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In recent years, and in particular in 2016, events have taken place in a number of countries, including the US, the UK and Austria amongst others, which scholars and commentators have identified as exhibiting a populist and/or nationalist character and being part of a trend of disruption to the current ‘rules-based international order’. However, there is disagreement over what is meant by the terms ‘populism’ and ‘nationalism’ and whether elections and referenda or changes in political discourse subject to these characteristics pose a systemic risk to the international liberal order. This latter term is widely understood to mean the framework of liberal political and economic rules, embodied in a network of international organisations and regulations, established following the Second World War; but whether such an order exists is itself the subject of disagreement. The UK Government recognises and supports the concept of a rules-based international order.

This briefing outlines the UK Government’s position on the current international order which provides the backdrop to contemporary international relations, before summarising the debate over the terms ‘populism’ and ‘nationalism’. It then surveys the work of scholars and commentators who see the rise in populism and nationalism in the domestic politics of a number of countries around the world as phenomena which exhibit either positive or negative characteristics, or a combination of the two, which in turn have been seen as influencing, or having the capacity to influence, international relations. The briefing should be read as an introduction to, and not a comprehensive survey of, the significant body of literature on the subject.

Documents to download

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