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Event Summaries
March 7, 2017

Event Summary: ‘Populism and Policy: A Watershed Moment?’

Henry Jackson Society

By Alex Manzoor

On Monday 6th of March the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Dr Charles Kupchan, who is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and worked on European affairs for the Clinton and Obama administrations, to discuss the effects of populism on policy. He began by describing how for the past two hundred years we have been living in a world crafted by the United Kingdom and the United States, with the Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1914 and the Pax Americana since 1941. Despite the UK and the US previously being path-blazers, today citizens of the both nations are expressing their dissatisfaction with the order they helped to build; this is shown by the votes for Brexit in the UK and for Donald Trump to be President in the US.

Kupchan went on to claim that the world is the most unstable it has been in the last seventy years with: a Middle East in flames, a Russia combining traditional aggression with penetration of western systems like electoral processes and a China changing from a policy of peaceful rise to one that is militarising the South China Sea. Living in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world has had a disciplining effect and reduced the level of great power rivalry but there is an intense questioning of institutions and leaders and the real worry is whether the UK and US are up to the task of facing such concerns. He went on to differentiate between the political landscapes of the UK and US, as whilst in the aftermath of the Cold War the American centre-right and centre-left polarised, the UK centre-right and centre-left moved closer to the centre and thereby exposed their flanks to populist parties. In the United States the difference was between means and ends as the Republicans traditionally used hard whilst the Democrats used soft power; however both were committed to the end of upholding the rules based order. With the election of Donald Trump and the Republicans who are now in power, there is no consensus on the ends of US foreign policy. In the United States it was a disaffected rust-belt base who, for cultural and economic reasons, were no longer feeling the American Dream and felt like they were the losers of the American made rules based order.

Kupchan identified two possible advantages to the election of Trump to the Presidency. Firstly that many Americans are now accepting that inequality is a real problem and are being forced to think about what jobs many American workers will have in the future. The second is that through his unorthodox approach, President Trump might be able to increase burden sharing and encourage the European nations to spend more on NATO and collective self-defence. However there remain significant worries in relation to the Trump administration and that is based around the fact that President Trump appears to be hostile to the rules-based order. This is reflected in a distrust of multilateral institutions like the UN and NATO with an America First policy that suggests little interest in investment in allies and, extremely worryingly, a sense of moral equivalency between Putin’s Kremlin and the American government. Another seminal worry is whether his policy prescriptions will actually work for the disaffected workers who voted for him. The 20% tariff that has been suggested on imports not only would not bring jobs back to the US but would increase prices for consumers and take the world back to the kind of economic nationalism and competition that was seen in the 1930s. The final concern is over the way that the new President appears to do business, which seems to not differentiate between fact and fiction, distracting from the real concerns facing the United States.

Kupchan devoted the last section of his talk to what interested parties like the United Kingdom can do. Firstly he suggested that we should speak truth to Trump. It is clear that he sees Britain in the aftermath of Brexit as kin and therefore may be persuaded by the UK, more than any country, to adhere to the rules-based order. In addition, as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the UK should not abandon Europe itself and instead continue to shape its long-term direction, for instance in defence policy. Finally a new social compact must be formed, involving a sensible immigration policy that does not cause polarisation and animosity. Although noting that in the long term, the Trump era appears not to be able to last long because of demographic changes, four years is a long time and so in conclusion Kupchan implored the United Kingdom to speak truth to power.

For a transcript of this event click here