Pass or Fail, Brexit Has Destroyed Britain’s Brilliant Global Strategy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With the decisive parliamentary “meaningful vote” scheduled for Tuesday, this week is the moment of truth for the Brexit deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May. The fate of that agreement will obviously have momentous implications for the future of the U.K. Yet whether May’s deal survives or not, the events of the past two years have already signaled a larger rupture in London’s relationship with the world.

Ever since World War II, a relatively declining U.K. punched above its weight in international affairs by forging special — albeit very different — relationships with the U.S. and Europe. Yet both of those relationships are now collapsing, and taking with them the outsized influence a post-imperial Britain was able to wield.

In world affairs, relative power is more important than absolute power: Whether 100 tanks is a lot or a little depends entirely on whether your enemy has 10 or 1,000. In relative terms, British military and economic power have been declining since the Second World War and even before. Yet a country that once ruled an empire on which the sun never set was not content to see its influence sink as far as its relative capabilities. So even as it gradually retrenched from its imperial outposts and gave up certain of its global responsibilities, it sought to remain a major player by tying itself to America and continental Europe.

The special relationship with the U.S. entailed drawing as close as possible to it — even surrendering a degree of independence and sovereignty — as a way of exercising influence through the world’s greatest power. From the Suez crisis in 1956 to German reunification at the end of the Cold War, there were no shortage of frictions in Anglo-American relations. But British prime ministers generally positioned their country as America’s most reliable and important military ally, its most reliable friend within NATO, and the country that was willing to follow the U.S. into the fray even in highly unpopular conflicts such as the Iraq War. This approach, the thinking went, would not only ensure U.S. support in the crunch — as indeed happened in the Falklands War — but would also provide the U.K. with outsized geopolitical status and ways of shaping American behavior.

Britain’s other special relationship was with Europe. In this case, the relationship was special because the U.K. was in Europe (as a member of the European Economic Community and later the EU) but preserved a greater degree of independence than the community’s other members, such as keeping the pound rather than switching to the euro. Nonetheless, Britain’s membership in the European bloc gave it leverage to push for policies it favored: a strong trans-Atlantic link to the U.S., a security architecture centered on NATO rather than the EU, and relatively liberal as opposed to dirigiste economic policies.

At their best, these two special relationships were mutually reinforcing. Being able to affect European decision-making on issues the U.S. cared about gave London extra clout in Washington. Being close to the U.S. gave Britain added sway in Europe because it could play the role of superpower whisperer better than any other European country. Britain was arguably at its most influential during periods such as Tony Blair’s premiership, when both of these relations were working well. 

Now, however, both partnerships are in severe decay. The relationship with Europe is coming undone as a matter of British choice. If May’s deal goes ahead, the Brits will be left with a relationship that is special only in a perverse way: It will leave the U.K. subject to EU rules for at least some transition period, but without any influence on how those rules are made.

Yet what has been obscured by the drama surrounding Brexit is that the relationship with the U.S. is also being devalued. In part, this is because of developments on the British side. U.K. military power and the willingness to use it were always crucial components of the special relationship. Yet as a result of a variety of factors — namely the 2008 financial crisis and the prolonged underinvestment that followed — that power is a shadow of its former self.

A navy that once ruled the waves now struggles to patrol the waters around the British Isles. The British army has become so small that it would have difficulty deploying and sustaining anything more than a single brigade in combat. The willingness to use what power remains has also declined, as symbolized when the House of Commons refused to approve military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in 2013.

Other aspects of the special relationship, however, remain as important as ever: The U.S.-U.K. intelligence partnership, the heart of the Five Eyes alliance, remains unparalleled. But for several years, American policymakers have increasingly seen France rather than Britain as the military partner of choice in missions against ISIS and other terrorist groups. If the British economy contracts as a result of Brexit, the consequence will be additional defense cuts that will lessen London’s military utility further still.

The special relationship is also suffering at the hands of Donald Trump. British observers sometimes complained that Barack Obama showed insufficient regard for America’s closest ally. Yet one suspects they would be thrilled to have Obama in the White House today.

During the early months of Trump’s presidency, May made a concerted effort to woo Trump — literally walking hand in hand with him on a visit to the White House — because she understood that a post-Brexit U.K. would need as close a relationship with Washington as it could get. Yet true to his utterly transactional and predatory nature, Trump resolved to exploit British distress for all it was worth.

His administration made clear that it would exact a high price for any free-trade deal. In particular, the White House demanded that Britain make a variety of controversial concessions, such as removing restrictions on procurement for its National Health Service and adopting U.S. regulations that would diminish London’s leeway to strike a separate free-trade agreement with the EU. Trump has also shown a particular talent for kicking May while she is down, criticizing her government in the wake of terrorist attacks in London, supporting her political enemies such as Boris Johnson, and arguing that her Brexit deal is no good. If proponents of Brexit hoped that it would lead to a stronger trans-Atlantic relationship, Trump has done his best to disabuse them of that illusion.

What we are witnessing, then, is something bigger than Brexit or the tribulations of the U.K. relationship with a thoroughly unsentimental president. It is the collapse of the grand strategy the Britain has used for generations to exert influence beyond its raw power in global affairs. Given the role that London has long played in supporting a stable and open international order, this is a deeply sad outcome not just for Britain but for the world. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.