How nationalist populism hijacks the concept of human security

How nationalist populism hijacks the concept of human security

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members

A lot has been written about the global rise of right-wing populism. Today, the four most populous democracies are ruled by populists: India by Narendra Modi, the U.S. by Donald Trump, Indonesia by Joko Widodo and Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro. Of course, the reasons for the success of populists are mainly determined nationally.

Nevertheless, it has become relatively clear, that in general right-wing populists advance into the power centres of politics because in some way they are able to make use of the contemporary socio-economic issues, that produce heightened anxiety around the recipients of their populist discourses: job losses due to relocations, the decline of entire industrial regions, concerns about uncontrolled immigration and the search for identity in a multipolar world.

Now, this new kind of nationalist populism hijacks actual social and economic issues occurring in the wake of globalisation and modernisation in a way that resorts to an implicit contortion of human securities, by flipping security theory away from the state to the individual. Indeed, the modern concept of Human Security is also based on a shift of classical international security thinking – away from the notion that security is based on the protection of the state, towards protecting and securing the individual. This concept is central to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to achieve justice, inclusive peace, and the well-being and dignity of all people. Still, the underlying logic of Human Security as a concept can be vulnerable to being instrumentalised for protectionist agendas, and even more populist reactionism.

 Against the Threat of “the Other”

 If humans perceive globalisation or other current socio-economic developments to harm their situation, they feel their personal insecurity heightened in human security terms. Populists make use of this by framing the security of “the other” at the expense of the security of “the domestic”. They hereby cleverly exploit the fears existing in large parts of the population and use it for their political agenda. Based on this logic, they can justify the most illogical or even xenophobic political measures as long as they supposedly serve the cause of protecting the personal security of their political target group. So while national populists embrace a part of the human security logic, they apply it in a fundamentally distorted and paradoxical way. Whereas the original notion of human security has a globalist perspective and is based on inclusiveness and cooperation, the modern nationalists translate the individualisation of security into the need to defend individual security against the threat of “the other” – be they foreigners, states or international organisations.

Correspondingly, right-wing nationalist populism portrays efforts to further an expansive globalist human security agenda as undermining the security and well-being of their nation. Thus, they frame multilateral cooperation, agreements, alliances, etc. as something contrary to national sovereignty, and decline to accept global or even regional responsibility.
This shift away from the generally accepted conception of a globalist perspective on human security has already resulted in the post-Cold War international security order being shaken up and trust between long-time allies eroding in just a few years. As a consequence, the already complicated process of finding global cooperative solutions to global problems has become even more difficult. Brexit, the United States and Brazil leaving the Paris Agreement, or the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, they are all sneak previews of what the future of the international order could look like based on such a distorted and paradoxical application of human security logic.

First published in: Diplomatisches Magazin 12/2019

Eimen Hamedat has studied Social Sciences with a focus on Political Sciences at the RTWH Aachen University and RMIT University in Melbourne. He has interned with the European Parliament in Brussels and the German Parliament in Berlin. Currently, he is pursuing a MBA degree.