When Populist Nationalists Tempt Geopolitical Fate
AP Photo/ Dar Yasin, File
When Populist Nationalists Tempt Geopolitical Fate
AP Photo/ Dar Yasin, File
Story Stream
recent articles
  • U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been providing ample evidence as to why the campaign promises and election manifestos of latter-day populist-nationalists should not be easily dismissed as mere rhetoric that will be tempered once in office. 
  • In claiming to be the vox populi for a narrow segment of the population, populist-nationalists will claim an outsize political mandate that makes them far more willing to defy traditional constraints.
  • But when populist-nationalists rely on tribalism to strengthen a nation in their own image, they may also end up fundamentally threatening the geopolitical foundation of their states. 

Last week, the leader of the world's largest democracy unilaterally redrew borders in a territory that lies at the heart of a dispute with the country's two nuclear-armed neighbors. Meanwhile, the leader of a once-almighty global power could pull an electoral stunt within the next 11 weeks that drives his land into constitutional and economic bedlam. And in less than 17 months, voters in the world's longest-living modern democracy will decide whether a presidential record of global trade wars, stressed alliances and thick-skinned immigration and environmental policies deserves a renewed mandate. 

Despite being explicit in their rhetoric, the actual actions of latter-day populist-nationalists still seem to shock and awe even the most seasoned observers among us. In the first instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's move to simultaneously bifurcate and strip autonomy from the disputed territory of Kashmir was lying in plain sight on page 12, point 14 of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) 2019 election manifesto. In the second case, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forthright with his intent to force a no-deal Brexit "do or die, come what may" — even if this means losing a no-confidence motion but forcing through a no-deal Brexit regardless by scheduling an early election to be held immediately after Brexit D-Day. And in the third example, U.S. President Donald Trump may have seen the courts and Congress stymie many of his policies, but he has delivered on a long list of campaign promises (withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal; declaring China a currency manipulator; indiscriminately imposing tariffs on trading partners in the name of lowering the trade deficit; restricting legal immigration to the United States and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to name a few) against the odds.

Modi, Johnson and Trump are all political figures operating in legitimate democracies with institutional checks and balances. But why do these populist-nationalists seem to get away with more — and at what cost? 

Conventional Thinkers Need Not Apply

In answering this question, the first instinct is to try and classify these leaders like groups of elements on a periodic table. But "populists" operating in democratic systems are a particularly tricky breed to categorize. As political scholar Cas Mudde explains, populism is a "thin" ideology, in that it audaciously — if shallowly — claims to represent "the people" against "the establishment," the pure versus the corrupt and so on. It does not, however, offer much beyond that. There is no populist prescription about how to shape the economy or the political system, meaning populists will typically latch onto more substantive ideologies for definition, be it socialism on the far left or hardcore nationalism on the far right. And because more structural forces — from aging demographics to technological leaps to big shifts in trade and migration flows — are creating deep angst across much of the world, it is little wonder that we're witnessing a proliferation of populist-nationalists in several democratic systems. Essentially, segments of the voter base in such countries feel like they're not benefiting economically from a globalized system or that "outsiders" are changing their national character or impeding their social mobility.

In turn, charismatic leaders turn Twitter into a megaphone to seize on that sentiment and claim an outsize political mandate, bend the institutions that are designed to restrain them and assault — without consequences — the core liberal concepts of pluralism, minority rights and the separation of powers. This takes a lot of guts and a lot of ego to pull off. Populists do not view themselves as cogs within a broader political system; instead, they believe they are the system. Nuance, in either policy rhetoric or action, has no place in this worldview. All too quickly, such leaders dismiss the subsequent economic, environmental and social effects of their actions as politically inconvenient details that clutter a campaign or a reelection to-do list. And since populist-nationalists are highly polarizing by design, it takes a lot of effort — and usually a heavy dose of conspiracy theories highlighting the peril of the shadowy forces plotting to take them down — to hold the attention of a narrower base when the aftershocks of their policies start to catch up to them once in office.

In addition to trying to classify these leaders, we observers also have a natural tendency to dwell on the constraints that would, putatively, hold these populist-nationalists back. What kind of militant backlash and legal challenges would come with stripping Kashmir of its autonomy overnight? What would Johnson's decision to schedule an election for Nov. 1, the day after an expected no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, due to his popularity if the pound is plunging and there are massive pileups of people and goods on the border? What would Trump's imposition of tariffs on toys, phones and shoes during the holiday shopping season do to the U.S. economy and his 2020 reelection bid? 

But even as the drawbacks of such actions pile up, we still can't shake that gnawing question: "What if they do it anyway?" After all, it's much easier to quantify the impact on a country's gross domestic product or constitutional law as a constraint on political action than it is to assign a weight to fuzzier forces, like sovereignty, nationalism or nativism. But, in the end, those are the forces that could actually knock down a long line of conventional constraints. 

All of a sudden, then, "extreme" scenarios no longer seem all that extreme. And so our attention turns to a different question: What long-term costs will nations have to pay once populist-nationalists have exited the political scene? Modi, Johnson and Trump may be manifestations of deeper forces that have been building for decades, but they are fueling a particularly potent strand of tribalism in contemporary politics that risks chipping away at the fundamental geopolitical integrity of their states. 

Hindu Nationalists Open a Pandora's Box

When most people look at an ethnolinguistic map of India, they wonder how such a dizzyingly diverse country has hung together for so long. Mountains, ocean, jungle and desert externally bound the subcontinent, while population clusters around a web of river connections have given rise to more than 23 major languages, a thousand more dialects and a couple thousand ethnic groups. For any ruler of any creed trying to rule this empire, coexistence has always been the watchword. So, with the country's wounds still raw from partition, India's independence leader and first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, fiercely resisted the calls of Hindu nationalists to privilege their religion in the new state when he led the drafting of India's constitution in 1947. While Pakistan chose Islam to glue a new nation together, Nehru stressed that secularism had to trump communalism for India to survive. He also saw the need for a central government in New Delhi to accommodate India's regional identities as a way to build and preserve a national Indian identity within a secular framework. That fateful call is a big part of the reason why Punjabis, Tamils, Gujaratis and others today can express fierce pride in their ethnolinguistic identity while still identifying strongly with pan-Indian nationalism. It may also explain why jihadists have long struggled to build a strong and pervasive grassroots network of support among the country's large Muslim population.

But proponents of the Hindu nationalist ideology — Hindutva — espoused by Modi's BJP are willing to question those Nehruvian founding principles. Such followers see India as a native Hindu state that has been invaded and contaminated by foreign bodies. According to this worldview, the 14.2 percent of the country that is Muslim cannot be accepted as sons of the soil; unsurprisingly, then, maps showing the now-divided state of Jammu and Kashmir as India's sole Muslim-majority state are a historical aberration requiring a remedy. For a populist Hindu nationalist like Modi, the "people" are India's 80 percent Hindu majority, while the "other" is the 200 million-strong Muslim community, along with the secular Congress party and the Gandhi political dynasty, which has ostensibly appeased the Muslim minority at the expense of core Hindu values. This is why Modi's move on Kashmir is so striking: not only is it an affront to India's founding secular principles, it also posits that stoking communalism is an acceptable risk in establishing a Hindu rashtra, or nation-state. But to see the often violent consequences of state-led demographic engineering, we need look no further than the extreme measures that Israel has pursued in trying to preserve its Jewish population against a growing Arab one, that Beijing has taken to supplant Uighur and Tibetan culture with Han culture, and the ebb and flow of the Arabization and Kurdization of Kirkuk. 

The Brexit Paradox

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is essentially two islands comprising four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Britain has a storied history of trying to subdue restive populations and strike political bargains to maintain order on the islands and keep meddlesome powers in Continental Europe at bay. But Brexit is not only stressing the United Kingdom's current political framework, in which London devolves powers to varying degrees to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but it is fundamentally threatening the territorial integrity of the country at large. 

There are two key issues. The first is an uneasy Scotland. While 55 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain in the United Kingdom in a 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish government is demanding another vote on independence now that Johnson's government is trying to leave the European Union in a hard Brexit. The second issue is how the United Kingdom can depart the Continental bloc without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland (the 1998 Good Friday Agreement requires an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to keep a lid on ethno-nationalist violence). Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, and Brussels tried to fudge the issue by including an "Irish backstop" in their agreement, essentially guaranteeing that the Irish border would remain open even if both sides had not figured out, by the end of 2020, how the United Kingdom could leave the customs union and still keep a "frictionless border" on the island. But hard-line Brexiteers like Johnson see the backstop as a pernicious plot by the British political elite and the usual European rivals to entrap the country in the customs union indefinitely. Johnson, meanwhile, has downplayed any fears over a resurgence in violence or threats of Irish reunification, arguing simply that Brexit needs to happen now, regardless of the cost. 

The burning question is whether Labour and enough Tories can organize a successful no-confidence motion against Johnson to pave the way for a snap election or a cross-party unity government before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline. But Johnson's threat to stay in 10 Downing Street, refuse to request a Brexit delay from Brussels and schedule the election after the Oct. 31 deadline to guarantee Brexit could mean that the queen would find herself embroiled in an unprecedented constitutional quagmire. Even if Johnson is bluffing or ultimately encounters parliamentary — or even royal — roadblocks, the United Kingdom's geopolitical cohesion will experience heavy strain as the Scots and Northern Irish try to find where they fit in the British-EU divorce. 

The Perils of American Tribalism

The founding of the United States was a reaction to Old World ethnic, religious and political competition. The founders may not have been able to imagine how far America's geographic boundaries would ultimately extend, but they did have the foresight and creativity to bind a nation, not to any single faction, but to one powerful piece of paper: a constitution that guaranteed the rights of individuals and the democratic ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It also didn't hurt that the nation they founded was sitting on the most prized geopolitical real estate in the world: a naturally integrated river network in the Mississippi that would come to form the economic core of the country, coupled with borders that would eventually span ocean to ocean, providing maximum protection and trading potential. America's geopolitical underpinnings, its constitutional framework and subsequent amendments on fundamental matters such as birthright citizenship together gave rise to not only a powerful nation but also a national identity that could encompass any nation, religion or creed. Ultimately, this is enshrined in the nation's motto: "e pluribus unum" (out of many, one).

But America, too, is challenging its founding principles and thus testing its own geopolitical strength. The U.S. Census Bureau data has projected that white Americans could lose their majority status to mostly Asian and Hispanic minorities by the year 2044 and that the population under 30 will be mostly non-white within a decade. And as the country's urban and coastal-concentrated populations grow in numbers, so too will they grow in political power. For some far-right conservatives, that amounts to an existential crisis that must be answered with severely restricted immigration policies and even a redefinition of national identity. For more mainstream moderates, that means defining citizenship by means of assimilation. For the country as a whole, it means contending with a surge in racial and ethnic tensions internally and a more contentious relationship with America's southern neighbor at a time when great powers on the other side of the world will be prowling for any opportunity to keep the United States consumed with its own troubles.

It’s easy to get distracted with the flashy tactics of populist politicians, be it an outrageous tweet, or a deliberately disheveled hairstyle. But when populist leaders latch onto a more potent nationalist agenda, they can inflate their political mandate to take on the founding principles of the state. This can come in the form of big moves, like redrawing borders, or a series of small steps that aim to fundamentally redefine a carefully constructed national identity. In doing so, these populist-nationalists are testing the geopolitical mettle of their states.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.