Ministry's chilling warning: How 'economic and security issues' led to 'populist sentiment'

Economic and security issues over the past decade have led to "widespread populist sentiment" across the globe, advice from a New Zealand ministry says.

In a briefing to Associate Minister for Trade and Export Growth Nanaia Mahuta in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade laid out global challenges facing New Zealand.  

It said New Zealand is operating in an environment that "remains challenging" with "pressures continuing to build in systems and parts of the world that matter deeply to our country". 

It said there is a "sense of impending transition in the international order" and that "what we are transitioning to and the extent of the transformation is not yet clear". 

On a global level, it said economic and security issues over the last decade "have resulted in widespread populist sentiment and further buffeting of the international system and its institutions". 

The advice did not point to examples. But populism has already been flagged as a threat in a report by the Defence Force. Last year it pointed to an "accelerating" gap between the rich and poor as cause for nationalist movements.  

The advice to Mahuta said: "Elected leaders, appealing to their political bases, are pursuing nativist and protectionist policies and rejecting globalisation and the institutions that support and enforce it."

United States (US) President Donald Trump is considered by some a "populist" leader. It's a political approach described as preying on collective anxieties and pitting people against "the elite". 

Populism has roots in championing for "the people", and it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Trump, for instance, pledged to "drain the swamp" of Washington's elite and cut back on immigration and put "America first". 

America First has become the official foreign policy doctrine of the Trump Administration and it's led to the US pulling out of global trade partnerships New Zealand signed up to, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).  

It also led to the US pulling out of international groups such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council last year. Trump has frequently spoken out against the UN, labelling it an "underperformer". 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns the populist approach is dangerous for New Zealand, in that as a small trading nation, it "relies heavily" on that system of multilateralism, international law, and international norms.

It said New Zealand faces a situation where "powers are unwilling or unable to provide global leadership at a time when we are also seeing a weakening of the United Nations and related institutions". 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also expressed concern over a "growing insecurity amongst populations". 

"We have seen some political movements look to blame international institutions, the free trade agenda, as contributing to that... I really reject that," she said in July.

The populist movement has been linked to a rise in white supremacist belief. Sociologist and author Keith Kahn-Harris has written about a rising fear of "white genocide" that has "become normative" in far-right thinking.

New Zealand had its first major encounter with it on March 15. 

The murder of 51 people in Christchurch sparked a Royal Commission of Inquiry into whether New Zealand's intelligence agencies were looking in the wrong place for terrorists, ignoring the threat of far-right extremism. 

There have already been several deadly copycat shootings since March 15, with multiple suspects citing the alleged shooter Brenton Tarrant as their inspiration. 

The ministry warns these trends in civil unrest and will have "negative implications for multilateralism, for adherence to values New Zealand supports, for democracy and for solutions to global problems".