Making waves across the pond: how the US views Brexit

The possiblity of the UK becoming a more dynamic actor is an exciting one – but the prospect of the union breaking up is feared in the US.

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Watching the Brexit referendum unfold during a visit to the United States was a surreal experience for me, although the inevitable failure of England at Euro 2016 provided some reassurance that not everything would change. The Icelandic thunderclap that reverberated around stadiums in France provided a strangely fitting backdrop to the fallout of the vote – an ominous Viking chant that, not dissimilarly to the crisis facing the United Kingdom, originated in Scotland (it was apparently inspired by Motherwell fans), before building to a cacophonous crescendo.

The reaction to the Leave vote so far has had some similarities to the autopsy of the England football team. It has ranged from shock and incredulity to a feeling of vindication on the part of those who identified that there were deep-seated problems that had been ignored for too long.

The most disgruntled are unsure whether to demonise the manager, complain that the whole culture is rotten, or vilify an entire generation as selfish and spoiled. At a certain point the hand-wringing becomes wearisome, but it’s hard to shake the hangover. Acrimony reigns and yesterday’s battles are fought all over again, just when clear thinking about the future is needed most.

The effects of the referendum were felt in New York, too, as stocks plummeted on Wall Street and blanket news coverage tried to make sense of Britain’s so-called Independence Day, which took place a week and a half before America’s celebration of its own. There was the disquieting realisation that many people in the US thought Nigel Farage had led the Leave campaign. After his pantomime farewell to the European Par­liament, it was necessary to point out that he spent so much time in Brussels precisely because he had never been elected to the Commons, despite five attempts. A CNN feature on “Nikolai” Sturgeon’s push for independence in Scotland made the whole thing seem cartoonish from a distance.

Understandably, most Americans viewed these events through the prism of their own country’s presidential campaign. For some, the Brexit vote was another symptom of the age of anti-intellectualism and popul­ism into which we have entered. More than most, indeed, it was intellectuals and academics who seemed to have been caught off guard by the thunderclap that had been building on both sides of the Atlantic.

To the few who had thought more deeply about social and economic conditions in the heartland, rather than living on the intellectual frontiers, it was clear that the new age of discontent had long tentacles. That the poorest in our society had mostly voted for Brexit was no surprise. A friend gave me a copy of Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis, which was published last year. It describes the steady erosion of the social mobility implicit in the promise of the American dream. Putnam begins with an analysis of his former high-school class in small-town Ohio to show how most of his peers had the opportunity to live lives that were materially better and emotionally more fulfilling than their parents’. Social progress for the next generation has stalled, however, in an era of fewer jobs, family breakdown and fragmented communities. According to Putnam, Donald Trump “lit a spark”, but the “dry tinder” had been there for many years.

As for how Brexit has been perceived in Washington, DC, the foreign policy establishment is not so despairing as one might expect. Since the Second World War, Americans have urged Britain to play a leading role in Europe but has been rather vague as to what this means.

Henry Kissinger was once reported to have said: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” That he cannot recall saying this illustrates that it is something of a phantom scenario. Indeed, although Kissinger would prefer to see a strong and cohesive Europe, he is under no illusions about the cracks opening up in it elsewhere. To that end, he has warned those engaged in the divorce against taking punitive measures.

“The coin of the realm for statesmen,” he wrote recently, “is not anguish or recrimination. It should be to transform setback into opportunity.”

Since the referendum, Barack Obama has rowed back from his claims that Britain will be at the back of the queue in trade deal negotiations and has spoken more warmly about the “special relationship” than he did previously.

The American view is that there is an optimistic scenario in which the UK – still one of the strongest military powers in Europe and a natural ally of the US on issues such as Russia and the Middle East – becomes a more dynamic actor on the world stage. But what excites grave concern is the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom. This, more than anything else, is taken as the litmus test of Britain’s seriousness as a state and a world power.

Winston Churchill talked of Britain operating at the heart of “three majestic circles”: the “empire and Commonwealth”, “the English-speaking world” and a “united Europe”. At least one of those has now broken. In Kissinger’s view, the first step in putting things back together is to discover a sense of “self-confidence”. Yet this is in short supply in our political classes.

Fuzzy ideas about British grand strategy – such as Churchill’s overlapping circles, the “Atlantic bridge” and the “special relationship” – have been maligned in the past for being merely self-comforting. Yet such haziness has allowed us to perform a series of balancing acts that will require some skill to maintain. Since the vote for Brexit, George Osborne has spoken of the need to court China more vigorously. That might not sit so well with the next US administration, on whose grace we might also depend. The world is moving fast around us. Statesmanship and statecraft are due a comeback.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new biography of Clement Attlee will be published in September by Riverrun

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM