Populist Narratives and the Making of National Strategy

That populism can impact international politics has been clear for some time. As a political style that emphasises a struggle between the people and elites, populism has a long history in societies around the globe. Yet as populist politicians and leaders have increasingly emerged over the last two decades in a globalised world, the security implications of populism have received more attention. Writing in 2005, Steve Ropp noted:

Populist politicians have already altered the U.S. military’s operating environment in Europe and Latin America and are likely to alter it much more dramatically. Were bursts of populist turbulence to occur on a large scale, they would have the potential of undermining the democratic core of representative democracies in two regions of the world that are vital to the protection of U.S. global security interests.[1]

The 2017 National Intelligence Community Global Trends report similarly notes the impact of populism on the security environment.[2] Yet, with populist leaders increasingly influencing political discourse and even reaching offices in which they can impact the policies of their respective nations, it has become clear populism is more than just another security issue affecting the strategic terrain. We need to understand how populism impacts strategic decision making in some of the most important nations on earth. Even more importantly, we need to understand how populist politics has and will continue to impact political discourse and decision making within many of our own nations.

President Rodrigo Duterte. (Presidential Photo)

Of course, these efforts have already begun. Much has been written about populist leaders like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their approaches to foreign policy and grand strategy.[3] Here, though, I want to take a step back from specific cases to highlight the traits populist leaders share, and how a populist political style interacts with the demands of national strategy. I argue we can draw out something unique about populists to understand how they approach important questions of national security and grand strategy. Populists of all types are united by the power of the narrative to which they tie their political identity. Understanding the nature of populist narratives can help to understand what drives them, to predict how they may behave in given situations, and to assess the implications of populist leadership for foreign policy, national security, and civil-military relations.

The Populist Narrative

While case-by-case analysis of the conditions facing each nation and the personal style of individual populist leaders is important, there is value in drawing on recent theoretical advances in the study of populism itself. This academic work has conceptualised populism as a “thin-centered ideology” or political style, distinct from the ideologies or domestic political debates to which it is inevitably attached.[4] According to this view, populists can take up very different political ideas—of the left and right or even crossing over the traditional ideological spectrum—yet still share important common traits. The traits uniting populists can be used to tell us something about their potential behaviour as strategists.

Othering is an act that mainstream politicians often engage in, but populist leaders are distinct because their political messages focus so heavily on the significance of the divide between the people and the other.

Drawing on this literature, there are two key components of the populist style relevant to this analysis. Firstly, populists of all political persuasions seek to establish a clear divide between the people and an other. This is the “central element that differentiates populism from other political styles.”[5] The other is usually presented as a corrupt or weak domestic elite, but the focus on the elite is often supplemented with other hostile actors.[6] These might include foreign powers, immigrants, or ethnic and religious communities. In populist narratives, these forms of othering are often combined: the hostile foreigner has been allowed to take advantage of the people by the weak or corrupt domestic elite. Othering is an act in which mainstream politicians often engage, but populist leaders are distinct, because their political messages focus so heavily on the significance of the divide between the people and the other. As Espejo argues, populists claim “to speak in the name of the people, and hold that this justifies refusing any limits on their claims.”[7]

Secondly, populists bring to life this supposed divide by developing a narrative based on a sense of threat or crisis. As Moffit argues:

Populist actors actively “perform” and perpetuate a sense of crisis, rather than simply reacting to external crisis. Moreover, this performance of crisis allows populists an effective way to divide “the people” and “the elite,” and to legitimate strong leadership by presenting themselves as voices of the sovereign people.[8]

Consider, for instance, the way in which a sense of crisis or threat establishes the respective divides as politically significant in the following populist narratives: the elite are corrupt and are leaving the people poor; immigrants are stealing jobs from the people and have been allowed to do so by the weak elite; foreign powers are exploiting natural resources that should belong to the sovereign people; foreign powers are manipulating their economies to steal factory jobs from the hard-working people; liberal elites are threatening traditional ideas of the family or society.

Populist leaders are not the only politicians to talk about threats or crisis, and indeed responding to threats is an important function of political leadership. Yet the populist is unique in focusing his or her whole political identity on the response to the crisis or threat narrative proposed. The populist worldview is built upon simple but grand causal relationships that present important political, social, and economic problems as stemming from simple but powerful sources. These sources typically refer back to the elite or to external threats the elite are too corrupt or weak to address. The solution, according to the populist narrative, is also simple: strong leaders who are willing to deal directly with the threat by applying “common sense solutions.”[9] The populist therefore rejects nuance, complexity, or, indeed, “anything that cannot be contained in the dimension of immediacy, simplicity, the direct and visible relationship with reality, customs and traditions.”[10]

"Arrest of a Propagandist" by Ilya Repin (Wikimedia)

Importantly, this means populists are distinct from other political leaders because of the extent to which they are bound to the narratives they construct. Mainstream political leaders propose policy ideas, but their campaigns focus on their own competence to lead their nation in a complex world, and their actions, from the policy positions they take to their engagement in public discourse, serve this objective. The populists, on the other hand, are not just presenting themselves as capable or strong leaders. Rather, they present themselves as possessing an unlimited connection to the will of the people, and as the perfect antidote to the threats described in their narrative.

Populists as National Strategists

With this distinction between populists and other political leaders, we can begin to consider the implications of populist leadership for the making of national strategy. The first implication is understanding the basis of a populist’s narrative is essential for assessing likely behaviour as a strategist. Where the identified other is purely restricted to domestic elites and the crisis or threat is an internal one, the populist is likely to focus political energies on domestic political concerns. This internal focus may lead to several different outcomes for the making of foreign policy, including a disinterest in the international domain or a deference to other key actors or institutions such as the bureaucracy or military on foreign policy issues. Alternatively, the populist leader may be highly active in areas of foreign policy and strategy that relate to his or her narrative, while neglecting areas outside this scope. Understanding a populist’s narrative can assist in understanding the domains of national strategy in which he or she is likely to be invested.

Given the impact of globalisation and the interaction between domestic and international politics, it is unlikely contemporary and future populists will restrict their claims to internal dynamics. Populists are likely to link the corrupt or weak behaviour of domestic elites to important foreign policy decisions and external threats, and, as a result, this component of the populist’s narrative is likely to significantly shape decision-making on strategic affairs. The populist’s mandate is strongly tied to narrative, and as a result he or she has a particular interest in serving this narrative once in power. The populists’ bond to this narrative differentiates them from mainstream political leaders, who are likely to focus on demonstrating their own competent or strong leadership within the established status quo. Their strategic decisions need to be mediated through the worldview established within their narrative, while other leaders possess more flexibility.

As populist figures gain influence within political systems, they will seek to connect their narrative to important questions of national security and strategy. This is true even of political figures who do not possess executive decision-making authority. Pauline Hanson in Australia, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom are all examples of populists with limited direct decision making authority, but who have each sought to influence important national security and foreign policy decisions through the prism of their respective populist narratives. These figures have often had a significant impact on political discourse, and their actions have forced governments to articulate their own worldview regarding how the nation should guarantee its security. In 2017, for instance, the Australian Attorney General George Brandis clashed with Pauline Hanson in the Senate after she called for a ban on wearing the Burka. Both Brandis and Hanson framed their arguments in national security terms.[11]

When populists have executive power to significantly shape national strategy, they will be driven to align their strategic choices to their populist narrative. They are more likely to overturn established foreign policy traditions than other leaders, particularly those elements that can be linked to the corrupt or weak elite they have criticised. It is no surprise, then, that President Trump’s most important foreign policy decisions and statements have directly aligned with his campaign narrative of U.S. leaders making bad deals with foreign countries. The decision to pull out of multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement, the imposition of trade tariffs and efforts to unsettle the existing trade relationship with China, belligerent language towards traditional allies and constant criticism of domestic elites who allowed supposed bad deals to occur, all represent an alignment of a populist narrative with grand strategy, with important ramifications for the future direction of the United States and global politics.

The "bad deals" aspect of President Trump’s narrative was a central element of his campaign, much more so than any suggestion of U.S. isolationism. As David Smith has argued, “reading his campaign book, it is striking how directly [Trump] attributes his country’s domestic problems to the fact that America doesn’t ‘win’ internationally… Trump is looking for a pay rise for his country, not a new job for it.”[12] Barry Posen has also argued that Trump does possess a grand strategy that is internationally engaged, and suggests that it could be best described as “illiberal hegemony.”[13] Inherent to this pursuit of illiberal hegemony is the notion that the liberal hegemonic project has overseen particular liberal ideals restraining the world’s most powerful nation from making the most of its position and power.

Where populist narratives begin to shape national strategy, they will change the status quo in important ways. Because of the populists’ imperative to deliver on a central narrative, they are likely to be more motivated than other leaders to attempt to overturn status quo assumptions in foreign policy and push for major changes. Whether those changes are a positive development depends on the worldview of the observer.

Some critics of Trump’s populist narrative may see merit in the populist vision of Bernie Sanders. Yet, it is important to keep in mind, as argued above, the populist narratives rely on a relatively simple and grand explanation of domestic and international causal relationships. As a result, the populist is less likely than other leaders to value nuance and complexity in the making of strategic policy decisions. Populist narratives rarely capture the complex nature of security and insecurity in world politics, meaning that they are likely to favour simple or common-sense ideas regarding what will lead to greater security for the nation. This is particularly problematic if we accept Colin Gray’s argument that the “competent strategist copes with complexity, confusion, and impending chaos, he does not seek the fool’s goal of a winning formula that rests upon a severely reductionist prioritization of what matters more, and less.”[14] Grand strategies with potential long-term payoff, such as China’s One Belt One Road initiative, are too complex and indirect to fit within the populist’s narrow vision.

Secondly, because the worldview is more rigidly defined than that of mainstream leaders, populists are likely to be less suited to what has recently been described as emergent strategy. As Popescu argues, “In the formation of an emergent strategy, the learning process is decisively influenced by the ideological values and worldview of the strategist.”[15] Because the populist adopts a rigid definition of the world and the imperative of their response to it, there is little potential to adapt to changing circumstances. In contrast, there is a greater flexibility for mainstream politicians to learn and adapt, and their ability to do so can lead to their enhanced reputation as capable and strong leaders. To adapt in areas captured by their narrative, the populist would need to abandon the core message and risk alienating strong domestic supporters. As populists are unlikely to do this, there is potential for tensions to emerge when the populist narrative meets the realities of geopolitics, as Nora Onar has discussed in relation to Erdogan and Turkish foreign policy.[16]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Lastly, populist narratives are likely to have a significant impact on the domestic foundations of national strategy. The populist desire to reshape domestic economic, social, and political relationships will impact the cohesiveness of society and the strength of the state. In some cases, the populist’s narrative may capture a desirable domestic policy shift. In a society where economic and social conditions are leading to poor domestic outcomes, a populist may have the ability to reshape society in a positive way. Yet, because populists base their narrative on inclusion and exclusion through the process of othering, there is potential to create new divides and internal disharmony that can limit a state’s ability to act coherently and constructively on the global stage.


It is not surprising that much of our analysis of populist leaders tends to focus on personality and individual policy decisions. Populists often adopt rude forms of speech and challenge established ideas about proper political discourse. Additionally, populism as a form of politics attaches itself to specific domestic social, economic, and political conditions. When considering the security implications of populism, however, it is important to consider what we can learn from conceptual analysis of populism as a distinct political style. Members of the national security community should be particularly interested in this analysis, as populist narratives present a specific story about security and insecurity, as well as how a nation should respond through both domestic and foreign policy. Understanding these narratives can assist in better predicting the future behaviour of populist leaders, adopting appropriate policy responses, or even considering when alternative narratives about security and national strategy need to be promoted within our own nations.

Michael Hatherell is a Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Deakin University and works as Academic Adviser to the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Australian Defence College. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect those of the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, the Australian Defence College, or Deakin University.

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Header Image: Populism (Berkeley Review) 


[1] S. C. Ropp, 2005, The Strategic Implications of the Rise of Populism in Europe and South America, Strategic Studies Institute, https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/PUB605.pdf.

[2] National Intelligence Council, 2017, Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends/letter-nic-chairman.

[3] See B. Posen, 2018, The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony: Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy, Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-02-13/rise-illiberal-hegemony; R. J. Heydarian, 2017, Duterte’s Dance with China: Why the Philippines won’t Abandon Washington, Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/philippines/2017-04-26/dutertes-dance-china; N.F. Onar, 2016, The Populism/Realism Gap: Managing Uncertainty in Turkey’s Politics and Foreign Policy, Turkey Project Policy Paper, Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/norafisherturkeyprojectpolicypaper-2.pdf.

[4] C. Mudde, 2017, ‘Populism: An Ideational Approach’, in: The Oxford Handbook of Populism, C.R. Kaltwasser et al eds, Oxford University Press, p. 30 and B. Moffitt, 2016, The global rise of populism: performance, political style, and representation: Stanford University Press, Stanford.

[5] B. Moffitt and S. Tormey, 2014, ‘Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style’. Political Studies, 62, p. 391.

[6] C. Mudde, 2017, op cit. p. 32-33.

[7] P.O. Espejo, 2015, ‘Power to Whom? The People between Procedure and Populism’, in: The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives, C. D. L. Torres ed, University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky, p. 75.

[8] B. Moffitt, 2016, op cit, p. 118.

[9] C. Mudde, 2017, op cit, p. 33.

[10] M. Tarchi, 2013, ‘Populism and Political Science: How to Get Rid of the “Cinderella Complex”’, in: Contemporary Populism: A Controversial Concept and Its Diverse Forms, S. Gherghina et al eds, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, p. 128.

[11] ABC News, 17 August 2017, ‘George Brandis: Read the transcript of his response to Pauline Hanson wearing a burka into the Senate’, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-17/george-brandis-pauline-hanson-burka-senate-transcript/8817366.

[12] D. Smith, 2017, America Has Never Been Truly Isolationist, and Trump Isn’t Either, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/america-has-never-been-truly-isolationist-and-trump-isnt-either-71689.

[13] B. Posen, 2018, op cit.

[14] C. Gray, 2013, Perspectives on Strategy, Oxford University Press, p. 198.

[15] I. Popescu, 2017, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 13.

[16] N.F. Onar, 2016, op cit