Brexit and Amexit: Towards a New Political Agenda

The year 2016 has been one in which the unthinkable has become reality. Despite the expectation of the David Cameron government that it would win the vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union, the referendum on 23 June saw a small majority (51.9 per cent for leave and 48.1 per cent to remain) on a 72.2 per cent turnout. A total of 17.4 million people voted to leave, and 16.1 million to remain. Although the margin was relatively narrow, the vote has been accepted as decisive, and the UK is set to leave the EU some two years after Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is invoked, expected to be in March 2017. While the Theresa May government insists that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, no one – not least the government – knows what Brexit means. What we do know is that Brexit may well devastate British political institutions and undermine the unity of the not-so-United Kingdom. We also know the British departure represents a crisis of the first order for the EU as a whole, with a major member for the first time leaving what had been assumed to be an irreversible process of integration and community building.

All this comes on the back of what is taken to be a populist wave of left and right wing critiques of existing European institutions and practices. Although it is claimed that much of this is sponsored by Russia, obviously the phenomenon is much more than a subversive and disruptive strategy by Moscow. The old order is clearly under significant strain and is being challenged by a range of new demands. It has long been clear that the post-Cold War order in Europe was unstable. The failure to create a new peace order that equitably incorporated all of Europe resulted in the Ukraine disaster, which is itself a symptom rather than a cause of that crisis. Europe failed to devise a continental vision, and instead Atlanticism was radicalised in at least two ways. First, its ideological basis was assumed to be universal (the end of history thesis), and the particular solutions to problems of West European and North American development were assumed to be transferable as the solutions to the problems of history in other parts of the world, notably in Eurasia, Asia and the Middle East. Second, this radicalised and hermetic ideological fervour generated an enlargement process of the main constituent institutions of the Atlantic order. Although the EU and NATO are clearly differentiated and have their own very specific dynamics, they both entered a period of enlargement that may in the end prove to be the instruments of their respective downfalls.

Imperial overstretch has long been identified as the precursor to collapse, but the phenomenon of ideological over-reach is also a phenomenon that needs to be examined. In this case, the radicalisation of Atlanticist ideologies – of the security framework represented by NATO and the liberal regionalism represented by the EU – ultimately failed to convince a growing segment of the home populations. Liberalism proved to be illiberal when contemplating other historical conjunctures – in other words, post-Cold War liberalism has been unable to contemplate political formations outside of itself. Liberal pluralism gave way to a distinctive type of political monism. This monism was unable to engage in political dialogue with external entities, thus destroying the very bases of diplomacy

Ill-considered enlargement and catastrophic foreign interventions generated blowback phenomena not just from outside – notably in the form of Islamic State; but also from within, in the form of a populist revolt. As we have long known, populism is a response to a political situation where established official channels of political communication and articulation are no longer responsive to popular demands and concerns.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the next American president on 8 November can be seen as part of this broader popular revolt against time-worn monistic Atlanticism and globalism. Trump not only won a strong majority in the Electoral College, with 290 to Hillary Clinton’s 232 votes - although Clinton won 48% of the popular vote (64 million) to Trump’s 46.6% (62 million) – but also maintained Republican majorities in the House (with 241 seats) and Senate (52 to 48) and defeated Democrats in several important gubernatorial and state legislatures. The scale of the Democrat defeat has not been seen for decades. When Trump becomes president on 20 January 2017 his party (however fraught Trump’s relations may be with the Republican Party itself) will control not only the executive branch of government, but both houses of Congress, the majority of the nation’s governors (33 of 50), nearly 70 percent of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers (with 4,100 of the 7,383 seats), and may well gain control of the Supreme Court as well. Nothing like this has been seen since the 1920s.

The main reason for Trump’s unexpected victory is that he placed items on the political agenda that had long been suppressed, just as Brexit has done in the UK and Europe. Only time will tell whether coherent and effective responses to these challenges will work. It is important nevertheless not to dismiss the Brexit and American votes as simply the onset of a period of breakdown, disorder and illiberal populism. While the times are undoubtedly perilous, they also provide an opportunity to resolve some of the issues that have long been festering. Defenders of the old order are certainly in a panic, and lash out in anger and virulent condemnations, but they have only themselves to blame. The symptoms of the dysfunctionality of the post-Cold War security and political orders have been clear for a long time.

Trump’s election thus constitutes a distinctive type of ‘Amexit’ – America’s exit, or at least renegotiation – of some fundamental aspects of the post-Cold War order. America is not leaving that order, but the change of regime in Washington means that the character of relations and US engagement with the world will change. A whole era associated with the names of the Bushes, the Clintons and Obama is coming to an end. Although the list of issues now placed on the agenda is a long one, four are particularly salient.

First, as Robert Kagan put it, ‘An end to the indispensable nation’ (Financial Times, 21 November 2019, p. 13). In other words, the US will withdraw from acting as the world’s policeman, and foreign policy should serve US interests. Defenders of the old liberal international order fear that without American ‘leadership’ and often heavy-handed guidance, that order would become vulnerable and possibly collapse. Kagan notes that in the 1920s and 1930s American leadership was absent, and we all know the disaster that resulted. While that may be true for the interwar years, today the situation is cardinally different, above all because of the creation since 1945 of a robust framework for international society, focused above all on the UN. Therefore today the opposite may be the case – without American hegemony, the institutions of international society may finally mature as autonomous bodies. In a paradoxical way, US global leadership has acted rather like the post-communist regime system in Russia, working in a tutelary manner to guard democracy from its own worst excesses. Thus American leadership has delivered enormous public goods, but in the end it sought to shape that order to its own particular ends, and this stifled the creative development of that order.

Second, relations with other states will now be subject to a different sort of rationality, and may well allow the restoration of the niceties of diplomacy rather than the axiological imprecations that have characterised international politics in recent years. To quote Kagan again, he notes that ‘The US is no longer in the reassurance business. For decades an abnormal US foreign policy has aimed at denying Russia and China spheres of interest’. He notes that a more ‘normal’ US foreign policy does not require the permanent containment of the two countries. Of course, this is presented as the abandonment of central and eastern Europe, whereas a more ‘normal’ US policy may allow more ‘normal’ relations between Russia and these states to be established. Equally, most US interventions of the last 70 years were presented as the defence of some principle of global order, although the consequences were usually disastrous and cumulatively weakened the liberal order that they sought to maintain. In Kagan’s view, these were ‘wars of choice’, not to assert specifically US interests but what was defined as an international public good. If the Trump presidency sees the US return to an international politics guided by the thinking of Theodore Roosevelt rather than Woodrow Wilson, then the world may become a safer place.

Third, Trump has announced that his first act on assuming the presidency will be to jettison the Transpacific Trade and Partnership (TPP) agreement. There are many reasons to welcome the move, above all because of the powers granted to investors against states, but also because such closed trade blocs subvert the universalism originally vested in the World Trade Organisation. In this case, the idea was to build a trade system that would constrain Chinese dominance of the region, in line with the assertive thinking that underlay Hillary Clinton’s ‘pivot to Asia’. More broadly, some of the elements of globalisation are being questioned. Some of this was happening well before Trump came on the horizon, including a trend towards the repatriation of investments. With increasing robotisation, labour costs in many industries are becoming less salient, allowing companies to invest in domestic plants, where labour costs are relatively high. More profoundly, globalisation was the ideological foundation of the political economy of the post-Cold War world. In technical terms, the open trade and investment regimes with which it is associated have proved enormously developmental for countries such as China, which was able through state activism to take full advantage of the opportunities. For other countries, with weaker states, the benefits have been more mixed. The neoliberalism which has accompanied globalisation has provoked enormous inequalities and social strains, not least in the metropolitan countries themselves. In the Trump presidency, we can anticipate a shift from globalisation to more traditional forms of economic internationalism and transnationalism.

Fourth, in security terms, during the electoral campaign Trump suggested that NATO had become obsolete, although characteristically he then backtracked. Obama has worked hard to convince Trump to maintain the old alliance system, and to maintain a tough stance against Russia. Nevertheless, it is clear that the fossilised security system established to contain the Soviet Union after the Second World War, and which anachronistically survives to the present day, is under question. It certainly has not been able to provide the security in Europe for which it was established, and instead it generates insecurity. Collective defence arrangements are sensible, but not when the largest country in Europe is excluded. This is not just the issue of the European partners paying more for their own defence, which is sensible, given that the US provides 70 per cent of NATO spending. It is not even about the EU creating a more robust military framework of its own, a development that was long vetoed by the UK. The fundamental question today is to think about a new type of inclusive European continentalism that would allow the remaining 27 EU member states, the UK, Turkey, Ukraine, the many other states, and perhaps above all Russia, to generate new understandings and to establish a political and security community that can overcome the logic of conflict rather than to generate conflict in a situation where there are no fundamental conflicts of interest.

An Amexit opens up possibilities where up to now there has only frozen ideological posturing, dangerous security anachronisms, axiological ‘information wars’ and a globalised political economy that has left large domestic populations adrift, cut off from the dignity of creative labour. The mass are deprived of full-bodied citizenship rights while the globalised one per cent flaunt their power and wealth. Trump’s election, just like Brexit, is a cry of agony of societies under strain.

A new New Deal is required to make America, if not great, then at least America again. And the same applies to Britain and Europe, and Russia as well. This reformulated New Deal does not have to be regressive socially or politically, or isolationist of the old and worst sort, or even protectionist, which as we know can have devastating consequences. If it can mobilise the energy that nearly propelled Bernie Sanders to the Democratic nomination, and that has made Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party, then Amexit and Brexit can provide the opportunity for social and political renewal. Neither Sanders nor Corbyn have anything like adequate answers, but they both represent long-delayed attempts to achieve the transformation of domestic and international politics that was placed on the agenda by the end of the Cold War. However, there is the danger that it is already too late, and that the opportunity for political change will take destructive forms. The accumulation of delayed reform in the Soviet Union meant that when reform began the pent-up flood swept away the whole system, reforms and all. In that case, Trump will be like Boris Yeltsin, the destroyer of nations, but also a man who allows something new to be built on the ruins of the old.

Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics, University of Kent at Canterbury, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.