As I write in mid-July 2016, all the Transatlantic chatterati can seem to talk and write about—except when temporarily interrupted by terrorist outrages like the one at the Istanbul airport on June 28—is Brexit. It is as though, for some, everything was just fine in Europe before June 23. And it is all too typical that the brunt of much of the commentary revolves around whom to blame for the surprising disaster.
So let us start with a necessary restatement of what ought to be obvious but isn’t, apparently. The Brexit vote was a highly telegenic symptom of lingering problems, not a cause or source of them. It is not the most important datum of the current disorder in Europe and across the Atlantic, and the next chapters of this disorder’s tale are neither known nor numbered; many outcomes are possible and the possibilities are subject to human agency. But Brexit does demonstrate how difficult it has been, to one extent or another, for the elites of all the Atlantic nations to digest the many dramatic changes that emerged from the reordering of the world since 1990.
As for blame, Brexit is no one’s fault in particular—not even David Cameron’s. Yes, he guessed wrongly about the outcome, but his occasion for guessing was constructed by many others over many years. To look for individual scapegoats is to misunderstand the nature of the phenomenon. In political institutions causes, like decisions, are not like snapshots but like videos. They are embedded as if in a never-ending tapestry of precursor threads. In ordinary life, sometimes stupid or evil behavior very quickly produces a recognizable outcome; if you drink way past your fill, it will not take weeks or months for your deserved hangover to announce its arrival. But it doesn’t work that way in the world of politics and foreign policy.
If we wish to search for the underlying factors to explain Brexit, we would be wise to begin simply with the passage of time. Nothing is forever. Neither the political goals of the Atlantic system set up by the victors in World War II seven decades ago nor its economic and social foundations should be expected to survive unperturbed, or at all, today. The prescriptions no longer fit the problems, but we still allow ourselves to be guided by them—and when that doesn’t work, we typically scrutinize details rather than question premises. As a result of the cumulative debilities of this wayward approach, large numbers of voters simply do not trust their leaders anymore.
At its root, Brexit is a sign of this growing tension between political and economic elites and their voters. It raises questions about the ability of governments to understand and manage a world in which virtually everything is undergoing fundamental change. The fact that Western elites were generally surprised by the outcome of the vote bears vivid witness to how out of touch they have become—that, or how unwilling they are to admit a less than idyllic reality. Their confusion is reflected in the steady erosion of the intellectual quality of political dialogue and institutions, both within and among Atlantic nations. It also coincides with a renewed diminishment of trust among European nations and between Europe and the United States.
This erosion of Transatlantic trust probably qualifies to win the irony sweepstakes, for it comes at a time when our societies are growing ever more closely integrated in terms of economics and culture. An event that roils financial markets in London creates dangers in New York as well. Research on GMOs in California leads to demonstrations in Munich. Corporate mergers come under the scrutiny of courts on both sides of the ocean, that being a measure not only of how integrated our economies are but of how compatible our legal traditions have become as well. Europe composes the world’s largest economy and trading bloc, the second most important military power by capability measures, and remains a center of science and technology. Anyone familiar with the relationship can recite the investment, trade, patent, licensing, and even tourism data showing the accelerating pace of Transatlantic transactions. Everyone in the so-called private sector seems able to take the measure of what this ought to mean politically and diplomatically, but Western politicians and diplomats themselves apparently cannot, or at any rate lately do not.
Above all, the Brexit vote is the proverbial wakeup call for leaders who have been so consumed with crushing problems at home that they seem to have forgotten how important Atlantic consensus has become for the realization of their domestic goals. Rather than being defined by formal diplomatic agendas through NATO and the European Union, the Western community should increasingly be seen as a large sounding board that offers governments a chance to build confidence among their voters by demonstrating consensus and professionalism on issues that really matter to their citizens.
Today’s Western voters want to know what is going on. Closer Atlantic collaboration over the past ten years could have helped build confidence among American and European voters that their leaders actually do understand the ravages of globalization, or the dangers of terrorism. An unemployed steel worker in Britain feels the same pain as an underemployed autoworker in Detroit, and each could have gained confidence from learning that governments are working closely in his interest.
That did not happen. Instead, the U.S. government, in particular, allowed the Transatlantic consensus to drift and decay not from opposition but from inanition. In a June 2013 speech delivered in Berlin, President Obama recited an agenda of 43 items on which he hoped to work closely with Europe. But this was obvious speechwriter persiflage, for not once did he mention the European Union or the problems it was struggling with across the continent. Most listeners lost count after four or five examples as they waited for some sort of essence to give the speech the gravitas that circumstances deserved. It never came, so no wonder Germans, for example, are now looking elsewhere for answers—some even to Russia. From this perspective, it is likely that a steady, unplanned, but nonetheless consequential “Amerexit”—the erosion of active American engagement in Europe and the Atlantic world—has contributed to the breakdown of consensus and trust. It is also possible that, had there been no Amerexit, there would not have been a subsequent Brexit either.
The main criticism of Barack Obama one hears in Europe these days is that “he has lost interest in us.” This isn’t new, and that’s part of the point. It dates from Obama’s early willingness to go to Copenhagen to shill for Chicago’s Olympic bid, but not come to Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. John Kerry’s emergency visit on June 27 in an effort to “moderate” between the parties demonstrates how far out of touch the Obama Administration has become. Kerry’s arrival and announcement were greeted justifiably with sarcasm and bemusement, sort of like what happens when a big man on campus tries to get a second date with pretty Suzy Q after having ignored her for the previous three semesters. Few, if any, European commentators welcomed his offer. Most would have ignored it entirely had they the choice.
Europeans, despite themselves, continue to depend on American leadership. Yet they have done little to cultivate it. They are too consumed with the internal politics of the European Union to have lifted a finger to allay our drift. Their loss of trust in the United States has been reciprocated by growing American doubts that, when the going gets tough, Europeans cannot be counted upon.
The “Brexit effect” invalidates the claims by both the Bush and Obama Administrations that they had somehow found a new paradigm for America’s role in the world, one that can somehow pivot away from Europe to somewhere else—the Middle East, Asia, wherever. The steady U.S. disengagement from serious dialogue with its European allies is a sign of no new paradigm. It is instead a sign of damage to important American interests, already and yet to come.
No Exit from Europe
Writing in 1943, Walter Lippmann suggested in American Foreign Policy, Shield of the Republic, that an Atlantic alliance would be the best foundation for postwar governance:
[T]he original geographic and historic connections across the Atlantic have persisted. The Atlantic Ocean is not the frontier between Europe and the Americas. It is the inland sea of a community of nations allied with one another by geography, history and vital necessity. . . . There is a great community on this earth from which no member can be excluded and none can resign. This community has it geographical center in the great basin of the Atlantic.
In a sense, Lipmann was only elaborating on something Alexis de Tocqueville had written nearly a century earlier in Democracy in America, that Europe and America “can never be independent of each other, so numerous are the natural ties which exist between their wants, their ideas, their habits and their manners.”
It’s an old truth, but it is no less true for being old. It is important that we learn the right lessons from the erosion of Transatlantic trust over the past two decades. What we learn can lead us back to this truth. It has little to do with institutions and cannot be had by tinkering with this or that organization, as Washington think tanks love to do. This is why EU and NATO summits these days are such consistently underwhelming experiences: A great deal of work goes into these conclaves, but not nearly a concomitant volume of actual thinking.
The basic lesson is more fundamental: We cannot escape each other. The United States cannot pivot away from Europe anymore than a tree can pivot away from the soil in which it is rooted. We share a common Atlantic history that is more than four centuries old, and this remains the case regardless of diffusive demographic changes on both sides of the Atlantic, because institutions and attitudes are vastly more important than the details of ethnic origin. We are constituent parts of one another in ways that we are not with any other part of the world.
If Americans ignore this fact, as we have tried to do for at least the past decade, we cut ourselves off from a big part of our heritage, and from many possible tools of transnational governance we will need looking ahead. It is overwhelmingly in our interest that Western values shape the contours of any new global governance mechanisms that need to arise. So we and the Europeans might just as well sit down together, work out a road map for the era ahead, and devise the new institutions we need for the purpose.
A good and by no means trivial example concerns the impact of the digital revolution. America essentially created that revolution, and how we manage it will have a major effect on our future. It may seem as though the technology has been around forever, so ubiquitous has it become in our lives, and that therefore the management protocols must have long since been worked out. That is not the case: We have just begun the task, and America alone cannot finish it.
As it happens, Europe is the world’s second-largest IT market, and Europeans are looking to the United States for ways to deal with some of the disturbing questions that have arisen concerning values, privacy, and the future of human employment. They have raised many questions that Silicon Valley producers seem not yet ready to answer. These producers are very good at inventing, manufacturing, marketing, and selling stuff; they are not so far better than anyone else at figuring out how all this stuff changes our societies, cultures, economies, and politics. Finding the answers is very much in the American interest, and it behooves us to search alongside others whose values most closely align with our own.
The End of History?
Part of the disconnect between the United States and Europe has been a different understanding of the results of the Cold War. Americans seem generally to believe that Europe, defined as a problem, was “solved” by victory over the Soviet Union. This is certainly the view of the Obama Administration, as well as that of its predecessor, more or less. To Americans, the only European history that matters is the history that started after around 1870, or maybe even 1914. This is a mistake, and both America and Europe have suffered because of it.
To most Europeans, the end of the Cold War was more of a beginning. Even the word “victory” is hard for some to swallow because it implies finality, which Europeans have learned from experience doesn’t really exist. Their goal is to be able to deal successfully with the many unsolved conflicts that arose from what pan-European minded people nowadays reasonably refer to as Europe’s 20th-century Civil War. The relationship with Russia is among the most important of these unsolved conflicts.
Very little will ever be “solved” in the traditional sense. Russia is still very large to the east, and it largely retains the political culture it has had for half a millennia at the least—one that has given it, almost but not completely, a European vocation. Europeans are again looking for American support in an effort to manage more than to solve the relationship with Russia. It remains to be seen how much help we will give.
The European elites need us because their obsession with creating a European superstate has deranged their capacity for common sense. Try as they may, the EU’s leaders have been unable to overcome their fixation with fitting all the parts of Europe into one neat box. As a result, whatever the issue, Europeans often fail to focus on the actual issue in play. They are great at organizational detail and airy abstractions, but not the reality in between. They also put EU solidarity ahead of real action, so we often end up with a vague consensus capable of achieving almost nothing, making Europe less than the sum of its parts.
Much of this reality gap flows from the psychology of the Brussels establishment. It has been inculcated with a deeply held belief that a return to illiberal nationalism is always lurking in the background (they seem unable to conceive of a liberal form of nationalism with a half-life longer than a single generation), and that peace and prosperity can be assured only through an equilibrium enforced on recalcitrant voters by an elite group of leaders. The goal is not good policy or even results, but rather to ensure that no one rocks the boat.
The European Union is not a would-be Soviet Union in disguise, as Mikhail Gorbachev suggested. The mentality of European consensus seekers is defensive, not aggressive. But the acceleration of economic and technological change is putting both the EU’s identity and its structures under pressure, and the pressure is leading the elite to double down in all the wrong ways. The neat boxes no longer fit together. The structural contradictions can no longer be hushed up. The more invasive the digital world becomes; the more European leaders seem to be obsessed with protecting their legacy from change, and the more futile the obsession becomes. The more the world works by flexible networks, the more EU elites seemed determined on centralization and functional conformity.
Above all, the more skeptical younger generations become, the more threatened European leaders feel. But the elites’ toolkit has tools only for fixing existing machinery, when what they need to do, together with the United States, is to design new machinery. They don’t know how, and neither, apparently, do we. The result is a growing standoff between European political elites and their voters, and a concomitant U.S. inability to really offer anything of value, for our own elites are in a similar predicament relative to U.S. voters.
Radical Economic and Technological Change
Some truths are old, but the way to embrace them need not be. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, history is rapidly reasserting itself in the sense that, as many have put it, geopolitics has returned. But nationalism is not what is causing this. A rise in nationalism in many places is like Brexit itself—a symptom of something more basic, not a cause.
It is becoming brutally clear that the 45 years following World War II did not mark a path to the end of history, but were rather a welcome period of recuperation between two phases of a radical industrial revolution. Western technological society is likely never to come to rest. We may not be approaching a suffocating singularity, but it does seem that some kind of galloping “creative destruction” has moved into the house for the long term as one class of generative innovation after another reshapes our lives.
Many typical citizens are afraid of what’s ahead on account of the fresh memory of having been knocked off balance in the recent past. They know now they are facing an era of protracted restructuring. Put differently, a post-Cold War transition that seemed to come with a reasonable expiration date turned out not to have one. Industries are still collapsing and jobs are still being lost, and still much too fast to expect either individuals or institutions to gamely adjust. Look at the key calculation that affected the Brexit vote: It was about how much dole the European Union provides to depressed rustbelt parts of Scotland, Wales, and England as against what Britain pays into the common pot. The whole idea that the future of the United Kingdom should be decided on the basis of such objective economic weakness and calculative pandering beggars belief. It is or ought to be deeply embarrassing–which is doubtless why so few seem brave enough to state the point clearly.
It’s no wonder that many voters are confused, because they can’t figure out if the freeing of capital flows is to blame for the orgy of outsourcing that has enriched corporations and banks even as it has destroyed whole communities, or if various forms of automation have laid waste to even more middle class families. Nor can they figure out how an age of unprecedented openness and participation could have produced what seem to be the largest inequality metrics perhaps in modern history.
Confusion left unassuaged often leads to anger. Some are now driven to think that the whole mess is part of a deliberate plan by plutocratic elites to shift money from everyone else’s pockets into theirs. Sometimes it even looks that way, but it isn’t. During the past twenty years the world has slipped rapidly, almost without notice, into a new era. The world of formal structures, the world of hierarchical methods of management, the world of non-porous national borders has disappeared, without most of us even knowing what was happening. The existing treaty-based world order is being turned on end faster than any dictator could have done in the past. Bankers and CEOs, like everyone else, are simply trying to figure out where their possibilities lie, and do the best they can. The idea that anyone or some cabal is directing all this is conspiracy theorizing near its worst.
The experience of the past quarter century suggests strongly that the central factors of our era are not nationalism or militarism, but rather the two periods of radical change stimulated by technology and innovation during not one but two Industrial Revolutions. The first one began 175 years ago; the second, the information age, has now lasted about four decades. Our picture of Europe comes into clearer focus if we understand that such revolutionary technological and social change was the real driver of 19th and 20th century European history, just as it was in the United States. Many American observers missed the run up to Brexit because they focused on the standard diplomatic history of Europe and overlooked the painful dynamics of the onrushing effects of globalization. Something similar happened, just by the way, with the surprise of the First World War that followed on the heels of the collapse of the first era of globalization, the first Gilded Age.
Why are the Germans so rabid about budgetary discipline in southern Europe? It’s not because they are penny pinchers. Rather, they understand how fundamentally the future can change and destroy existing ways of life, so that one must have a buffer to serve as an insurance policy to make it through. For Berlin, the choice facing Europe is between efficiency and solidarity. And to them, solidarity with other less productive EU states means wastefulness and the inevitable decline of Germany from the top rank of economic powers. Their effort to introduce efficiency into southern Europe may seem worthy of Don Quixote, but they see no other option.
Globalization’s invasive, data-driven efficiency also threatens control by authoritarian states. Western values now dominate the software of this system, but they also unnerve leaders in countries such as Russia and China. Freedom of information and civic society challenge their influence as no military alliance could ever do. They will fight back, and of course they already are. So unless the Atlantic world finds a new sense of common purpose as a “global Atlantic” to manage the challenges of globalization, we may not be able to ensure that Western values will continue to define the operating system of the digitalized world. This defines a need for even closer integration across the Atlantic. Europe cannot manage this second revolution without America, and America should not wish to manage it without Europe.
Updating Our Narrative
Armed with this different perspective, we can more accurately plot Atlantic interests. It can help us create an updated narrative for the Atlantic world that is more relevant to the challenges of a digitalized future. In particular, this new map can help Americans better to understand the unresolved challenges in Europe, and see that our leadership role will change from protector to that of interpreter and manager of a networked world.
Atlantic ties are already focused more on data and network issues than on the military and trade relations of the past. This is why the TTIP negotiations have run into so much opposition. Google’s handling of personal data is much more important to most Europeans (and Americans) than any standard trade negotiation could ever be. Many fear that a new Atlantic trade partnership could open the way for even more invasive technology. Europeans and Americans have different histories that make them care about the right to privacy, but both care deeply about it.
This type of hands on, patient management that will be required in the digital age is unfamiliar and unpleasant to many American leaders. Despite persistent legends to the contrary, there were few great visionary eras of the past. Only hard work, lots of false starts, and several instances of both bad and good luck made things work out as they did. Most of the great geopolitical concepts were plotted after the fact by academics who luckily did not know how hit and miss most political decisions turn out to be–the real history of the Berlin Airlift being a better-than-usual case in point. As we enter the 21st century with both Europe and Asia undergoing change beyond recognition, it will be especially important to remember how much patience, skill, and fortitude future diplomacy will require.
To persist in what we and the Europeans together need now to do, some forgetting may be in order. We have accumulated in recent years a fair load of pap about how different we are—Mars and Venus, and other such nonsense. Of course we have our differences. Our histories are not the same, so what else could one expect? And we have had more than our share from recent administrations of high principles to define new American crusades, paradigms, and visions. None of these visions were previewed privately or publicly either in the United States or Europe and, designed for maximum media impact, they fit well into the short attention spans of the digital age and promptly self-destructed.
And good riddance, for while all this symbolic fluff was littering down like so much confetti the world was becoming more integrated and interdependent, both for good and in some ways perhaps for not so good. The dawn of the digital age has created new communities of de facto diplomatic activists who are separate from government. The “Leave” movement in Great Britain is an example. Unsettling change in a time of increasing pluralism and transparency is generating organizing capabilities outside of government that governments have a hard time anticipating let alone controlling. Despite their vast differences, that is what the “Leave” movement in the United Kingdom and the upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring have had in common.
These new modalities of non-state diplomacy are creating hybrid forms of influence. A complex “peace order” negotiated with Russia in the 1990s is not only ignored by Russia, but is undermined by tools of digital information sharing and reporting that we invented. However outrageous we may find Vladimir Putin’s twisting of the truth, his arguments do hit home in large parts of the world whose inhabitants gain access to them through Western-based satellite television and social media. Russia has dispatched squads of operatives throughout the world, often called “trolls,” to make sure that its messages are distributed as widely as possible. This illustrates the possibility that the greatest challenge facing future leaders may be learning how to deal with what the Financial Times has dubbed “a post-factual world.”
The paradox of our era is that the more adept the machines of Big Data become in organizing and validating the veracity of numbers, the more Western populations are ready to believe the most fanciful versions of reality—and the more young people think that since governments no longer should enjoy the right to keep any knowledge secret, people like Edward Snowden are obviously transparency saints. Understanding and applying the lessons of new technology to the underlying values of democratic societies will be one of the major political, and philosophical, tasks of the 21st century.
Consider a tale of two negotiations. The Dayton Peace agreement was negotiated before smart phones and social media existed. It also included a good deal of covert military activity designed to convince the Serbs to negotiate. Having participated in those talks from start to finish, I doubt if we could have pulled off the same solution under today’s 24-hour news cycle and constant comment on social media. On the other hand, the nuclear arrangement with Iran was carried out at acceptable levels of confidentiality, but only barely. Iranian control of its own media helped, as did the fact that negotiators had been at their task for several years. A comparable negotiation with a less autocratic power might not have been possible.
Not that the TTIP negotiations are comparable, but they offer a hint. The negotiations are attacked regularly on both sides of the Atlantic for their secrecy and lack of transparency. Critics refuse to concede that bargains could not be struck if all negotiating positions appear in each morning’s news. They understand the power of information and they want to share in it, but not every situation is aided by full-frontal transparency. In the absence of total transparency, there has been a marked tendency to just make up narratives that seem convenient. The post-factual age is already underway.
In the future, diplomacy will focus on maintaining balances within networks of relationships that include private as well as governmental players as never before. Mutual definitions of interests among partner nations will be necessary, not only because of friendship, but also to keep the public message on line. Luckily, the Atlantic community is a ready-made framework for the application of such methods. But allies, like voters, will want to be part of the formulation of ideas as well as their implementation. We can be successful at such an effort only if American political leaders and diplomats realize that there really is no Amerexit option from Europe, let along from the world.