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The Strategic Implications of the Rise of Populism in Europe and South America

Authored by Dr. Steve C. Ropp. | June 2005

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The end of the Cold War provided the United States with an enormous opportunity to reshape the national security environment, not only militarily but also economically and politically. Militarily, old alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been enlarged and retooled, while new partnerships have developed elsewhere to deal with challenges such as humanitarian relief and complex emergencies. Economically, a consensus has increased as to the value of market mechanisms as tools for the promotion of development and sustained economic growth. And politically, processes of democratization have expanded the number of countries in the world that are either partially or fully democratic.

At the same time, our very success in this regard has created the preconditions for future bursts of populist turbulence in two democratic regions of the world where the United States has vital security interests?Europe and South America. Populist politicians already have altered the security environment in both regions and are likely to alter it more dramatically. Were bursts of populist turbulence to occur in either or both regions on a large scale, they would have the potential to undermine the democratic core upon which most of contemporary U.S. security policy is based. And in some regions, such as the Andes, where democratic institutions are particularly fragile, populist turbulence could even lead to state failure.

The potential rise of populism in Europe and South America should not be viewed by policy planners as posing just another specific type of security threat. For unlike the traditional, irregular, catastrophic, or disruptive ones normally considered in future scenarios, populism poses a potential challenge to the underlying political substructure that has given us the collective material capability and moral legitimacy to deal with all of these threats. In the final analysis, our ability to project power to deal with the whole spectrum of security challenges that the United States will face in the future depends upon our ability to deal with the potential challenges emerging from within representative democracy itself.This monograph takes a fresh look at the contemporary populist phenomenon in Europe and the Americas. It describes populism, discusses the global context in which it is emerging, and then paints a picture of its general characteristics in four subregions in Europe and South America. It concludes with four recommendations for strategic planners as to how best to deal with it and with its potential consequences.

Specifically, these recommendations include:

  1. Considering possible bursts of populist turbulence to be on a par with other major security challenges in terms of future planning. This would suggest that strategic planners will need to educate themselves concerning the history and current nature of populism, particularly in their regional areas of responsibility. Policymakers should consider revising the U.S. National Security Strategy so as to reflect the importance of political systems and dynamics that cannot be classified as either fully democratic or totalitarian.
  2. Focusing policy on containing populist movements before they come to power. Populists by definition use direct forms of political action to gain power within representative democracies and are thus inclined to continue using such techniques once power has been achieved. Although it may not always be easy or diplomatically feasible to influence the trajectory of populist politicians, efforts should be made to do so. The ultimate goal of policy should be to aid our democratic allies in their efforts to ?mainstream? populist politicians and their movements.
  3. Avoiding forming alliances of convenience with populists. In some cases, populist politicians in Europe and South America may support U.S. short-term political or military goals in order to ?gain traction? domestically and/or internationally. Given the importance that preserving the institutional integrity of representative democracy has with regard to the achievement of long-term U.S. security goals, strategic thinkers should resist the temptation to sacrifice these goals for any short-term gain.
  4. Configuring U.S. military forces so that they are capable of dealing with the wide variety of challenges that individual populists or a larger burst of turbulence might present. Depending on the country and region, such challenges could run the gamut from state failure to rapid changes in the identities and associated strategic interests of powerful and internally coherent states. Although determination of the precise nature of such configurations is the purview of military experts, the possibility of future bursts of populist turbulence would seem to call for preservation of the broadest range of combat capabilities.


In November 2004, viewers of Netherlands public television voted by phone and e-mail for the person that they thought should be considered the ?greatest Dutchman of all time.? The resulting top ten list represented the flower of Dutch politics and culture. William of Orange who had guaranteed the country?s independence from the Spanish in the 16th century came in second, and other historical luminaries such as Anne Frank, Erasmus, Rembrandt, and Vincent Van Gogh also made the list. But the person voted the ?greatest Dutchman of all time? by his contemporaries was a formerly obscure gay university professor named Pim Fortuyn (biographical sketch in appendix). The political career of this dynamic Dutchman lasted only 6 short months before he was assassinated on May 6, 2002, on the eve of general elections.1 However, his anti-Islamic message still finds a receptive audience in the Netherlands where there is a large Muslim population.

On the other side of Europe in that continent?s second largest country, another young politician became increasingly visible as a participant in a tense electoral stand-off. In the Ukraine, the October 2004 election pitted a former Prime Minister and Western-oriented advocate of market reforms (Viktor Yushchenko) against an Eastern-oriented sitting Prime Minister allied with Russia (Viktor Yanukovich). When Yanukovich won the November 21 runoff under conditions that most international observers felt failed to meet international standards of transparency, Yushchenko supporters took to the streets of Kiev. Among those stirring up the crowd was an outspoken and telegenic member of Parliament, Yulia Tymoshenko. By most accounts, the country?s wealthiest woman and a political ally of Yuschenko, she at one point invited her supporters to join her in storming the legislative building.2

Meanwhile, on another continent halfway round the world, a powerfully-built ?firebrand? of a former army colonel currently governs Venezuela. Born to schoolteacher parents in a small rural town, President Hugo Chavez is much better known within the U.S. security community than either Pim Fortuyn or Yulia Tymoshenko. President Chavez has governed the oil-rich South American country of Venezuela for the past 6 years and has increasingly done so through the use of presidential decree laws. Since surviving a recall referendum in August 2004, through which the political opposition attempted to have him ousted from office, he has further consolidated his power. And Chavez has sought to extend his influence regionally through the promotion of values that he associates with Latin America?s great 19th century revolutionary hero, Simon Bolivar.

Finally, a ruggedly handsome 45-year-old Bolivian indigenous leader has become a major participant in the ongoing struggle over that country?s political and physical survival. Opposition-led demonstrations in October 2003 in the capitol city of La Paz resulted in the death of a number of participants and to the flight into exile of President Gonzalo Sanchez Lozada. As a consequence, his successor, Carlos Mesa, has governed in uneasy alliance with the indigenous supporters of Evo Morales.3 Morales? peasant roots in the Andean heartland of Bolivia have given his political message resonance in a region filled with impoverished farmers. His Movement to Socialism (MAS) party is now the largest political force in the country.

As intriguing as their individual stories may be, why should anyone in the U.S. strategic community take more than a passing interest in these four political figures? This monograph suggests that we should be very interested because they may represent, in William Shakespeare?s famous words, ?the baby figure of the giant mass of things to come.?4 Although participating in politics in different regions and on two different continents, each of them became a dynamic force in national politics within a very short period of time. Each has become such a force within either a well-established or newly-formed representative democracy. And each has emerged in a country whose people are under great stress because of global change. Most importantly for our purposes here, each is a populist who quickly carved out a personal political ?space? within the framework of representative democratic institutions.

Populism is a concept that needs to be discussed briefly because of the variety of definitions that are sometimes used to capture its essence. Because populist political figures first appeared in countriesaround the world that were rapidly industrializing, there has been a tendency to associate it exclusively with the dislocations and stress experienced by blue collar workers, and thus with left-wing politics. The problem with this definition is that Europeans today tend to associate populism in countries like France, Germany, and Italy with right-wing politics. Thus, we clearly need to look beyond simply the politics of the Left and the Right to see what populism is really all about.

Populism can make its presence felt among any group of ordinary people in any democratic country which is being subjected to stressful forces. As a result of such stress, this group of people may identify itself with a leader who they believe can provide them with more material support and hope for the future than the elite politicians running the country. Indeed, the whole dynamic supporting populism relies on the fact that some group of ordinary citizens does not view the government as legitimately and properly representing their interests. As a consequence, they lose respect for the institutions associated with representative democracy (political parties, legislatures, courts) and are perfectly willing to bypass these institutions when necessary through recourse to direct political action.5 Such direct political action often (though not always) involves some measure of illegality. It frequently takes the perfectly legal form of using referendums to bypass national institutions.6

Populism always expresses itself in the form of a direct and unmediated relationship between ?the people? and their leader. This leader is typically charismatic?meaning that, by force of personality and sheer animal magnetism, he or she can form a direct bond with followers. In the modern media age, this dynamic and outspoken leader is also usually handsome/beautiful or otherwise ruggedly ?compelling? in a movie star kind of way. And there is good reason why populists possess these personal attributes. Given the grip that elite politicians have on traditional representative democratic institutions and the media, the populist leader needs to present his or her ideas theatrically to bypass these institutions and to reach the ?chosen people? directly.7

As will be discussed in greater detail later, populism is a force that is eroding the institutional foundations of liberal representative democracy in a wide range of countries in Europe and South America.

And it is evident that a number of existing U.S. security dilemmas in both regions already are associated with the handful of populist politicians that have been used here as examples. The Netherlands has been a reliable ally in the War on Terrorism, and yet it is a country haunted by the populist ?ghost? of Pim Fortuyn.8 In the Ukraine, populist sentiment triggered by the disputed presidential elections and their aftermath threatens to complicate U.S. relationships with both it and Russia.9 In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez?s policies vastly complicate the regional strategic equation. And Evo Morales ?co-presidential? relationship with Carlos Mesa creates a dilemma with regard to implementation of U.S. drug control policies.

However important these individual security dilemmas might appear to be, they pale in comparison to those that could emerge. The rapid rise of additional populist politicians within existing representative democracies in Europe and South America would have far more profound implications for U.S. national security. The strategic political context is no longer that of the Cold War where authoritarian regimes of various kinds predominated in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America, while traditional representative democracies governed in Western Europe. Rather, it is one in which a wide variety of seemingly but not necessarily stable and obviously unstable democracies occupy the political landscape in both regions.

Paradoxically, the successful end of the Cold War has created new challenges for those concerned with the relationship between national security issues and democratic governance. Democracies in the ?New Europe? such as Ukraine are under tremendous stress, partly because they are new but also because of strains imposed by the transition to market economies. Democracies in the ?Old Europe? are under similar pressure from the forces of globalization, as well as from those associated with expansion of the European Union (EU) in 2004. And throughout South America, representative democracies suffer from the stresses and anxieties of publics attempting to adjust to the forces of change.

The ?bottom line? for those involved in thinking about national security policy is that we can no longer take for granted the democratic base that the old Cold War environment provided to the United States in Europe and South America. Forces for change are afoot which render the assumption that we can treat this base as a ?constant? in our security equation increasingly problematical. These same forces make problematical the assumption that we can deal with both Europe and the Americas as if ever increasing levels of stable representative democracy can undergird future U.S. security policy. Rather, recent developments suggest just the opposite. Future bursts of populist turbulence in these two vital regions of the world could occur, with the whole becoming larger than the sum of its parts.

The following sections of this monograph first describe the current economic and political context for the rise of populism in Europe and South America. This is followed by a discussion of why so little attention has been paid to populism within the U.S. security community, and why more attention should be paid. A more in-depth discussion of the nature of populism follows, and a framework is presented that suggests the type of democracies in which it is most likely to appear in the future. The last sections describe the general nature of the populist terrain in four subregions??Old Europe,? ?New Europe,? the Southern Cone, and the Andean region of South America.10 Regional and transregional scenarios for the rise of populism and associated bursts of turbulence are presented, followed by a discussion of their security implications and some associated recommendations for policymakers.


1. ?Slain Populist Voted Greatest Dutchman,? Deutsche Welle,? httpi/www.dwworld.de/dwelle/cda/detail/dwelle.cda.detail.artikel_drucken/0,3820,1433.

2.?People wake up to their strength in the streets of Kiev,? Financial Times, December 2, 2004. Tymoshenko was subsequently named Prime Minister by newly-elected President Yushchenko.

3. As of this writing, Mesa is barely hanging on to the presidency. Under chaotic political conditions brought about by protests led by MAS that paralyzed several major cities including La Paz, he offered to resign in early March 2005. His resignation was rejected by the Bolivian Congress in the hopes of preventing further political turmoil.

4. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3.

5. These direct action techniques include things such as setting up road blocks, occupying government buildings, and holding violent mass street demonstrations.

6. The use of plebiscites or referendums has been a favorite tool of populists since the French Revolution. Political institutions are bypassed through the use of a direct vote for the acceptance or rejection of a particular proposal. Plebiscites are widely used in Latin America and are growing in popularity in Europe. The new European Constitutional Treaty that is being debated today includes provision for more direct democracy through the holding of a plebiscite on constitutional matters if deemed necessary by one million citizens. The existing mechanisms for the exercise of direct democracy through the use of plebiscites in various Latin American countries are described in a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, La democracia en America Latina: Hacia una democracia de ciudadanas y ciudadanos, 2004, pp. 97-98. On the growing use of referendums in Europe, see Bruno Kaufmann and M. Dane Waters, eds., Direct Democracy in Europe: A Comprehensive Reference Guide to the Initiative and Referendum Process in Europe, Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2004.

7. My formal definition of populism is ?the theatrical presentation of ideas and/or use of direct action techniques by a political leader of any ideological persuasion in order to bypass traditional representative democratic institutions and to connect directly with his or her people.? This definition is in general conformity with scholars such as Kurt Weyland and Herbert Kitschelt who argue that populism is really more about charisma, leadership style, and tactics than it is about the politics of Left or Right. Kurt Weyland, ?Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics,? Comparative Politics, October 2001, p.1; and Herbert Kitcheldt, The Radical Right in Western Europe, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 160. Some additional sources on populism include Michael Conniff, ed., Populism in Latin America; Jack Heyward, ed., Elitism, Populism and European Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; and Yves Meny and Yves Surel, eds., Democracies and the Populist Challenge, New York: Palgrave, 2003.

8. The Netherlands can properly be described as ?haunted? by the ghost of Pim Fortuyn because his anti-Islamic message continues to resonate deeply in local politics. The political situation became even more explosive after the November 2004 assassination of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch-born alleged Islamic militant. Van Gogh had appeared on several death lists because of his participation in producing a short film called ?Submission? that carried an anti-Islamic message. As a consequence of their perceived anti-Islamic stance, a number of other well-known Dutch politicians have received death threats, been forced to temporarily live abroad, and hired bodyguards to protect them in their own country. Among those currently living under such conditions are several members of Parliament and Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen. Keith B. Richburg, ?In Netherlands, Anti-Islamic Polemic Comes With a Price,? Washington Post, February 1, 2005. For an account of how Van Gogh?s assassination raised concern about the threat from indigenous radical Islamists not only in the Netherlands but also throughout Europe, see Arthur Waldron, ?Europe?s Crisis? Commentary, February 2005, p. 49.

9. On the rising tension between the United States and Russia, see ?Echoes of the Cold War as Bush and Putin Differ over Ukraine Polls,? Financial Times, December 6, 2004; and ?Powell points up differences with Russia,? Financial Times, December 9, 2004.

10.For purposes of this analysis, the countries of ?Old Europe? are considered to be the 15 member states of the EU before it was expanded to 25 in June 2004. These states are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. ?New Europe? consists of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The Southern Cone of Latin America consists of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay; and the Andean region of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. It should be noted that there is no fully satisfactory and universally accepted view concerning the exact territorial boundaries of any of these regions.