On June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom held a national vote on whether or not to leave the European Union. The result shocked statisticians and pollsters, who widely predicted a “Remain” victory. It shocked human rights advocates, who feared the fate of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Perhaps most of all it shocked globalists, whose vision of international cooperation is now under serious threat. Brexit was a blow to the economic stability European Union, but more frighteningly, a symbolic rejection of post-Cold War globalism. It sounds somewhat apocalyptic, but the international order—held in balance by the somewhat ineffectual UN and increasingly volatile United States—is becoming less stable.
Donald Trump’s election to the White House, as the first openly isolationist U.S. president since Herbert Hoover, was symbolic. However, Trump’s ascendance to the pinnacle of American politics was the culmination of a more global isolationist movement, rather than the beginning. The waning power of international institutions began far earlier in 2008, when the global economy effectively collapsed.
The Post-Cold War Order
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the United States emerged as the global hegemon and police force. Practically, this meant promoting international free-trade, most notably in the form of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); ensuring the strength of international bodies like the EU and UN; and keeping regional powers Russia and China in check. Of course, the U.S. had other foreign policy interests, too. But the prevailing sentiment in the diplomatic community was that another Cold War—which brought the world frighteningly close to nuclear self-annihilation—should be prevented at all costs.
The end of the Cold War allowed globalism to emerge as the guiding ideology behind the international structure of today. But the roots of this ideology can be traced back to even earlier, to the creation of the United Nations, international law and human rights, and the European Union. Today, more so than any time in history, the sovereignty of nations is constrained. And the ultimate symbol of globalism is the European Union, an unprecedented experiment in economic integration. While it is often taken for granted, the EU is one of the most remarkable achievements in human cooperation, period. It unifies twenty-eight incredibly diverse countries, many of who have a history of confrontation, politically and economically. Brexit not only places this union under direct threat, but also the greater political stability of the region.
A Europe Without Britain
While British Prime Minister Theresa May has not announced the exact logistics of Brexit, it is clear the break will be painful from an economic perspective. The pound almost immediately plunged to a 30-year low after the referendum. Also, the outlook for less economically stable countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain—all still recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash—is dire. The United Kingdom, as the fifth largest economy in the world, was a key economic force in the EU, which loses a net contribution of £8.5 billion/year.
Perhaps more importantly than the economic effects, however, is the danger Brexit poses to the EU’s institutional architecture. First, the United Kingdom’s member-status elevated the EU’s global bargaining position. The UK has global clout as a member of the U.N. Security Council and spends more on defense than any other EU country. The EU, as a credible global actor, is weakened.
Second, Brexit may drastically change the strategic goals of the European Union itself. A study by the University College London indicates that “trade liberalization is one of Britain’s main contributions to the EU.” With the U.K.’s departure, the Southern protectionist voting bloc (France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal) will gain a crucial advantage over the Northern liberal bloc (Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands). This could translate to more aggressively nationalist trade policies, with higher tariffs and more regulation.
In Defense of Globalism
Brexit is a blow to the long-term future of the European Union, but why is that a frightening prospect? According to the 52% of British voters who voted “Leave,” the European Union was outdated, restrictive, and idealist. Why fight so hard to defend an obviously imperfect institution?
The answer is that the EU is not only important to Europe; as a symbol, and as a buffer against Russian expansion, a healthy European Union is crucial to the future of globalism. As mentioned earlier, the end of Cold War elevated the United States to the role of global hegemon. However, it is now clear that President Trump’s foreign policy vision is a volatile hybrid of isolationism and militarism. The United States can no longer be relied upon to maintain the fragile international order.
Even more frighteningly, Russia has taken an aggressive military tack in recent years, seizing Crimea in 2015 and refusing to rule out future invasions into Ukraine. The EU acts as both a military buffer and psychological counterweight for Ukrainians, because it represents a political alternative to Russian control. Britain’s decision to leave the EU threatens the credibility of both of those important functions. Coupled with a volatile Trump administration and a consistent stream of refugees from Iraq and Syria, globalism—and the stability it offers—are under serious threat.