Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series assessing the consequences of Brexit. Tomorrow: historian Andrew Roberts makes the case for a no-deal Brexit. Next week: Rosa Balfour offers a pensive view from the Continent.
Boris Johnson’s secret ambition as a boy, according to biographer Andrew Gimson, was “to be President of the United States.” With that option foreclosed, as British Prime Minister he has instead chosen to flatter President Trump by imitation. In just over 50 days on the job, Boris has pursued hardball tactics that have tarnished his party, traduced conservatism, and toxified politics. He has prorogued Parliament, sacked 21 of his party’s MPs, and has promptly lost his House of Commons majority, along with key legislative votes and court cases. He now presides over a chaotic executive mired in stalemate against an obstructionist legislature. Policy gridlock is wedded to political paralysis, fueling a divided public’s distrust of the entire political class. Who needs to be U.S. President when being UK PM can achieve eerily similar results?
Like a bleak geopolitical parody of When Harry Met Sally, the “will they-won’t they?” Brexit ordeal carries on with no happy ending in sight. The world’s fifth-largest economy is now preparing to cope with national shortages of food, fuel, and medical supplies. Hurricane Johnson made landfall in July but, rather than “taking back control,” lost it to a parliament intent on prohibiting a “no-deal” Brexit on the scheduled departure date of October 31. The impasse leaves the United Kingdom, three years after the 2016 EU referendum, with three feasible outcomes: either “no deal” (a misleading phrase that really means postponing EU negotiations from a weaker position), a BRINO deal (“Brexit in name only,” to its detractors) after yet another extension, or a deal, perhaps following a second referendum, to remain in the EU after all. Whether, when, and how this stalemate reaches resolution is unclear.
Despite this inauspicious start, Johnson’s premiership has rekindled hopes of improved relations between Washington and London. To admirers, Boris’s optimism, energy, and charm offer Churchillian echoes. His Cabinet is the most unabashedly Atlanticist in a generation. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton even declared in August that the “special relationship” had “never been stronger.” For romantics, the Johnson-Trump bromance promises the personal and political closeness that has sustained bilateral relations at their best.
Perhaps. But for those of us who prize the U.S.-UK partnership, such hope appears ill-founded. Bolton was wrong: The bilateral is weaker than at any time since the Suez crisis in 1956. The partnership’s four foundations have suffered grievously over the 2010s. From being Washington’s military partner of choice, London is increasingly a source of vexation as much as value. As Hemingway explained in The Sun Also Rises, bankruptcy can occur “gradually, then suddenly.” The sun that supposedly never set on the British empire did so—gradually and then suddenly. A precipitous descent into geostrategic bankruptcy is now eminently conceivable. If Johnson’s high-stakes gamble with his party, parliament, and the European Union backfires, the U.S.-UK partnership will receive its last rites from the most anti-American government in British history.
Brits do not want to have to choose between Europe and America. But whether it precedes or follows a resolution of Brexit, the general election anticipated in the final months of 2019 offers the choice of lethal injection or firing squad: a chaotic and costly Johnson Brexit or an even more catastrophic Jeremy “Stop the West” Corbyn-led cabal of avowed Marxists, Stalinists, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the far-Left lunatic fringe. This binary is emblematic of more fundamental decisions that cannot long be deferred. The polarization and fragmentation of the party system is ineluctably leading to a moment where Britain must decide between aligning closer to the United States, tilting to the EU either as an outsider or diminished member, or standing alone to independently associate with one or another major player—offending both while influencing neither. In turn, Washington must calibrate anew the privileged position London has traditionally enjoyed. Adam Smith once cautioned that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” More by accident than design, the U.S.-UK partnership is at a potentially ruinous inflection point.
The Character of Nations
Foreign policy begins at home, shaped by domestic foundations. During the 2016 referendum, when foreign policy was not even an afterthought in the campaign, opinion was divided on Brexit’s consequences: 64 percent of Brits thought it would make no difference to the conduct of foreign affairs, 21 percent thought the UK would have less international influence, while 15 percent thought it would have more. As it stands, Brexit threatens the strategic pragmatism that London has always put at a premium in the conduct of its external affairs. Decline is, ultimately, a choice, and by weakening Britain’s geopolitical value Brexit invites once more the folly of military weakness, economic contraction, and diplomatic isolation.
Alliances between sovereign nation-states are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The “liberal international order” may have been neither as liberal, global, nor orderly as its strongest proponents claim. But a strong Anglo-American partnership was vital to the West’s collective security. A shared history and language, liberal democracy, common law framework, and close commercial and cultural ties have underpinned a steadfast partnership that brooks few historical comparisons. Between the fears of abandonment and entrapment that have accompanied multiple allies’ relations with the more powerful United States since 1945, the UK has invariably erred towards the former.
Among the metropolitan left-liberal circles in Britain into which I sometimes inadvertently stray—where policing gender pronouns assumes greater urgency than policing the global commons—it is nonetheless fashionable to trash the U.S.-UK relationship as more specious than special. (The nationalist Right possesses no monopoly in pining for British “independence.”) Depicting Prime Ministers who cleave to the United States as “poodles” while yearning for the “Love Actually moment” (when Hugh Grant’s fictional PM stands up to the overbearing Yanks), cosmopolitan critics invariably raise hackles about bilateral tensions: from Suez in 1956 to divisions over Iran, China, climate change, a digital services tax, and the repatriation of ISIS fighters today. But the Left habitually makes the perfect the enemy of the good. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all special relationships are unhappy in their own way. A relationship does not need to be either symmetrical or equal to count as privileged. While Washington has allies aplenty, few have developed as close or institutionalized ties as the UK, especially in the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence realms.
That amity has not required identical interests or consistent joint action. But when Washington has needed the legitimacy that allies confer, London has mostly been there. The UK joined nine of the 12 operations the U.S. military conducted between 1991 and 2018, as the second-largest force contributor in all of them. As the most important U.S. partner in the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraq in 2003, Britain fielded 43,000 troops in the former and 12,500 in the latter. Militarily, the United States did not need the UK, nor did the UK need to contribute. But Britain’s reflexive and consistent orientation shaped the decision. To the extent that London has had a grand strategy since World War II, staying close to Washington has been at its core.
But the return of great power competition accentuates the challenge of U.S. alliance management in an era of growing capability gaps. If its allies’ military capabilities atrophy, the United States will have few alternatives to a unilateralism of necessity rather than choice. Washington can hardly be blamed for viewing Britain as an ally in good, but diminished, standing. Having divested itself of the capacities it possessed in the two decades following the Cold War’s conclusion, the UK has found it difficult to deploy even a brigade (6,500 troops) in overseas combat operations. The navy’s expeditionary power has attenuated while the RAF has shrunk to the size of roughly five U.S. air squadrons and can barely mount a sustained air campaign (its contribution to the counter-ISIS campaign has been modest).
Diminished capacity wedded to declining political will undercuts the prospect of the UK being a serious co-belligerent in future conflicts of consequence. An economic downturn would add strains on British capacities, as would Scottish or Northern Irish secession. Illusory aspirations for “Global Britain” unmatched by will or wallet will go unfulfilled.
Britain’s American Future?
On both sides of the Atlantic, a kind of faith-based foreign policy now exists, one that relies more on appeals to nostalgia and rejecting defeatism than evidence and reason. Applied to Brexit, its Pollyanna-esque quality relies on implausible conditions: That a trade deal, equitable to both the United States and United Kingdom, can be achieved, and fast; that divergent national interests yield accommodation, not deadlock; that Johnson wins a general election with a majority in Parliament; and that Trump secures re-election in 2020 and remains faithful to the “best friend forever” du jour. Another implicit condition is that British opinion shifts in a direction that endorses aligning with America over Europe. But would a proud nation like the United Kingdom wish to become an American vassal? And would the United States even find such a vassal attractive?
Brexit portends multi-year rolling damage to the partnership.
First, the UK’s lack of strategic significance is likely to be embarrassingly exposed. London has invariably joined with Washington from conviction even as part of American “coalitions of convenience.” But the UK has proven, as Michael Clarke puts it, a “ten per cent military ally,” spending about one tenth of the U.S. government on defense to obtain about one tenth the size of forces. However coherent the strategy and competent the forces—the latter compromised by their less-than-stellar record in Basra, Helmand, and Libya—this has not consistently amounted to making a real difference. As Clarke notes, “British leaders have always been in danger of mistaking the liking of American chiefs for the British military with their professional judgement of its strategic significance.” With Britain more isolated, poorer, and suffering reputational damage in and beyond Europe, Washington may increasingly regard other allies (Japan, South Korea, the GCC, France) as more militarily useful where it counts.
Second, with less wallet, will, or standing in an age of metastasizing new security threats, London faces substantial challenges—as a mid-ranking democratic power in an increasingly unsympathetic, disorderly world—taking care of its own affairs, never mind “doing good” overseas. A more muscular foreign policy is not in the cards, as was vividly evident this summer when Iran seized an oil tanker under a British flag. To be fair to Johnson, the promised $2.2 billion of new defense spending suggests a serious injection (by recent standards), which will raise the British contribution above the agreed NATO norm of 2 percent of GDP. But this is suggestive more of the extent of decline than a shining new ambition. London may be no albatross but its status as an asset is waning in absolute and relative terms.
Third, the inevitable economic fallout of Brexit will have geostrategic consequences. Estimates suggest a disorderly exit is likely to shrink UK output by anywhere from 3 to as much as 9 percent and see rising inflation and unemployment, with knock-on effects on business and investor confidence and serious impacts on the EU and global economy. That in turn will inhibit prospects for a U.S.-UK trade deal, a negotiation less about tariffs than distinct regulatory approaches and standards. Unless the U.S. Trade Representative compromises significantly from the official negotiation aims set out in February, the UK will be confronted by the starkest of choices. Currently, Britain does about $262 billion of commerce with the United States and some $800 billion of goods and services trade with the EU. Will London bet the house on Trump’s promise that a U.S. deal will quadruple bilateral trade? Would you? Trump’s interventions since 2017 have neither benefited Britain’s standing with Brussels nor helped the U.S. reputation in London. Whatever his protestations to the contrary, Trump is clearly more focused on damaging the EU than assisting the UK.
Trade is doubly problematic. A clear Transatlantic difference exists in how to go about a deal. Initially, the U.S. government favored a sector-by sector approach that could proceed rapidly, offer concrete results and postpone problem areas—agriculture, health care—until last. But WTO rules do not allow for a sector-specific approach. Johnson has stated that, while he admired the U.S. urge for quick results, he wants a comprehensive deal and suggested that somewhere between one to five years was a realistic timeframe.
Nor is there clarity on content. In June, Trump was insistent that Britain’s sacred National Health Service be included, only to back away. In August, Johnson was adamant the NHS was off limits. Any deal will require years to negotiate—while UK negotiators must also finesse new trading arrangements with Brussels—even before the complex process of gaining congressional approval is factored in. Moreover, this assumes that lawmakers are keen to approve a deal. If the Irish border issue is not resolved to the satisfaction of Dublin and Belfast, those prospects are remote. While Nancy Pelosi has been emphatic that the House would not move, 45 Republican Senators pledged in an August 3 letter to support “whatever course Britain takes.” The signals from the White House and Congress are increasingly discordant, threatening to transform the United Kingdom—like Israel—from a solidly bipartisan pillar of U.S. foreign policy into the subject of increasing domestic dissensus. The conditions are not propitious for a Transatlantic renaissance that requires substantial trust and goodwill on both sides.
Brexit Breaking Bad
What attracts many Americans to Brexit is the Westphalian notion that self-governing nation-states are sacrosanct. But not all nations are equal in power or fortuitous in location. Johnson may admire Trumpian tactics but the resulting strains are reaching levels rarely seen. The pressure to once again hold a referendum on Scottish independence is gaining traction. At the same time, sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland are once again finding violent expression. Cynics might suggest that the prospect of an English parliament dominated by Tories is worth the cost: A June 2019 YouGov poll found that 63 percent of members of the Conservative and Unionist Party would accept the UK’s break-up if that was necessary to secure Brexit. But the costs to British international influence will be grave. Three years on from a referendum that was supposed to settle Britain’s collective future status in or outside the EU, the Union itself may be the ultimate casualty. Such is the reward of a government unable to govern and a parliament unable to decide: ever-greater disunion.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Johnson does not lack for self-regard. Some view him as a P.G. Wodehouse character, while Boris seems to look in the mirror and concur with Hegel that “the great man is the man who actualizes his age.” Boris is seen by others as a good man driven to do bad things he does not wish to for a higher purpose: Walter White, with fewer chemicals and more Latin. Yet Johnson could plausibly become the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history. Through his recklessness, Boris is risking a rapid transformation from electoral asset to liability and could lose the next election (and even his own seat) if his governing style continues to alienate as much as inspire.
The Conservatives have achieved a lead in the opinion polls over Labour, up to a margin of ten points. But in an exceptionally volatile moment and with multi-party politics on the rise, the national lead may not yield a secure majority. Traditionally trusted for economic competence rather than compassion, the divided and divisive Tories are threatened with the loss of votes to the Brexit party if a “clean break” is not achieved by Halloween. But such efforts need Labour Leave constituencies—pro-Brexit but anti-Tory—to switch allegiance. The Tories will forfeit pro-Remain areas across Scotland and south-west England. Even if returned with a working majority in the Commons, the PM’s scorched earth tactics offer a toxic legacy that makes dealing with both Westminster and Brussels difficult. Winning the battle may not achieve victory in the war. Traditionally, the Tories have appreciated the electoral value of remaining a broad church. Increasingly, they resemble a madrassa. A Conservative Party transformed into a populist English National Party and exiled from office means a special relationship hanging by a thread.
Johnson’s re-election with a working majority is therefore a necessary but insufficient condition of reviving the U.S.-UK partnership. The divisions among the pro-Remain parties—Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalists)—might facilitate this minimalist outcome. If their tactical voting means the Conservatives are defeated, however, a “hung Parliament” in which no party holds a majority would likely result in some type of Labour government, either a minority or in coalition with the Scottish National Party, the Greens and/or the Liberal Democrats. Or against the odds Labour may secure a majority, framing the general election on the broad domestic agenda rather than narrowly focusing on Brexit.
At that point, whatever the path taken—and Labour remains riven between delivering an orderly “soft” Brexit or staying in the EU—the prospect of a rupture with Washington becomes very real. Corbyn’s red dawn would represent a clear and present danger to the bilateral. Having championed every anti-Western, anti-American, anti-British and anti-Israeli cause over his 36 years in Parliament, Comrade Corbyn is not about to change. Unlike François Mitterrand of France, whose intelligence, judgment, and experience of power lead him as President to moderate his socialist views and warm up to Washington, Corbyn has minimal shrewdness. As the least intelligent or qualified figure ever to come close to being Prime Minister, convincing him of the centrality of the United States to British national security would be, to quote Veep’s Selina Myer, like “explaining gravity to a chicken.”
Given his reflexive anti-Americanism, it is not difficult to imagine Corbyn ceasing to cooperate with Five Eyes, ordering the four British nuclear submarines to port, slashing the defense budget, bringing UK troops back home, closing U.S. bases in Britain and expelling U.S. personnel, and altering the UK’s diplomatic mission dramatically (to vote against the United States and Israel in the UN Security Council and align with the “anti-imperialist” forces in the General Assembly). While the public would not countenance withdrawal from NATO, the UK would cease to be a reliable force under a Corbyn leadership.
Moreover, with punitive policies towards business, Britain would look singularly unattractive to investors at precisely the moment it was most in need of inward funds (affluent Brits are already moving funds offshore and preparing to migrate). A U.S. trade deal would be dead on arrival. Having suspended Parliament for policy ends through prorogation, Johnson has also established a constitutional precedent that would prove especially appealing to a cultish Labour leadership that has never believed in a parliamentary road to socialism. Although President Trump prides himself on his ability to strike deals with the most implacable U.S. foes—from Kim Jong-un and Putin to the Taliban—it is unlikely that the Corbynistas would be willing to parlay. “Taking back control” may be a chimera, but a Labour regime intent on taking Britain back to 1968 is all too real.
Should Trump lose in 2020, circumstances would not necessarily be improved. A Biden, Warren, or Sanders Administration might be more aligned to Labour on domestic matters and selective international concerns, but at least as hostile to new trade deals as Trump. And while most Brits favor Democrats in presidential elections, what sentimental affection for the old country exists among political elites tends to be more pronounced among Republicans (as the 45 Senators’ letter eloquently demonstrated). As British experience with Carter, Clinton, and Obama revealed, Democrats can be every bit as unsentimental and hard-headed when it comes to international affairs. A Democratic administration in 2021 might adopt more congenial policies on issues such as climate change, but the prospects that the UK’s standing in and influence over Washington would grow is minimal (Brexit barely merits a mention in the limited space afforded to foreign policy on their campaign websites). While a Democrat may reverse some of the Trump policies abroad that are most egregious to European sensibilities, the more general trajectory away from a forward-leaning posture may prove irreversible if a “new consensus” is indeed emerging.
By the same token, London is understandably wary of a Washington that champions America First. Serious figures in the UK know that dealing with the EU post-Brexit is going to be tough. An American administration willing to exert diplomatic influence on partners in Europe to reach productive new accommodations with London would be immensely valuable. But that is not what we have seen from Trump (the parallels with the recent breakdown in relations, and intelligence cooperation, between South Korea and Japan may be instructive). If Washington is forced to choose between the UK and EU as legacy of the Brexit fallout, we may not see it from a successor administration either.
Some might hope that a Labour or coalition government could return London to the “golden age” before 2016. Most American foreign policy mavens saw the UK as of substantially greater value to Washington as a fully-fledged member of the EU than outside of it. But the distinct possibility looms that, should Johnson lose his gambit and the UK choose to remain in the EU—either through government action or a second referendum—then Britain will become an even more reluctant European nation by default. That is, having failed to exit, what leverage would a less-than-Prodigal Son exercise upon his ignoble return to the European fold? (The BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary, Brexit: Behind Closed Doors, offers vivid scenes of EU negotiators expressing scathing contempt for their nominal British “partners” as they negotiated a withdrawal agreement. A “return” would surely fuel even greater triumphalism.)
Perfidious Albion would have had its bluff well and truly called. Having defeated the nascent threat of contagion—surely no other EU state will contemplate leaving after the bungled British effort—Brussels will be emboldened to tell London to put up or shut up should plans for ever closer union once more gain traction. The UK may well forfeit its budget rebate, be pressured into closer regulatory alignment and joining the euro, and even sign up to an EU army that seeks publicly to supplement—but privately to displace—NATO. The status quo ante will resume, after four convulsive but wasted years, with much reduced UK leverage. Even if Brexit is reversed, much as its currency has depreciated against the dollar, the UK’s geopolitical worth is undergoing a profound devaluation.
Essence of Indecision
Churchill once remarked, “Sometimes when Fortune scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” If somehow the Gordian knot of Brexit is broken, perhaps the outcome will resemble the typical British pragmatism of keeping calm, carrying on, and muddling through. Not-so-splendid quasi-isolation may be a price worth paying for the reclamation of British sovereignty. Even if the worst comes to pass, as the Cassandras predict, Britain is not about to become a failed or pariah state bereft of friends. But it may become short of friends with benefits.
There is a poignant section in Andrew Gimson’s biography of Boris, where he notes that:
There is something about Euroscepticism which can turn sensible men into cranks. They decide, quite reasonably, that the European Union is a mortal threat to our ancient liberties, including our form of government, and adopt a tone of intense hostility towards Brussels which starts to make them seem narrow and paranoid. On finding themselves ignored or dismissed by the pro-Europeans, the anti-Europeans become ever more vehement and ever more suspicious, until in the end they can only preach to the converted.
Boris, Gimson adds, “never started on that downward path.” Maybe, but he is doing a fine impression of having ended up there.
In the short term, the chaos theory approach that Boris projects—personifying Homer Simpson’s plaintive, “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand”—is aggravating a crisis to a momentous denouement whose outcome few can confidently predict. Even if he wins plaudits for decisiveness and making the trains run on time (an elusive achievement in Britain), playing fast and loose with the constitution is dangerous. In the longer term, the essential problem remains that Britain is deeply divided in ways that transcend the left-right divide to frustrate conventional party politics. Since they turn on fundamental questions of identity, demography, and values more than economics or distributive politics—certain traditional conceptions of nationhood pitted against a new kind of postmodern, blank-slate, cosmopolitan Britishness—these are highly resistant to the compromises that have long been a hallmark of British pragmatism. In a contest for the soul of Britain, neither side is minded to settle for half a loaf.
Regardless of the eventual result of Brexit in coming weeks or months, a substantial proportion of Brits will therefore reject and agitate against it as a betrayal of the nation’s destiny. For many Leavers, faced with the choice of no Brexit or no deal, the threat to democracy outweighs that to the economy. For Remainers, the caricature that a bunch of old, white, xenophobic know-nothings smothered their tolerant multicultural British baby in its cradle—despite one in three black and ethnic minority voters supporting Brexit—continues to animate anguished efforts to reverse the plebiscite’s result by hook or crook. (Jonathan Freedland’s lament for the lost optimism of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony is a pellucid example of the genre; only someone hermetically sealed in the bubbliest of bourgeois London bubbles could take such sporting propaganda seriously.) Absent an external shock on the scale of war or depression, this generational power-play, and the identity politics that inform it, will continue to disfigure British politics and society—and tarnish what remains of Britain’s “credibility”—for many years to come.
The British strategic personality is increasingly schizophrenic. Already shaky, the U.S.-UK partnership risks soon being imperiled, sawing off the branch upon which our mutual security sits. What will Britain offer Washington in the 2020s? If the Wilsonian Century is over, as Colin Dueck persuasively argues, perhaps a downsized vocation for Britain may abet rather than frustrate the United States to concentrate on a conservative agenda for what remains of the liberal order: preserving the West rather than transforming the globe. Diminished resources may yield a new resolve to refocus where the UK can make a genuine difference. But where it can make most difference is in the theater where its diplomatic heft is under greatest retreat: Europe.
As we Brits wonder whether we still recognize each other or our country, perhaps those beyond our shores now know us better than we know ourselves. At a safe distance from the Sturm und Drang of Westminster’s convulsions, Americans might reassure us that we plucky Brits, with our wacky humor and weird sports, always pull through. Temporary discomfort need not dislodge us from Making Britain Great Again. Independence and the path to global influence await our industrious talents and stiff upper lips. For the U.S.-UK bilateral, though, the signs of irreversible decline grow more vivid by the day. Outwardly, the symbolism and rhetoric will display continuity. Diplomacy, tourism, commerce, educational exchange and our great cultural affinity will continue apace. But in terms of substance, the partnership is likely to resemble the Cheshire cat’s smile in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the smile remains but the body has disappeared. History may not be kind to larger-than-life blonde populists who once yearned to be President.