The need for global leadership has never been greater but ever fewer are prepared or in a position to provide it. After a decade of war, the United States is in retreat, preoccupied with domestic battles over debt, the economy and immigration. Europe, which commentators once forecast would “run the 21st century”, is in a state of crisis, while the rising powers China, India and Brazil are either unwilling or unable to fill the leadership void.
The result is that we have entered what the US political analyst Ian Bremmer, writing on page 22, calls a “G-Zero” world, one in which no single country or bloc of states is prepared to accept the burden of leadership, as is the case with the conflict in Syria. A negative feedback loop has begun in which the world’s problems – climate change, nuclear proliferation, economic instability, unrest in the Middle East – grow more intractable and its powers more inert. With the world in flux, Mr Bremmer argues that it is those countries that are able to “pivot” and forge multiple partnerships, without becoming dependent on any one, that will thrive. The most notable examples are Brazil, which has maintained its ties with the US while vastly expanding its trade with China and Africa; Turkey, positioned as the bridge between Europe and Asia; and Germany, the EU partner of choice for Beijing.
By contrast, there are what Mr Bremmer calls the “shadow states”, those reliant on old alliances or “frozen in the shadow of a single power”. He cites Japan, Israel and Britain, all longstanding US allies, as the countries most at risk, warning: “Selfinvolved Washington can’t protect them from the worst effects of these sweeping changes.”
It is a message that the UK’s increasingly strident Eurosceptics would do well to heed. As the US “pivots” towards Asia, the future of the so-called special relationship, so revered by Tory Atlanticists, depends on Britain’s ability to exercise influence through the EU. Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for Europe, bluntly stated the Obama administration’s view in January when he remarked: “We value a strong European Union . . . we also value a strong UK voice in that European Union . . . Its voice is essential and critical for the United States.”
Having opened negotiations on a US-EU trade agreement that could be worth £10bn a year to the UK, American officials are bewildered that serving British cabinet ministers should flirt with withdrawal. Those Tories who console themselves with the thought that a Republican president would look more favourably on a Eurosceptic UK underestimate the significance of the US’s strategic reorientation. As Mr Bremmer writes, “The special relationship with a Britain outside Europe will look a lot less special to future American presidents.”
Equally fantastical is the belief that, freed from the shackles of Brussels, the UK could remake itself as a kind of European version of Singapore – a freewheeling, low-tax economy successfully negotiating its own bilateral trade agreements with emerging powers. Outside of the EU, the world’s largest single market, with 500 million consumers, Britain’s bargaining power would be substantially reduced. China, which, even more than the US, views the world in regional blocs, will not deign to grant special treatment to a maverick and isolated UK. That Germany has expanded trade with the “Bric” countries so that they now account for 11 per cent of its exports, compared to just 5 per cent of the UK’s (we still trade more with Ireland), proves that it is not the EU that is to blame for British sluggishness.
The prospect of withdrawal is also undermining another union: the British Union. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has taken comfort from a recent poll showing that the pro-independence campaign draws level with the unionist side when the public is asked how it would vote if the UK looked likely to leave the EU. Significantly, three times as many undecided voters support independence as oppose it under these circumstances.
In today’s Conservative Party, pro-Europeans are an increasingly endangered species. Those such as Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke resemble great African elephants that have somehow evaded the poachers’ snares. The divide is no longer between Europhiles and Eurosceptics but between those who want a looser relationship with the EU and those who do not want one at all. The party of the “special relationship” and of the British Union is now at risk of losing both and, in the process, of damning the UK to international irrelevance as the world order is rapidly remade by the emerging powers.