August 29, 2017

In an article that unpacks research originally presented at The Asian Conference on Arts & Humanities 2017 in Kobe, Japan, Kenneth Houston and Jason Briggs, both of Webster University Thailand, offer insight into their analysis of the domestic pressures of populist electoral politics in the United Kingdom and the United States, and the relationships of both states with the international community.


Introduction: Word games

Both the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) undertook significant plebiscites in 2016. One saw the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, while the other led the UK government to commence the process of leaving the European Union (EU) after over forty years of membership. Both plebiscites had implications for each nation’s respective foreign policies and both results emanated from distinctly domestic concerns. In 1988, Robert Putnam observed a connection between domestic pressures relative to foreign policy decisions. Putnam referred to this dynamic as “two-level games”.

“The purpose of official discourse is to produce and reproduce the agreed worldview of a political regime, including its perception of external reality, priorities and understanding of the political landscape.”

We drew on Putnam’s core insight as a starting point for the design of a qualitative interpretive analysis of pertinent official discourse from both the US and UK contexts relative to these plebiscites. Official discourse is the textual output of state agencies, whether through the medium of policy document, speech or report. The purpose of official discourse is to produce and reproduce the agreed worldview of a political regime, including its perception of external reality, priorities and understanding of the political landscape. Official discourse serves to project this worldview outward to the demos to reinforce political legitimacy and justify state action. Our inquiry examined the implications for US and UK foreign policy options in light of domestic pressures emanating from political populism. The dilemma facing national leaderships from the intra/inter-national interplay is essentially that nativist populism, and the cultural or national chauvinism inherent within it, invariably constrains national leaderships when attempting to conclude tangibly beneficial agreements with other countries.


High politics through the interpretive lens

Our analysis focused specifically on the fraught subject of identity politics as a highly relevant domestic factor for both plebiscites in the lead up campaigns prior to polling day. In both the UK and US examples, the question of national identity and culture, perceived threats to it, and the impact of inward migration were foregrounded as core voter concerns. “America First” and “Take Back Control” were the slogans of the US and UK campaigns for the election of Donald Trump and Brexit respectively. Both slogans had electoral traction because of an implicit perception prevalent in public discourse that American political elites had not pursued or guaranteed national interests. In the UK context, the perception was that too much decision-making and policy making were undertaken in Brussels (a metonym for the EU) rather than London.

We delved deeper into this prima facia case by subjecting a corpus of official output from US and UK state institutions and/or official representatives to an interpretive analysis. From the US case, we selected data from the White House and the State Department. From the UK we selected data from the Office of Number Ten Downing Street (the UK Prime Minister’s official residence), UK Foreign Office, and a newly created department with responsibility for Brexit. Data was produced over a relatively short time frame following the result of the Brexit vote in June 2016 and the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017.

“Individual politicians only embody the authority and power that they have by virtue of the role that they hold within the state apparatus, setting aside questions of charisma and leadership style.”

Our data analysis method is worth dwelling on as it currently has a marginal position in the traditional study of international politics. The International Relations and Political Science disciplines are dominated by the positivist method of research, which seeks to emulate the rigor of the natural sciences by applying the same principles and practices to the study of social, and specifically political, phenomena. Essentially, this approach seeks to demonstrate the existence of immutable and fundamentally ahistorical laws or rules of socio-political interaction through empirical analysis. Critics of positivism point out that this broad approach to politics has not yielded any such unassailable or immutable “laws” and has also demonstrably failed in its implicit task of predicting socio-political events of significance, not the least of which is the failure to account for the two singular events under scrutiny here. Our approach is drawn from qualitative research and follows an interpretive methodology more frequently deployed in the study of micro-level human interaction. Here we employ the interpretive approach with a more institutional understanding of the concept of “actor” in mind. Individual politicians only embody the authority and power that they have by virtue of the role that they hold within the state apparatus, setting aside questions of charisma and leadership style. Our first task was to subject the selected data to a basic close reading. For this we drew from Saldana’s copious and nuanced examples of data “coding” and selected from this repertoire a coding type most suited to our main avenue of exploration. This was primarily because, in our pursuit of both domestic and international tropes in tension with one another, we needed a coding system that foregrounded discursive tensions. In essence, bearing Putnam’s insight in mind, we sought out the tensions between foreign policy objectives on the one hand and domestic pressures on the other as evinced from the empirical data gathered. The most suitable qualitative coding mechanism for this was determined to be “versus” coding, where implicit and explicit tensions and oppositions are constructed into the perceptions embodied in the data by the authors of the various texts. From this we could establish where the conflict lay between foreign and domestic “games” in Putnam’s sense. Our findings revealed several overlapping concerns but were disentangled into three key strands.


Tangled tensions

The first related to the tension between the control of borders on the one hand and the imperatives of free trade for the national economy on the other. Border security was invoked by both national administrations relative to the inward flows of migration that were considered to be a significant threat to national security. Yet free trade, linked as it often is with questions of population mobility across international borders, was also a national policy objective. Between the two cases, the US placed much less emphasis on free trade than the UK, for example, with President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and more aggressive rhetoric in regards to the use of tariffs to restore a perceived trade imbalance with countries such as China. In essence, the UK reconstructed itself as an effective champion of free trade despite its decision to leave one of the largest free trading blocs in the world. This attempted reconfiguration of the UK as a free trade champion was undoubtedly undertaken to reassure the British public and investors. For the US, by contrast, the protection and reinvigoration of US industrial capacity, seen as having been weakened by the conclusions of trade agreements prior to Trump’s election, most noticeably the NAFTA agreement, were seen as an imperative for improving the domestic economy. The question of migration was a centerpiece in both contexts. For the US and the UK, the control of inward migration was linked directly to perceived problems in the domestic sphere, such as unemployment, pressure on welfare provision, and crime levels. Balancing the protection of borders from inward migration versus the reduction of impediments to free trade was a core tension between domestic and international policy.

“The UK reconstructed itself as an effective champion of free trade despite its decision to leave one of the largest free trading blocs in the world.”

The second major tension was between the question of national sovereignty versus international commitments. Here our working concept of sovereignty relates specifically to the capacity of national governments to enact policy and legislation to the exclusion of other decision-making mechanisms outside or above the state. Both the US and the UK data demonstrated a desire to reclaim a “lost” decision-making capacity relative to a supposedly recent divestiture to either liberal intergovernmental arrangements (US) or supra-national structures (UK). In both cases the trope of “unaccountable elites” surfaces in the official discourse and is associated with the distinction between legitimate (democratic) versus illegitimate (shadowy elites). Nevertheless, the pressures of international commitments continue to intrude on domestic electoral commitments in both contexts. Interstate cooperation and its benefits were in clear tension with the desire by both states to reclaim and retain decisional autonomy. This represents the classic tension between effectiveness and accountability.

“Interstate cooperation and its benefits were in clear tension with the desire by both states to reclaim and retain decisional autonomy. This represents the classic tension between effectiveness and accountability.”

Closely related is the third and final major theme to emerge from the data. One of the major domestic pressures on national leadership is the need to improve economic performance, inclusive of ensuring that this has a demonstrably positive effect on working and middle class citizens. Notwithstanding this identical pressure from within the domestic sphere, its effect on foreign policy articulation is quite different in each context. The UK official discourse projects Britain as a nation keen to demonstrate its globalist credentials through its reinvention as a “global” and “outward” facing nation. The US, by contrast, only mentions the idea of free trade explicitly very few times. The corrective action required for improved economic prosperity lies in ensuring that the domestic sphere is protected from globalization, and this includes both the use of threat or inducement to US corporations to ensure that they retain US jobs. The existence of identical tensions does not necessarily result in identical responses. Each nation will clearly read the relationship between domestic and international “games” differently.


(Re-)Interpreting domestic-international politics

The study not only sheds light on the substantive issue of the tension between domestic politics and international relations, it also draws attention to the analytical potential of qualitative interpretive analysis in the study of international affairs. Substantively, it is shown that the official discourses of the US and the UK are riven with tensions between the domestic pressures of populist electoral politics and the relationship of both states to the wider international community. International cooperation and collective action has the potential to solve domestic economic problems.

“The process of collective decision-making and the general acceptance of the premises of globalization, such as population mobility, threaten established national narratives.”

However, the process of collective decision-making and the general acceptance of the premises of globalization, such as population mobility, threaten established national narratives. National governments, such as those of the UK and the US, struggle to navigate these tensions and retain domestic political legitimacy. The official discourses of both states have attempted to reconcile these tensions or, at the very least, order them into a hierarchical priority. Methodologically, the study has shown that the admission of the interpretive approach can shed considerable light on the naturally occurring data emanating from agencies and institutions of nation states. This is an important complement to the traditional analysis of international politics.


Image | Lou Levit, Unsplash

Kenneth Houston and Jason Briggs first presented this research at The Asian Conference on Arts & Humanities 2017 in Kobe, Japan. The full conference article and reference list is available here.

Kenneth Houston and Jason Briggs

About Kenneth Houston and Jason Briggs

Kenneth Houston was awarded his PhD by the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He also holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ulster and a Higher Diploma in Mediation and Conflict Resolution from University College Dublin. He has taught at the University of Ulster on the subjects of European Integration, West European Politics, The Foundations of Political Thought, and at Masters level, Divided Societies in the Modern World. He teaches International Affairs, Politics of Peace, Political Theory and The World System since 1500, among other courses, at Webster University Thailand.  Jason Briggs graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Iowa and Juris Doctor from Creighton University School of Law. He also holds a Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from The George Washington University School of Law. Before joining Webster University-Thailand, he was a Justice Advisor for the United States Department of State Justice Sector Support Program in Afghanistan. He is currently the Program Manager for the Masters In International Relations Program at Webster University-Thailand and lectures on International Law and US Politics and Foreign Policy.

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