), and Party for Freedom (Netherlands) met and celebrated each other in Koblenz in 2017. The new Austrian government maintains close connections to the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary) and the Christian Social Union (Bavaria). The new Italian government under Five Star/Lega Nord does not seem to have particular allies so far in Europe but their government is new, so there is some time to see how it will develop.

What unites all those parties and persons is that they want to embody the most vivid expression of “Me First”. In international politics, it means simply that “my interests” are more important and urgent than your’s. It also means, if we gain, then I want to relatively gain more than you. Lastly, it also means “I have many red lines, don’t cross them”. The paradox (about which has been written in academic articles too) is that nationalistic parties can wonderfully cooperate when they are in opposition in their countries, but once in government their mutual love seems to fade quickly and all the talk about benefits for their constituents in foreign policy evaporate.

We are witnesses of that right now in front of our eyes. President Trump, who believes that Brexit is a great thing because it disunites the EU as a trading bloc with which he negotiates, is currently underway to impose trade barriers all over the world from Canada to China to the EU. The belief that an “America First” doctrine will ultimately lead to a beneficial post-Brexit US-UK deal is in contradiction to our experience on why TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) failed in the end. TTIP died because the US insisted on provisions that the citizenry in various EU countries would not tolerate to bear. The UK will find itself in a hostage position where its relative strength vis-à-vis the United States is much smaller than it was within the EU. It is a pipe dream to assume that the US will be more accommodating to the UK due to its “special relationship”. Such a relationship does not exist it a world full of inward-looking countries. The committee on international trade in the UK already warned the British government not to put too much hopes into such an agreement.

Another interesting example just unfolding is the topic of migration towards the EU. The interior minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, brought the current government to the brink of its existence due to his insistence to send away people who claimed in other EU countries asylum before reaching the German border. Unfortunately for him, the right-wing government in Austria (including all Visegrad countries) refuses to receive those migrants who come over the Austrian-German border. The Italian government is not eager to take those migrants too. In a few days, there will be a meeting between the interior ministers of Austria, Italy and Germany on the migration issue. Kurz and Seehofer already warned Italy that they will close the Brenner pass (North-South connection) against the will of Italy, if there will be no satisfactory agreement in the end. The truth is that Italy suffered from illegal migration before the migration crisis in 2015 and was not supported by European countries. The irony is that now there are governments in place to implement strict measures on migration but unfortunately for Italy it means that their right-wing friends will not care much about Italian interests.

In summary, what we observe now is the prelude of more interest competition to come between states with right-wing/populist governments. When alone, their insistence on the priority of their interests works well. One hawk among many doves can thrive. But many hawks in the same habitat lead to constant fighting, injuries and food deprivation. Some people claim that President Trump uses a negotiation technique which simply states that you should make a bold demand that exceeds what you actually find acceptable and then slowly backtrack and sell it as concession. This amazing technique (irony) can only work in an environment in which your negotiating partners perceive your claim as not outrageous and amenable. If everybody makes a maximum claim, often negotiations cannot start off in the first place. To make matters worse, in international politics saving your face is a crucial element of negotiations. A leader coming back home with too many concessions risks his political career. Cooperation on international level becomes harder than ever. In the end, it is cooperation what allows for sustainable, long-term and healthy development and with each new nationalistic/populist government, the pie we want to divide among people shrinks until we will fight for the crumbs.


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