By Fareed Zakaria
One of the great strengths of democracy is that bad policies are often reversed. That’s a consolation when we look at the flurry of pandering programs being enacted as the populist wave works its way through the Western world. When a new government is elected, things can be undone. Except for Brexit, which, if it goes through, might prove to be the most profound legacy of this decade.
Britain, famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic as it makes reckless decisions, misrepresents reality and now wants to change its own self-imposed deadline. But if it does leave the European Union, it will be bad news for Britain, for Europe and for the West.
As Martin Sandbu writes in The Political Quarterly, Brexit has always been “a solution in search of a problem.” To me, the best evidence of this is that Britain’s Euro-skeptics generally want to leave the EU because they see it as a statist juggernaut. In virtually every other member country, Euro-skeptics dislike the EU because they see it as a free-market juggernaut. So, either all those other countries have it backward or Britain’s Conservatives have gone nuts.
When I asked my Washington Post colleague Anne Applebaum what historians would look at when trying to understand the road to Brexit, she suggested that it all centers around the Conservative Party.
The Tories could probably claim to be the most significant political party of the 1900s, governing Britain for most of the century, producing Churchill, Thatcher and other iconic Western statesmen.
But after the Cold War, as left-wing parties abandoned socialist ideas and moved to the center, the right faced an identity crisis. It needed to find the kind of clarity and purpose that anti-communism and freedom had provided. In America, this mobilized the Republicans to emphasize social and cultural issues like abortion, gay rights and immigration, which they coupled with an almost religious fury against liberals.
In Britain, Conservatives found themselves in the same mushy middle that prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron inhabited. So, as Applebaum noted, they went radical — on Europe. Of course, there were always Euro-skeptics, but they had been a small, eccentric minority within the party. By the midpoint of Cameron’s premiership, they were able to hold the party hostage and force Britain to walk the plank.
We’re all weary of the drama, but keep in mind: Brexit will be a disaster. As Sandbu points out, Britain’s economy is competitive and productive only in high-value manufacturing and services, both of which depend on a deeply integrated market with Europe. While Britain can and will adjust, Brexit will likely mean a path of slower growth and less innovation for the country and its people.
The foreign policy consequences of Brexit are being discussed least but might prove to be the most consequential. If Brexit does occur, within a few years, Scotland and Northern Ireland will probably loosen their ties to Britain in order to maintain their association with Europe. Great Britain will then be reduced to just England and tiny Wales, a small country off the coast of Europe, not really fitting into any of the three economic blocs of the 21st century — North America, Europe and China. London, a city that has shaped global affairs for 250 years, will become the West’s Dubai, a place where lots of money sloshes around but of no great geopolitical consequence.
Europe will also lose a lot with Brexit. Britain is a big, vibrant economy. But more important, Britain has been a crucial voice in the community for free markets, openness, efficiency and an outward-looking foreign policy. The U.K. has been one of the few European countries that maintained and deployed a powerful army, often for broader global purposes.
As non-Western countries like China rise, the central question of international relations is: Can the international system built by the West — that has produced peace and prosperity for 75 years — last? Or will the rise of China and India and the revival of Russia erode it and return us to what Robert Kagan calls “the jungle” of international life, marked by nationalism, protectionism and war?
The world order as we know it was built over two centuries, during the reigns of two liberal, Anglo superpowers — Britain and then the United States. Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power, and I wonder whether it will also mark the day that the West — as a political and strategic entity — began to crumble.
Fareed Zakaria’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group