Ian Bremmer, Populism, and Disengagement

Apr 25, 2018

This article was first published on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

I appreciate Devin Stewart for posing a question to Ian Bremmer in their recent podcast concerning whether there is a link between increased populism at home and support for American disengagement abroad. Here is the relevant part of the exchange between Bremmer and Stewart:

DEVIN STEWART: Final question comes from our senior fellow Nick Gvosdev, Ian. He had a request for us. Here is the question: "Is populism in the United States linked to support for American withdrawal or disengagement from the world? And is there a strategy of U.S. engagement that is actually compatible with U.S. populism?"

IAN BREMMER: I think it is linked to disengagement, particularly on the military front. That is because the average American has fought in wars for the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam if you want to go back earlier.

These are relatively disenfranchised Americans. They are patriotic. They give more to the country and for the country than anybody else, yet they have fought in failed wars with missions that were poorly defined from day one. Many of them were killed. Far more were injured and suffered psychological disorders. Then they come back having their lives completely disrupted. Those are their families. Those are their communities. They are not heroes. They are not treated as such, and the Veteran's Administration is not there for them.

I think that having gone through that for decades now you have turned a large number of the most patriotic Americans that we have against the idea that the United States should be the world's sheriff, that we should be the ones upholding decency, human rights, and stability for other countries in the world, especially because the United States is comparatively stable. We are far away. We are in a geopolitical environment that we are not as directly threatened by refugees coming from Syria's civil wars and Yemen, Libya, and even from nuclear proliferation in North Korea.

I think the kind of engagement, to respond to Nick's point, that is more supported potentially by a more populist American population is more multilateralism. Now this is not something Trump personally supports, but the idea that we can do more if we work with our allies, that if we create more durable organizations that are truly multilateral, that others have a greater say in the decision making, but they also are spending an awful lot more, they are much more engaged in the input in terms of troops, cash, and the rest.

As the world moves past Pax Americana to something much more dangerous, something much more fraught, something that is not led as much just by America and our allies, where China plays a bigger role, and where others who are rogue actors play a bigger role, I think that the desire to have more multilateral solutions where the United States is a part will grow.

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