Peace researcher Marko Lehti is concerned about the rise of populism, but does not believe democracy to be threatened
The rise of populist movements and the first weeks of Donald Trump as the President of the United States have made the state of the world confusing and disturbing.
Peace researcher, Docent Marko Lehti admits to being concerned about the increasing unpredictability of the world, but he does not feel democracy to be threatened by populism.
Working at the Tampere Peace Research Institute TAPRI, Marko Lehti participated in a seminar on populism at the end of January, where the phenomenon was studied from a wider perspective than the view of the western world.
Conflicts in the Middle East
present the biggest problem
According to Lehti, votes such as Brexit can change the environment radically sometimes, but he does not believe that populist parties will be able to take real power in Europe. He believes that they will remain a marginal phenomenon, which does not exclude the possibility of an individual populist to become president.
‘The internationally most flammable centre of conflicts at the moment is in the Middle East region, right in our backyard. We are now moving quickly towards an entirely unpredictable logic in the operations of the United States. In its internal seeking process, Europe is likely to lose the fragile connection it has had,’ Lehti fears.
According to Lehti, the EU has not had a separate agenda or role in the Middle East, even though the conflicts are constantly reflected in Europe in many ways.
‘For Europe, the most important issue would be to bring lasting peace in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, which does not seem very likely in the near future. There is a clear risk of something unpredictable happening, which will make the situation even worse.’
Marko Lehti considers the Trump-Putin-axis to be a lower risk than the conflicts in the Middle East.
Lehti estimates that the United States and Europe will become increasingly introverted, and that their investments in peace work and humanitarian work around the world will decrease. They will build up walls and try to prevent the mobility of people, instead of finding the reasons for the mobility.
‘In the long run, that will only create new problems, pressure, and new kinds of tension. In that sense, I fear we’re headed towards harsher times.’
one form of democracy
Populism is a vague term, referring to politics with simple rhetoric and appealing to the masses.
Marko Lehti connects three features with populist leaders and the new populist politics: continuous focus on crises; conscious incitement of juxtapositions; and an ‘us first’ way of thinking, where international responsibilities and solidarities are considered a threat or indefensible in nature.
However, Lehti notes that populism is only a part of democracy. The line between democratic populism and radical extreme populism, to which violence can be linked, is very thin.
‘As long as it doesn’t become an authoritarian system, populism is only another form of democracy. After all, appealing to the masses is a sign that democracy works.’
The conflict comes when a leader who gained power through appealing to the masses starts to rule in an authoritarian manner. Lehti compares Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
They all talk about the people in the same way: they are representatives of the people, who aim to bypass democratic institutions, at least on the rhetoric level.
The interface between traditional populist parties and new kinds of populist leaders are an interesting subject to Lehti: Populist leaders do not always come from populist parties, but sometimes even from established, democratically operating parties.
Donald Trump has already been faced with the limits of his power, when a federal appeals court refused Trump’s travel ban from seven Muslim countries.
As for Trump’s inaugural speech, Lehti thinks it is interesting that he addressed the American people, while bypassing the democratic system operating in Washington.
‘It created an image that only Trump is able to interpret and represent the true people. If you are against Trump, you are against the people, because he is the only one who can define the people’s true feelings.’
The popularity of populist politicians comes from creating a juxtaposition between the people and those in power. This creates the logic and dynamic which creates and maintains popularity.
Trump applied ideas
of the radical right
According to Lehti’s estimate, Trump represents antiliberalism, with applied ideas from the radical right.
‘During the election, the idea of defending western civilisation prevailed with Trump’s supporters, where Mexicans and foreigners in general were seen as a mass rolling uncontrollably into the United States. The fear of ‘they’ll destroy our civilisation by not changing into us but threatening us’ was widespread among them.
This fear of the unknown, spread by the radical right, was accompanied by a belief that immediate reaction was necessary. The travel ban appealed to this group of supporters, who believe the country to be on the edge if something critical is not done soon.
The idea of western superiority is far older than Trump. It is part of the American and European way of thinking which people have used to organise the world.
‘The way in which the idea of us being better than them is created is the most important thing. The past two decades since the Cold War have been a period of liberal intervention,’ Lehti says.
The great western idea is based on a liberal concept of peace, which includes exporting democracy, human rights, good government and the market economy to other parts of the world.
‘The idea is based on those being universal values, which the western world in all its excellence has strived to spread everywhere. Military or humanitarian activities can be justified by bringing good to other areas.’
Trump’s antiliberal ideology maintains the western excellence, while closing the borders to everyone else.
‘Trump feels that democracy is not for everyone, and it doesn’t need to be brought to the Middle East. The others are not our concern. The west is excellent in its own excellence, but none of its values need to be spread elsewhere.’
take the lead
If the western world isolates itself, the global competitive situation is changed, and the relationship with other civilisations may become a power struggle. Trump’s isolationism may give China the opportunity to become the world’s new leading country.
‘This has been discussed, but it is clearly not what Trump aims for in his talks about China and Russia. He has seen Russia as a potential partner, because he seems to consider radical Islam his primary adversary,’ Lehti says.
Lehti feels that Trump sees China as a competitor to whom the western world and particularly America must show their power. Trump believes that China understands the politics of power, but Lehti feels that the situation will not follow this idea.
‘There is the distinct possibility that more space is opened for China. The South China Sea will be a significant touchstone.’
Lehti sees the escalation of the fighting in Ukraine as a sign of Russia testing Trump’s limits.
‘After Trump became president, China has been a potential winner, but Putin has been the biggest winner. Ten years ago, Russia was not a player in global power politics, but now the country is on everyone’s lips.’
Lehti anticipates that Europe, pulled apart by Brexit, will be divided in a similar manner as it was around the Iraq War in the early 21st century. Even now, according to criticism from Germany and France, Great Britain is echoing the United States.
‘At the same time, Europe is so weak and scattered in many ways that it can’t cope on the hard security sector without the United States,’ Lehti says.
Text: Heikki Laurinolli