Don’t despair over Brexit

Editor’s Note: This past week’s vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union reveals huge frustration among British voters with economic, immigration, national self-identity, and the whole “European project.” Trade between Britain and continental Europe could be notched back a bit as tariffs; London’s role as a financial capital of the world may be compromised somewhat. But after acknowledging such real, if finite, concerns, writes Michael O’Hanlon, we should take a deep breath and relax. This piece was originally published by USA Today.

There’s no denying it: this past week’s vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is very big news. It reveals huge frustration among British voters with economic globalization, immigration, national self-identity and the whole “European project.” And there will be costs. Trade between Britain and continental Europe could be notched back a bit as tariffs return; London’s role as a financial capital of the world may be compromised somewhat.

But after acknowledging such real, if finite, concerns, we should take a deep breath and relax. Silly headlines like that appearing in the June 25 NY Times about a looming end to the post-World War II order are not only premature, they are basically wrong.

Start with that order. The United States and United Kingdom worked together to win World War II, of course, without the UK being part of any European Union or even a European Community. (The European Community or EC was organized for European economic cooperation that began in the 1970s; it did not create open borders within Europe the way the European Union later did.) Indeed, we collectively won the Cold War without the European Union, which was not created until 1993. Western Europe had already re-established itself as a modern economic powerhouse before the creation of the EU, recovering spectacularly from the unbelievable wartime devastation that occurred in the 1940s. The United States helped a great deal with that process through the Marshall Plan and other mechanisms—none of which depended on EU bureaucracies or open borders.

Look at it another way. The UK is an important country. But with 1% of world population and 3% of world GDP, it does not drive the modern global economy. The stakes here are real, but again, they are finite.

Moreover, the tanking of shocked stock markets right after the Brexit vote should not confuse us about the state of economic fundamentals. To be sure, lots of people will have to work hard to negotiate new terms for Britain’s future association with Europe. But the UK and the European Union’s remaining 27 members will have powerful incentives to keep trade relatively free and financial markets quite integrated. Think of the models of Norway and Switzerland—also not EU members, but important and interlocking parts of the continent’s economy. The UK is likely to wind up with a similar role in Europe’s future.

Some people will worry about whether Brexit will weaken the EU’s ability to stand up to Vladimir Putin as he causes unrest in eastern Europe. That is doubtful. The EU just last week renewed sanctions, with Germany and other continental countries leading the way. Britain’s voice on such matters is important, but no more so than Germany’s or France’s, and it can remain important on the outside.

What about the US-UK “special relationship?” Again, I do not anticipate major problems. It is called a special relationship for a reason. We have been close allies for a century or more, and much of our best work together has happened bilaterally rather than through any EU, EC, UN, or other such multilateral mechanisms. That can continue.

The UK will remain in NATO, moreover — and NATO is, by far, the more important organization for global security, because it includes the United States while the European Union naturally does not. It is NATO, for example, that intervened in the Balkans wars in the 1990s and NATO that leads the Afghanistan mission even today. It is NATO that is sending battalions into eastern Europe today to stand up militarily to Putin.

On other issues, Britain has maintained its own prerogatives even while in the EU. In the Iran nuclear talks that led to last year’s accord, for example, Britain had its own, independent role and voice. That won’t change for similar situations in the future.

Even if, in coming years, Scotland secedes from the UK in order to rejoin the EU, that will cost the United Kingdom only 8% of its population (even if a higher percent of its castles, Loch Ness monsters, and men in skirts). Admittedly, the UK’s ability to sustain nuclear forces could be challenged without access to Scottish ports—but those nuclear weapons, with all due respect to British friends, aren’t really crucial pillars of today’s global order in any event. Maybe Scottish secession would even persuade Britain to stop maintaining an unnecessary and costly nuclear deterrent.

To be sure, one can always find some hypothetical scenario in which having the UK outside of the European Union complicates life. To be sure, pulling out will make life temporarily harder for British and European diplomats and bureaucrats as they fashion a revised European order. And most of all, it is true that we need to take seriously the skepticism about globalization that UK voters have just voiced in a powerful and emphatic way. But the postwar global order is hardly falling apart.