Like vultures to carrion, foreign-policy elites have descended upon the Brexit results and, picking through them, have been finding evidence of a grave national-security crisis where none exists. According to what passes for serious analysis among their number, the Brexit was caused by a wave of Trump-like xenophobia and/or Vladimir Putin and/or President Obama’s “failure” to follow through on his wondrously ill-considered “red line” pledge regarding Syria. Give credit where it is due, the neocons and liberal interventionists alike have been particularly inventive in dreaming up ways to condemn the Brexit.
Consider these examples from only the past few days. On Friday, a George W. Bush under-secretary of defense, Dov Zakheim, fretted that, should Scotland vote to leave the UK, “the submarine base at Faslane may no longer be available to the Royal Navy, while the United States would find that it no longer would have access” to the base on an “emergency basis.” What kind of “emergency” Zakheim is envisioning is unclear, but perhaps he believes the day is not far off when the United States will be called upon to thwart a Norwegian invasion of the Shetland Islands. No, what worries Zakheim is Russia. “With the reemergence of an aggressive Russia,” he writes, “the inability to operate from Faslane would be a major cause for concern for Washington, London and, more generally, NATO.”
One prominent neocon analyst fretted in the pages of the New York Daily News that Vladimir Putin is “unquestionably delighted that the largest military power in Europe, and its strongest proponent of democratic freedom in Europe’s east, has decided to call it quits.” Leaving aside the fact that the “largest military power” in Europe, outside of Russia, is France, the UK did not vote to leave NATO. It voted to leave the EU. Yet even if it did leave NATO, why should we automatically assume that that would be some kind of catastrophe? If the UK left NATO, combined NATO defense expenditures would drop from roughly $900 billion to $840 billion annually. This would still be well over 10 times the amount Russia spends on defense per year.
And according to the foreign-policy establishment, there is little doubt that it is Russia who lurks behind the Brexit result. Predictably, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum complained that “Russia has spent years pumping money, overtly and covertly, into eurosceptic parties and media all across Europe. Now it can reap the reward.”
Another leading neocon, the McCain Institute’s David Kramer, went a step further and claimed that “One can almost hear the clinking of vodka glasses in the Kremlin.” While one can’t help but marvel at Kramer’s auditory powers, the Russian president protested over the weekend that the Russian government “never interfered, never spoke about this, and acted, in my opinion, very properly.” Putin also noted that he does not believe the Brexit will result in the removal of EU sanctions against Russia.
Putin may not, but newly minted Washington Post columnist and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul certainly does. “The job of E.U. diplomats fighting to resist Russian aggression,” writes McFaul, “especially those from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just got harder. The first test will come over sanctions against Russia.”
Still worse, according to McFaul, is the possible fallout of the Brexit in Ukraine, where he worries that “pro-European voices inside Ukraine now will face increasing scrutiny from E.U. skeptics.” Perhaps. But they are likely facing “increasing scrutiny” because the post-Maidan regime, for which he has been a tireless cheerleader, has done little to nothing in fighting corruption, improving the economy, or in making a good faith effort to end the civil war in the Donbas which it started in April 2014.
Given all this, the foreign-policy establishment continues to demonstrate to an astonishing degree the way in which it is able to miss the point entirely.
Despite all the wailing, the Brexit is no more about Vladimir Putin than it is about Donald Trump or the Syria “red line.” The Brexit vote is a popular reassertion of national sovereignty in the face of supranational economic policies that have beggared the British working and middle classes.
What is more, it is an affirmation of the prescience of Charles de Gaulle, who in 1963 and in 1967 said “non” to Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. He was, as usual, correct when he noted, in 1963, that
England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.
Indeed, it isn’t hard to see, after round upon round of EU expansion, that the union would have been far better off if it had stuck to its original mission as a Franco-German political and economic project. Better, perhaps, to leave aside reckless expansionist policies such the Eastern Partnership project, which is partly responsible for driving Ukraine into crisis and a civil war which has killed nearly 10,000 people.
The Brexit vote has also been attacked as being driven by xenophobia. Perhaps, in part, it was. But we should be wary of assigning such motives to 17.4 million voters. More likely it was a referendum on the state of the economy, a jobs vote. After all, millions of ordinary Britons have lost their livelihoods as a result of London and Brussels’ pursuing the Ricardian fantasy of comparative advantage: the free movement of goods, people, and capital across sovereign borders has most certainly not yielded a tide that has lifted all boats. Instead, many have drowned.
Indeed “globalization,” which the EU’s economic policies exemplify, is not some “inexorable decree of history.” It is the result of specific policy choices carried out with increasing disregard for the consequences they have on the lives of millions of working people. The Brexit vote provided those people with an opportunity to shape their own affairs, and they took it. What could be more praiseworthy in a democratic society than that?