By Laurie Gerhardt
The rise of far right figures across the globe has sown seeds of division and fear. We know what these leaders don’t want – immigration, human rights, social progressivism – but know far less about what they do want, particularly from the international stage. Laurie explores the aims of the “New Right” and how they plan to achieve them.
In September 2019, President Trump made his first address to the United Nations, declaring to the world: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” On the surface this statement sounds like more of the ‘America First’ ideology that Trump deployed consistently during the 2016 US election. Beneath this nationalist rhetoric, however, lies a hint of something else – a shift from the military imperialism and isolationist nationalism of the early 20th century to a new philosophy that unites the ‘New Right’.
Commentators are keen to brand New Right figureheads – such as Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban – simply as ‘isolationists’, suggesting they are only concerned with domestic matters and are reluctant to involve themselves in world affairs. Yet this fails to recognise their international solidarity, expressions of alignment with each other, and their attempts to form cross-border political alliances. In Europe, under Steve Bannon’s leadership, this has even taken the form of a group known as ‘The Movement’ to help nationalist political parties work together. Pablo de Orellana and Nicholas Michelsen have coined the term ‘Reactionary Internationalism’ to describe this new doctrine.
Clearly, many prominent New Right leaders are driven primarily by a desire to withdraw from liberal institutions such as the European Union (EU): Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Nigel Farage in the UK being three of the most famous examples. Typically, however, analysis of these New Right figures focuses only on what they don’t want. Rarely is the question asked – what do they want?
Inequality among identities
As de Orellana and Michelsen explain, ‘rather than advocating for the end of internationalism, the New Right seeks to reconstitute its normative architecture on the basis of inequality among identities.’ Essentially, the New Right share a unifying disdain for the liberal world’s idea that all identities are equal; a belief in undermining the liberal institutions which advocate progressive values such as gender equality, the right to asylum, and the application of human rights. Yet instead of simply withdrawing from them, Trump and his allies in the new global reactionary movement wish to co-opt those same institutions to legitimise their worldview and deliver a world of uncontrolled and unregulated competition between nation-states. This is a very different set of aims from the imperialist fascists of the 1920s and 1930s.
Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) and declared that his European neighbours must bend to the will of Germany’s military imperialism. The New Right instead broadly maintains a facade of respecting international law and involvement in global institutions like the UN. The Old Right built their identity on the basis of specific genetic traits – such as the white ‘master race’, or Mussolini’s ‘New Man’ – but the New Right find themselves in a time of significant ethnic diversity already existing within their national borders. Instead of genetic identity, the New Right see identity as purely related to the state you live in; the national banner you are born under is what defines you, and you owe your loyalty to it.
The New Right in the old system
The predominant global economic and political system of today is generally accepted to be neoliberalism, an amorphous term whose meaning has been diluted through overuse and is typified by the economic and political philosophies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Its core goal is the establishment of free-market economic systems through use of the central state. Neoliberalism is not a political ideology which seeks to disempower the state, as is sometimes suggested, but in fact an ideology which ascribes a significant role to the state – using it to ‘create and sustain markets at all costs’. It does so through privatisation, de-regulation, and the establishment of new markets, through state actions such as the dispossession of indigenous land or the selling-off of public spaces.
Instead of seeing the global neoliberal system of financial frameworks and liberal institutions as their enemy, the New Right sees them as an opportunity, a space to fill. These systems, which have characterised an era of unprecedented state-interconnection as well as the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, offer a similar enough economic formula to the New Right that they can simply insert themselves into the void left by hollowed out institutions. Despite claiming to be an anti-establishment movement, the New Right has no qualms with the neoliberal establishment’s approach to the invisible hand of the market – and in fact, seeks to accelerate rather than overturn their economic practices.
Yet when it comes to human rights, gender and sexual progressivism, the laws of war, and crucially migration, the New Right is openly hostile to the establishment. The rules-based international institutions which claim to secure these universal rights are to be hollowed out and left in all but name in order to free the ‘national spirit’ of all of our ‘birth-cultural identities’, or our nature as productive and competitive components of the state. De Orellana and Michelsen describe this process as an attempt to ‘restructure international norms, replacing liberal assumptions of universal humanity and its protection through institutions, with the promotion of inequality among identities’. Just as neoliberals did before them in the aggressive creation of markets, New Right leaders deploy the power of the state to expand loopholes and back doors through legal, parliamentary and congressional processes in order to allow unhindered state, military and economic competition – all while stating that they are enacting “the will of the people”.
Government for… “the people”
In the name of “the people”, the New Right are blunting the power of the legal frameworks which protect the most vulnerable, subverting the already-limited democratic processes of elections, and eating away at the freedom of the press. This process can already be seen in domestic policies across Europe, North America, South America and Asia. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has styled itself as “The People’s Government” while undoing the legal checks and balances which ostensibly protect the people from unfettered state power, and simultaneously strengthening the power of the police to confiscate the homes and property of travelers – in direct violation of human rights law. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro rose to power through a judicial coup which led to the jailing of his main opponent. He now sits at the head of a government calling for extrajudicial killings. In the United States, Donald Trump has survived an impeachment process ridden with corruption and cowardice, while putting in place legal barriers on asylum in violation of international law to protect the US from what he calls an “invasion”. In India, Narendra Modi has unashamedly begun the process of denying millions of its Muslim population citizenship despite this being in clear violation of his country’s constitution, driving violent anti-Muslim mobs to beat and kill scores of Muslims, who are seen as foreigners. All around the world, political freedom is on the decline. The “will of the people” strangely seems a lot like authoritarianism.
Each of these domestic policies represents a violation of legal frameworks which protect vulnerable groups, but one of the key components of the New Right’s philosophy which still remains overlooked is their strategy to reconstitute not just national legal structures but international rules and systems.
A more competitive world
Internationally, just as they are doing in the domestic realm, the New Right deploy state power to break down human rights norms and erode the rules of warfare, offering instead a vision of society in which the strong conquer the weak, and national power stands unchecked and unregulated. The already meagre protection of civilians in wartime under the laws of international warfare have become even more diluted than ever before. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the use of drones – a policy more typically associated with Obama’s presidency – has reached unprecedented levels of not only total strikes but civilian casualties, which are no longer even recorded.
“The New Right see themselves as having an international agenda characterised by an emphasis on freedom to … engage in conflict without the unjust limitations imposed by liberal internationalist norms, which they refer to as ‘globalist’”.
– de Orellana and Michelsen
This past decade of New Right leaders emerging around the world and coalescing with their natural allies in longer-standing authoritarian states – such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and China’s Xi Jinping – reveals how the “might is right” world order may look. In Syria, Russia’s five year campaign of aerial bombardment deliberately and repeatedly targeting hospitals, schools and civilian homes in direct violation of international humanitarian law has killed more civilians than ISIS – with no repercussions whatsoever for Russia. After a UN Security Council Resolution was passed to condemn this behaviour, the number of attacks on health facilities actually increased. Chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations over 200 times. A few hundred miles away in northeast Syria, Trump’s sudden and unilateral abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in 2019 allowed an emboldened President Erdogan of Turkey to claim a slice of Kurdish territory as his own, calling it a “security corridor” and displacing 100,000 civilians from their homes in the process. Nearly 12 million people – over half the pre-war population – have been displaced by the Syrian war since it began earlier this decade.
But the eroding of human rights norms doesn’t stop in Syria – the loosening of the laws of war has led to more aid workers being killed than ever before, larger numbers of people displaced by war than ever before and less of them ever returning home, while trends of ethnic cleansing and mass internment are on the rise.
A familiar problem
While these New Right leaders are virulently and unapologetically callous, it would be wrong to suggest that they are unique in undoing the protections that these norms and institutions provide. The ‘rules-based’ international system constructed after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the normative protections that it offered has been undermined repeatedly since it was first signed in 1948.
It’s well-known that the United States has long abused its hegemonic power to flout international law: the illegal torture and rendition programs which occurred throughout multiple Democratic and Republican administrations; George W. Bush’s declaration that “diplomacy has failed” before rejecting the UN Security Council’s designation that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be illegal; countless examples of drone strikes causing mass civilian casualties. All of these tragedies long precede the rise of the 21st century New Right, and the liberal institutions that seek to protect human rights did not prevent them.
In fact, the violation of these international laws under neoliberal leaders may have lain the groundwork for the disdain of the liberal system itself, which may in turn have contributed to the New Right’s meteoric rise across the world. But it’s bad enough having hegemonic and imperialistic powers like the United States throwing their weight around on the world stage unhindered without the rest of the world’s strongmen leaders following suit, unconstrained by the international systems which are meant to protect the vulnerable.
Restraining the state
Today, global institutions and their legal procedures, flawed and limited though they are, remain one of the few ways in which the actions of states can be restrained. And in some places, it looks as though these institutions may finally be kicking into gear to protect those they were intended to protect. The genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar – which was brought to the world’s attention by the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, leading to the exodus of nearly a million people – is now being examined at both the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In Italy, the Italian senate has finally voted to lift the political immunity of far-right leader Matteo Salvini over his detention and deliberate drowning of migrants at sea. In March of this year, the ICC decided to investigate war crimes committed by the US and Taliban in the Afghanistan war, despite anger and threats from the United States that it would revoke the visas of ICC judges. The US has never been brought before an international criminal court before.
In the dark era of the New Right, there is still some hope that state power can be restrained. But it will require a continued global effort by people, states and institutions who care about human rights protections and equality. If the New Right is allowed to hollow out institutions, leaving them in all but name whilst normalising a system of might-is-right competition between states under the guise of a still-interconnected world, even the mild protections that exist today will wither away.
When Donald Trump tells the United Nations that “the future belongs to patriots”, he does not mean that there is value in being proud of your national culture. He means that the future belongs to those who are born in their country and stay there, and those who flee, those who are victims of authoritarian state oppression, have no future. And unless we defend human rights, the freedom to seek asylum or migrate beyond your nation’s borders, and the institutional restraints on states that we have now, he may well be right.