Populism in the Globalised Era: Challenge to Multilateral Institutions

Updated: Apr 16

Yeshi Choedon | 11 March 2020

Populism of the globalised era could be broadly divided into two categories. Progressive and liberal populism is labelled here as left-wing populism and the conservative, nationalist, and traditionalist form as right-wing populism. Both types of populism are anti-globalisation but for different reasons.

Left-wing populist movement gained momentum in the mid-1990s as the people of the Global South felt anger at the failure of market capitalism and economic globalisation to fulfill the expectations of solving problems of poverty and development. They not only protested against the governments and the elite within developing countries for their failure to protect the people's interests but also against multilateral organisations like the World Bank and IMF for imposing structural adjustment policies.

The first decade of the 21st-century witnessed left-wing populism in the form of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement in the United States. It was a protest movement against the Bush/Obama bailout during the economic recession and the close ties between Wall Street and Washington, whom protesters decried as the corrupt 1% elite of the United States. Claiming to speak for the 99% of the ordinary people who suffered hardship, the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged with a progressive social justice agenda with an inclusive interpretation of the people.

Right-wing populism emerged in the Global North due to increasing societal divisions between cosmopolitan elites, who welcomed and benefited from globalisation, and those who felt that their lives had become more precarious. Right-wing populists proclaimed that the hardships of the people in the Global North were due to the greed of the corporate sector, faulty economic policies and excessive tax levied by their governments. Instead of attacking their governments for mismanagement of the economic system, failure to adjust to the changing technologies and controlling the greed of their corporate sector, the right-wing populists heaped the blame on globalisation, multilateral organisations, and immigrants.

Right-wing populists also came out against liberal democracy. They challenge important liberal principles of inclusiveness, multiculturalism, as well as minority and refugee rights. They claimed that the liberal democratic system allowed the politicians and leaders to be detached from the electorate, facilitated the dominance of unaccountable elites (Wilkin, 2018: 315, 317).

Right-wing populist usage of the term ‘people’ was and remains different from the left-wing populist discourse. Right-wing populists make a distinction between natives and aliens and consider the latter, neither part of ‘the people’ nor the elite. They blame migrants and refugees for their woes as they regard them as competitors for jobs and risks to public safety, culture, and values. They seek to promote the ideas of separation, particularism and ultimately ethnonationalism as the basis for social order and the political system.

Right-wing populist movement has led to the emergence of new right-wing political parties and strengthened the existing ones. It has led to a wave of wins for right-wing political parties, initially in the Global North and lately in other regions of the world as well, such as Philippines, Brazil, Turkey and India. They influenced governments to follow a more protectionist and inward-looking policy.

In the globalised era, most local problems have global dimensions. Therefore, there has been a blurring of distinctions between local versus global, and populism has acquired a strong transnational linkage. The left-wing populists started networking with varieties of groups with diverse concerns such as peace, climate change, indigenous rights, organised labour and sweatshops. The populists along with other activists around the world began to engage in ‘global framing’, connecting local problems to broader contexts of global injustice and inequality (Steger, and Wilson, 2012: 441). The populists, along with other groups at the global level, oppose globalisation as they perceived globalisation leads to a centralisation of power and the disempowerment of governments and people in the Global South. They hold protests outside meetings of multilateral institutions such as the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the Group of Eight (G8). Left-wing populist movements are not demanding either a return to the past or deglobalisation. They demand that multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council should be fairer, more democratic and more representative.

Right-wing populism is not only anti-elitism and anti-pluralism but also anti-multilateralism. They harbour anti-multilateral and anti-internationalist sentiments with an active distaste for the United Nations and other multilateral organizations that promote liberal global order (Bosco, 2018). They allege that their elite gave special attention to interaction at the multilateral forums and agreed to harmful policy prescriptions and norms of in the multilateral institutions, which are against the interest of their nations and people. In fact, elites have been ‘accused of using the growing influence of unelected bodies and technocratic institutions to depoliticise contested political issues, like austerity and immigration’ (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017: 117). They oppose interventionist, multilateral institutions such as criminal courts, environmental regimes, and human rights. They are specifically opposed to international norms on the treatment of immigrants and refugees (Zürn 2004, 279, 285). They are against incurring the cost of economic development, climate change mitigation and peacekeeping. The right-wing populists are in favour of taking the control back from the multilateral organisations. They strongly champion popular sovereignty and national interest.

Right-wing populism of the 21st century has turned out to be much more powerful and disruptive of multilateral institutions than left-wing populism. The Secretary-General aptly described, ‘within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march. Among countries, cooperation is less certain and more difficult’ (Guterres, 2018).

The complexities of the challenges in the globalised era cannot be addressed through uncoordinated national rules and policies nor only through bilateral means. Today's global challenges, such as climate change, cybercrime, terrorism, organised crime and economic inequalities, require collective action. The experiences since the turn of the twentieth century showed that collective solutions to the common problems are impossible without the cooperation and compromise through the multilateral institutions. International cooperation through multilateral institutions in the twenty-first century is more crucial than ever due to the increased complexities of global challenges.


Bosco, David (2018), "For the UN, a Rise in Populism Reveals an Old Challenge", The Wilson Quarterly. Vol. 42 Issue 4, URL: https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/the-fate-of-the-international-order/for-the-un-a-rise-in-populism-reveals-an-old-challenge/

Guterres, António (2018), "Address to the General Assembly", 24 September, URL: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2018-09-25/address-73rd-general-assembly

Mudde, Cas, and Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira (2017), Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Steger, Manfred B. and Wilson, Erin K. (2012), "Anti-Globalization or Alter-Globalization? Mapping the Political Ideology of the Global Justice Movement", International Studies Quarterly, No.56, 439–454.

Wilkin, Peter (2018), "Rip it up and Start Again: The Challenge of Populism in the Twenty-First Century", Journal of World-System Research, vol. 24, no.2, URL: https://jwsr.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jwsr/article/view/855

Zürn, Michael (2004), "Global Governance and Legitimacy Problems." Government and Opposition, Vol. 39 (2), 260–87.

Keywords: #Leftwingpopulism #rightwingpopulism #antiglobalisation #multilateralorganisations #ethnonationalism #transnationallinkage #antimultilateralism

Professor Yeshi Choedon has been a faculty member of the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD) at Jawaharlal Nehru University since 2004. From October 1988 to March 2004, she worked as Lecturer and later as Reader in Political Science and International Relations at the Sikkim Government College, Gangtok. She was awarded the UGC Career Award from 1995 to 1998 and was a DAAD Fellow at Free University, Berlin in 1997. As an awardee of Nehru-Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, she was affiliated with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA, for eight months from August 2010 to April 2011. Professor Choedon has attended and participated in numerous seminars, conferences and workshops in India and abroad. Professor Choedon’s research interests are in the field of peace, security, democratization and human rights.

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