Under what conditions do populists embrace or reject “the international”? Some scholars of populism argue that populist leaders tend to neglect political (inter-)action in the international arena due to their stated preference for isolationist, nationalistic, and protectionist stances. Meanwhile, others claim that through their promotion of performative encounters and transnational solidarities between “People(s),” populists are actually more likely to engage with actors, ideas, styles, and agendas coming from abroad. This article explores this apparent contradiction, hypothesizing that three main elements influence the “populist mindset” to narrate the external world and thus adopt or rather resist new contingencies originating internationally: legitimacy, support, and opportunity. To examine the combination of these behavioral patterns, we compare two populist presidents who are paradigmatic of a fourth wave of populism in Latin America: Brazil’s Jair Messias Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). A comparative analysis of Bolsonaro’s and AMLO’s discursive responses to numerous foreign policy issues reveals how these three mechanisms condition their engagement or apathy toward external developments in bilateral frameworks of cooperation, regional integration schemes, multilateral organizations, and global governance institutions. The findings of this study can contribute to a greater understanding of populist foreign policies and their outcomes, with a special emphasis on Latin America and the Global South, and more generally to the emerging research on populism in international relations.
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© The Author(s) (2023). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.