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Rubrick Biegon: Populism's impact on non-traditional security

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Dr.Rubrick Biegon, Senior Fellow in International Security

Rubrick Biegon ISA lecturer in international relations at the school of politics and international relations, university of Kent, UK, fellow of the association of international studies (ISA) and fellow of the British association of international studies (BISA). His research interests include U.S. foreign policy, trade politics, U.S. -Latin American relations, international security, long-range warfare, and critical theory in international relations.






Populism's impact on non-traditional security

1.In one of your essays, you mentioned that “the blend of identity politics and economic protectionism is central to interpretations of Trump as a populist”. I wonder how populism will affect American society after Biden takes office?


I see populism mainly as a style of doing politics, rather than an ideology. Populism has a very long history in the US, and Trumpian populism represents just one particular manifestation of populism. It was fused with elements of nationalism and white identity politics. Along with Trump's anti-establishment appeal, this held together Trump's coalition. Trump-style populism took hold after the 2008-09 economic crisis, coming on the heels of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall St. movements, even though it has roots in older traditions of American conservatism. The decade of 2010s also saw the emergence of more progressive, left-wing forms of populism. This was seen in the Bernie Sanders campaigns and in the growth of democratic socialism in the US. These various forms of populism appear to be in retreat at the moment. The right-wing variant of populism still seems more influential, because Trumpism is still a major force within the Republican Party. However, to an extent, the populist aspect of Trump's appeal is being overtaken by outright conspiracy theories and increasingly bizarre ideas and positions; both the Q-Anon conspiracy and the notion that the 2020 election was 'stolen' belong to this latter set.


2.Dr Rubrick Biegon, you mentioned that populism is often seen as a transnational phenomenon. What impact will populism have in the field of non-traditional security ?


I think populism may have various impacts on non-traditional security issues, but this is likely to take on different dimensions in different national contexts. In some places, populism involves certain issues being turned into security concerns. So in the US for example, immigration has not traditionally been viewed as a security issue (with some exceptions). In recent decades, however, right-wing populists have been able to turn immigration into a security issue (for some voters at least), by linking immigration to concerns over crime and terrorism. For some liberal observers, the spread of populism itself may be an issue with security dimensions, because some may assume that populism leads to authoritarianism or democratic backsliding. I don't think populism should be securitised in this way, however. That is, I don't believe that populism should be viewed as a security issue or problem in its own right.


3.How does populism pose a challenge in terms of trade security?


Populism tends to set up antagonisms between various actors, for instance 'the people' vs. 'the elites'. So if trade is seen as favouring the elites over the common people, existing patterns of trade may be a target for populist politicians or movements. A particular trade agreement may be criticized as helping the rich elites more than workers or consumers. If a trade agreement becomes unpopular, it is more difficult for the government to negotiate and ratify the agreement, because the political costs increase. Trade tends to create both winners and losers as economies are restructured in accordance with the patterns that emerge as a result of new trading arrangements. In effect, populism would seem to give more of a voice to the 'losers', who can be mobilized to oppose trade agreements or challenge other policies associated with 'free trade'.


4.Dr Rubrick Biegon, how do you think the global supply chain pattern will change after the COVID-19 pandemic?


This is major area of uncertainty. The pandemic has generated quite a bit of speculation regarding the potential for 'de-globalisation'. It may prove to be a significant turning point, as countries try to 'onshore' production in various ways. However, I think it is too soon to say. The global economy is structured in a way that makes it difficult for countries to alter patterns of production on their own. This kind of restructuring could take decades. In the near term, I imagine we will see significant change in patterns in some areas or industries, most obviously in medical supplies and health-related goods and technologies, such as in the areas of vaccines and PPE. There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has constituted a major shock to Western societies, so there may be an effort underway to re-localize or re-nationalize certain kinds of economic activity moving forward, beyond medical supplies.


Editor Assistant Research Fellow: Xianglin Gu

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