During the Raisina Dialogue in India this summer, Spanish Foreign Minister Joseph Borrell observed, “In Europe, there are countries that are small and countries who don’t know that they are small.” Although he didn’t come out and say it, he was talking about Great Britain and Brexit. Many Britons want the United Kingdom to be the first member of the European Union to leave—taking with it a major financial center, London—while Brussels is steadfastly refusing to even acknowledge Britain’s long list of political and economic grievances against the European Union.
Nearly every analyst insists that if the United Kingdom leaves the elephantine EU, it would be transformed then into a third-rate power, isolated and ignored by larger powers.
Britain’s Long Fall
In the last century, the general decline of Great Britain has been no secret. By 1945, despite having been one of the victorious Allied powers of World War II, the British saw their economy and military laid low. As an empire, the tiny island nation of Britain had extraordinary power and influence. Once its dominion over that empire began to wane, Britain became a secondary power.
This point was apparent during an exchange between an admiral in the U.S. Navy and an admiral in the Royal Navy during World War II. The American signaled his British counterpart by sardonically inquiring, “How’s the world’s second largest navy?” The British admiral retorted, “Fine. How’s the second best?” Yet, this bit of braggadocio on the part of the British could not override the fact that quantity has a quality of its own. And, Britain’s military decline mirrored that of its overall imperial decline.
Once the British Empire was no more, London was faced with the prospect of being a shrimp among whales. Caught in the dicey interplay between their American allies and their Soviet rivals, London could only attach itself—begrudgingly—to American power. And as that exchange between the British and American admirals showed, there was great humiliation involved for the British, as they not only endured the loss of their hard-won global empire, but also the rise of their former American colonies.
In the EU’s Totalitarian Vice-Grip
Recognizing the truth that a Britain without its empire would forever be consigned to a second-tier status, London hitched its political wagon to the European Union. British policymakers hoped that their involvement in the EU would give Britain the sort of expanded geopolitical influence that it had long enjoyed during its imperial heyday (without relying too much on their American cousins).
By 2015, it was clear that the theory was not working in practice. London had not enhanced its own power or status by joining the EU. Instead, it had hastened its relative decline by subordinating British national sovereignty to the supranational government in Brussels (and to the real power behind the EU, located in Berlin).
So the Spanish foreign minister’s observation was correct, just not in the way he intended. Britain on its own is a small country. Yet what Borrell missed was that Britain always has been small and isolated. London always has sought to enhance its own power and prestige by aligning itself with larger entities. Once the empire collapsed, Britain’s leaders thought the EU would become the new vehicle for their power projection globally. They were wrong.
At its core, Britain, like the United States, like China, India, or Russia, is a nation-state. The empire lasted for 400 years because the British nation-state was at the center of that entity. Britain’s presence in the EU barely lasted 30 years because it was always an ancillary power; an afterthought to be pushed around by totalitarian Europeans.
Britain will always seek to be a great nation-state among a community of nation-states but the only way it can do this given current realities is to more closely align its interests with those of the United States.
During the Cold War, British leaders feared that they would witness their nation go from being the head of a globe-spanning empire to being merely an American vassal state (a sort of reverse colony). That wound to pride was nothing, however, compared to the alternative they embraced. Because, unlike Brussels or Berlin, Washington did not and does not desire to override the sovereignty of Britain or the British people.
Rebuilding Broken Bonds
The creation of an Anglo-American duopoly not only would preserve the balance of international power in America’s favor, but it would save British power from being permanently marginalized.
Already, the Royal Navy is in the midst of a massive revitalization campaign. They’ve built two new aircraft supercarriers. More importantly, they’ve designed these behemoths to be integrated in the U.S. Navy’s fleet of supercarrier battle groups. In fact, Britain’s first supercarrier is leading the charge and securing the newly contested Arctic battleground from the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration stands ready to enact a new free trade agreement with London that would secure relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom—while ensuring that London’s break with Brussels would be meaningful and real and not at all damaging to Britain.
The EU senses the inherent threat that such an Anglo-American marriage poses to the longevity of its sclerotic superstate. This is why the Eurocrats have refused to negotiate in good faith with the British government over an orderly exit.
Only Washington can place the necessary pressure on the European governments to allow for Britain to get the exit deal it seeks—all while setting London up for its natural marriage to the United States.
Brexit is a blessing for both the American and British governments. Yet, that blessing may not be fully realized without American help. The Trump Administration should act swiftly to help London in securing a better future both for itself and the Anglo-American community.