One group of people has more cause to regret Brexit than any other. This is the mass of international affairs pundits, military “specialists” and NATO shills who populate Britain’s media and its disproportionately large number of think-tanks like Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the rest, and what remains of Britain’s once mighty foreign policy and defence establishment. For these people Brexit is nothing short of a catastrophe.
As I recently discussed for The Duran the reality of British power is very different from the perception. Far from being a major power in the world today, Britain is a rapidly declining one.
That decline has however been masked by Britain’s involvement in two global institutions: the NATO alliance and the EU.
These two organisations are closely interconnected with each other. The EU provides the economic and political leadership, NATO the military muscle. Together they make up the Western alliance. Other states outside these two organisations like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are sometimes bolted on, but in reality these Asian powers have for some time been following their own increasingly independent course (South Korea for example has very friendly relations with Russia). The other Pacific Ocean Anglophone states – Australia and New Zealand – are too distant and too small to matter.
Of these two organisations it is the EU which – contrary to widespread perception – is by far the more important. Whilst EU does not have a formal link to the US in the way that NATO does, in reality – as I have also discussed for The Duran – the US is omnipresent within the EU and is in reality its dominant silent partner.
As for NATO, it is important not to conflate NATO with the far more powerful US military. The actual military forces at NATO’s disposal, though in theory quite large, are of widely varying quality and many of them cannot be deployed easily. There are moreover increasing questions about how strong the commitment of certain NATO states to defend the others really is.
By contrast the EU is a cohesive economic and political bloc. It is at the EU level that key foreign policy decisions pertaining to the Western alliance’s policies to the outside world are implemented even if the decisions are often made elsewhere – for example at G7 summits or in private consultations between the US President and the German Chancellor. It was the EU for example, not NATO, that imposed economic sanctions against Russia and Iran – the only meaningful action the Western allies have taken that has really had an effect on those countries.
Whilst Britain has been a semi-detached member of the EU in terms of its economic policies for some time, it has at least in theory been fully engaged in the EU’s foreign policy decision-making and implementation process through its status as a full EU member state. By way of example, on the European Council – the EU’s key policy-making institution – the British have been outspoken supporters of a hard line towards Russia and have called for maintaining the sanctions policy against Russia. Though in reality the sanctions policy was agreed in discussions between the US and the Germans, the mere fact the British were formally party to the decision meant that they could claim ownership of it. Recently some British commentators have even taken to claiming – quite falsely – that it was the British who persuaded the other EU states to make the decision, giving the credit to David Cameron.
I witnessed at SPIEF this year precisely what participation at the top table of the EU has come to mean for some elite Britons. In one of the two panels chaired by Peter Lavelle in which I participated, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser – Tony Blair’s former adviser – spoke confidently and with all appearance of authority – as if he was speaking for all of Europe – of how European opinion was supposedly alienated from Russia and of how it was a certainty that the sanctions would be rolled over this June (as he said it I noticed the French and Germans who were either participating in the panel or were in the audience quietly rolling their eyes).
Britain’s departure from the EU strips Britain of even that appearance of importance. No-one can any longer pretend that when the EU makes a foreign policy decision Britain has anything to do with it.
Moreover Britain’s absence from the EU will mean its importance to the US will decline also. The key relationship within the Western alliance is not the one between the US and Britain, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s and as it became briefly again in the 1980s during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. It is the one between the US and Germany, which is the key country which along with the US decides policy within the EU. With Britain no longer part of the EU, the reason why the US should any longer bother to consult Britain when it discusses things with Germany is not obvious. Since Britain will not have any power of veto in the European Council it cannot even act as a spoiler in the way that France and Italy can. Arguably even those powers will soon be more important for the US than Britain is. Over time I expect the British to be cut out of the key discussions almost entirely. As it becomes increasingly obvious that this is the case the other non-Western powers like the Chinese and the Russians will also see increasingly little reason in speaking to a country that though still part of the Western alliance no longer has any influence over it.
Of course if Scotland secedes – which is very likely – and if as a result Britain loses its seat in the UN Security Council – which is less likely but also possible – then the facade of British power will become more tattered still. Nuclear weapons – unpopular, unusable and increasingly unaffordable – will be the only vestige of Great Power status Britain will have left.
Whether or not it comes to that, Britain’s status as a significant component of the Western alliance and the influence – or pretended influence – it drew from that fact, is ending. In the short term at least I expect the British establishment to try to make up for the fact by hugging the US even closer. In the longer term, when it becomes obvious that that isn’t working, some parts of the British establishment may – in order to regain some of the international influence they have lost – start to act more independently of the US, reverting finally to the sort of policies Britain used to follow before it became dependent on the US during the Second World War.
That will however take a long time and will require a fundamental change in outlook on the part of Britain’s foreign policy elite, which they will find extremely difficult. One way or the other they have suffered both in terms of their influence and their self-esteem a shattering blow from which they may never recover.