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Pass or Fail, Brexit Has Destroyed Britain’s Brilliant Global Strategy

Pass or Fail, Brexit Has Destroyed Britain’s Brilliant Global Strategy

Tuesday, 11 December, 2018 - 08:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

With the decisive parliamentary “meaningful vote” scheduled for Tuesday, this week is the moment of truth for the Brexit deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May. The fate of that agreement will obviously have momentous implications for the future of the UK. Yet whether May’s deal survives or not, the events of the past two years have already signaled a larger rupture in London’s relationship with the world.

Ever since World War II, a relatively declining UK punched above its weight in international affairs by forging special — albeit very different — relationships with the US and Europe. Yet both of those relationships are now collapsing, and taking with them the outsized influence a post-imperial Britain was able to wield.

In world affairs, relative power is more important than absolute power: Whether 100 tanks is a lot or a little depends entirely on whether your enemy has 10 or 1,000. In relative terms, British military and economic power have been declining since the Second World War and even before. Yet a country that once ruled an empire on which the sun never set was not content to see its influence sink as far as its relative capabilities. So even as it gradually retrenched from its imperial outposts and gave up certain of its global responsibilities, it sought to remain a major player by tying itself to America and continental Europe.

The special relationship with the US entailed drawing as close as possible to it — even surrendering a degree of independence and sovereignty — as a way of exercising influence through the world’s greatest power. From the Suez crisis in 1956 to German reunification at the end of the Cold War, there were no shortage of frictions in Anglo-American relations. But British prime ministers generally positioned their country as America’s most reliable and important military ally, its most reliable friend within NATO, and the country that was willing to follow the US into the fray even in highly unpopular conflicts such as the Iraq War. This approach, the thinking went, would not only ensure US support in the crunch — as indeed happened in the Falklands War — but would also provide the UK with outsized geopolitical status and ways of shaping American behavior.

Britain’s other special relationship was with Europe. In this case, the relationship was special because the UK was in Europe (as a member of the European Economic Community and later the EU) but preserved a greater degree of independence than the community’s other members, such as keeping the pound rather than switching to the euro. Nonetheless, Britain’s membership in the European bloc gave it leverage to push for policies it favored: a strong trans-Atlantic link to the US, a security architecture centered on NATO rather than the EU, and relatively liberal as opposed to dirigiste economic policies.

At their best, these two special relationships were mutually reinforcing. Being able to affect European decision-making on issues the US cared about gave London extra clout in Washington. Being close to the US gave Britain added sway in Europe because it could play the role of superpower whisperer better than any other European country. Britain was arguably at its most influential during periods such as Tony Blair’s premiership, when both of these relations were working well.

Now, however, both partnerships are in severe decay. The relationship with Europe is coming undone as a matter of British choice. If May’s deal goes ahead, the Brits will be left with a relationship that is special only in a perverse way: It will leave the UK subject to EU rules for at least some transition period, but without any influence on how those rules are made.

Yet what has been obscured by the drama surrounding Brexit is that the relationship with the US is also being devalued. In part, this is because of developments on the British side. UK military power and the willingness to use it were always crucial components of the special relationship. Yet as a result of a variety of factors — namely the 2008 financial crisis and the prolonged under-investment that followed — that power is a shadow of its former self.

Other aspects of the special relationship, however, remain as important as ever: The US-UK intelligence partnership, the heart of the Five Eyes alliance, remains unparalleled. But for several years, American policymakers have increasingly seen France rather than Britain as the military partner of choice in missions against ISIS and other terrorist groups. If the British economy contracts as a result of Brexit, the consequence will be additional defense cuts that will lessen London’s military utility further still.


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