Brexit: Making Britain Great Again?

The British EU referendum did not address geo-economics, declining strategic reach, and domestic division as the real drivers of Britain’s lingering identity crisis in foreign policy.

Image courtesy of Dave Kellam, © 2007.

Image courtesy of Dave Kellam, © 2007.

On June 23rd, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) by a margin of four percent, causing unprecedented global, political, and economic uncertainty as to the country’s and the EU’s direction. Theresa May, the nation’s new Prime Minister will face the fact that Britain’s credibility has not diminished by its relationship with the European Union, but by geopolitical trends coupled with the relative decline of British defense policy over past decades. In 1962, President Harry Truman’s former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, diagnosed that Britain had lost its Empire and not yet found its new role in the world. This may still be reality, even half a century later.

Geopolitics was favorable to the United Kingdom when the Atlantic was the world’s central geo-economic basin. Initiating an unprecedented pivot of global trade patterns, however, the volume of trans-Pacific trade surpassed that of trans-Atlantic trade in 1991. Since then, the cleavage has only widened. Asia-Europe trade is larger in volume than flows across the Atlantic and the Pacific, but flows predominantly from east to west, dividing the labor in this trade relationship into skilled in Europe and manual in Asia. Financial services in London, currently considered similarly competitive to those of New York, have benefitted greatly from this arrangement. The country’s geographic position between North America and Asia, the global ascent of telecommunications, de-unionization, and a domestic policy of privatizations in the 1980s all reinforced the United Kingdom’s specialization as a services-led economy.

Residual resistance to the free movement of labor, one of the four core principles of the EU’s Single Market, featured as the core EU referendum topic and ignited passions on both sides. Careers dependent on location, such as in construction, logistics, and agriculture have come under increasing duress from the global availability of services. Simultaneously, the EU-28’s share of the global GDP is shrinking at a faster rate than that of the U.S.  Free trade-oriented Leave supporters, such as Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, and Boris Johnson therefore declared that Britain has shackled itself to a shrinking trade bloc, locking out opportunities further afield. Their campaign, however, rested on an alliance with populist elements which are generally opposed to trade agreements and which consider them part of the same “metropolitan elite” of London favoring them. Similarly, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted to Remain, centrist secessionists routinely argue that their nations are structurally disadvantaged by the political classes of London and over-matched by England’s 84% share of the United Kingdom’s population. Scottish leaders have already begun lobbying for a second independence referendum, which is likely to succeed.

Developments in international security compound these economic and constitutional risks. In 2012, the United States designed the Pivot to Asia in order to break with its prioritization of the Atlantic over the Pacific rooted in the 20th century, and to deemphasize its role in the Middle East. In both cases, the UK has traditionally featured as the second pillar of liberal internationalism, brokering between the U.S. and the EU, while legitimizing America’s many efforts in the Middle East. Owing primarily to the historical depletion of its primary geostrategic device, the Royal Navy, it has thus far failed to engage either region effectively beyond the commercial arena. From 2010 to 2015, the British fleet lost 17 percent of its vessels, and further cuts were announced in the budget-driven 2015 Strategic Defense and Spending Review. For all its professionalism and experience, then, the British military has undercut a critical mass of equipment and personnel required to independently defeat strategic threats to global security.

The U.S.-UK Special Relationship, “although commonplace in British political and media circles, is seldom [referred to] by Americans outside a small core policy group in Washington, DC.” It remains uniquely collaborative in defense, intelligence, and culture among bilateral relationships. Military decline nevertheless undermines British credibility long-term, which came under severe duress when the UK Ministry of Defense under-resourced the transition between the Southern Iraq and Helmand Province missions in Afghanistan in 2004, destabilizing both when foreseeable contingencies emerged, and ultimately relied on the U.S. to remedy the situation. Britain further evidenced its strain in exhausting its laser-guided bombs less than a month into the 2011 Libya aerial campaign. The strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have severely diminished the British electorate’s appetite for further intervention. Increasingly, the twin constraints on material capability and national warfighting morale imperil the country’s special relationship with the United States as an ally on an equal footing, which traditionally conferred upon the UK the leading role in European security. Now that its defense spending as a share of GDP is trailing that of Poland and Greece, Britain’s legacy of junior exceptionalism is in doubt. Since the U.S. considers itself inextricably linked to Europe due to the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the TTIP more recently, Brexit will further undermine Britain’s relevance in American eyes.

The geopolitical consequences of a dissolution of the United Kingdom would exceed even those of Brexit. The prospective Kingdom of England (and Wales) could lose its seat on the UN Security Council alongside its independent nuclear deterrent at sea, currently based in Scotland, and would face the prospect of an international border on the island of Great Britain for the first time since 1707, further reducing its scope for sea power. Given the generally republican, socially progressive, and statist pro-European impulses of the non-English nations on the British Isles, it is unclear how much international leverage England could bring to bear without significantly increasing its defense spending from current propositions. In other words, the EU referendum was inconsequential to the cleavage between Britain’s great power nostalgia and its material capabilities. The referendum campaigns failed to address the underlying causes of Britain’s relative decline, such as centrifugal forces on the British Isles and the unwillingness of Britain’s political leadership to resource its geostrategic ambitions. For these reasons, the future of the United Kingdom’s role in the world will remain contested.

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