Britain voted to leave the European Union in a national referendum in June. Sell orders flooded stock markets worldwide, potentially destabilizing the global economy and international dialogue.
The vote took place just as dregs that had heretofore lurked at the very bottom of British politics and society burst forth to the surface — ranging from resentment toward the global elite, the political and financial establishments and the EU to anger at stagnating wages and growing inequalities, as well as animosity toward immigrants and refugees.
The Brexit vote marked the advent of “the geopolitics of emotion.”
The emotions surrounding identity — in terms of ethnicity, religion, historical viewpoint, insularity and the rejection of diversity — have spewed forth like political magma. Stances toward the outside world are being propelled by emotion, rather than from the position of a rational state actor. This makes for a brittle, introverted form of geopolitics.
Any way you look at it, the United Kingdom’s decision to Brexit defies logic. How such a cosmopolitan national populace could fail to realize just how negative an impact leaving the EU would have on their national economy is a mystery. The U.K. was the “sick man of Europe” when it first joined the European Community in 1973. One of the primary reasons for the U.K.’s growing prosperity over the past 40 years has been that it was allowed to share in the rewards of European integration. So what will become the axis of the U.K.’s post-Brexit foreign and defense policy?
We are sure there is no return to the “good old days” of the British Empire or Commonwealth. And the risks associated with a shift toward China and other emerging countries are too great. Thus, the only remaining option for the U.K. is to strengthen its relations with the United States — in other words, to rebuild the “special relationship.” However, in the lead-up to the referendum U.S. President Barack Obama urged the U.K. to remain within the EU, saying: “The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner. And the United Kingdom is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong Europe. … Americans want Britain’s influence to grow, including within Europe.”
The U.K.’s inclusion in the European integration project strengthened defense capabilities in the face of the Soviet threat, and served to link a unified Europe to the Atlantic, rather than to Eurasia. That has consistently served the strategic interests of the U.S. in the post-World War II era.
Of course, there are ways in which the post-Brexit U.K. could nevertheless strengthen its special relationship with the U.S. — for example, by increasing its defense spending to 3 percent of its GDP or taking the lead in strengthening the NATO alliance. However, neither step is likely to win support of the inward-looking grassroots movement that propelled the “leave” campaign to victory.
On the contrary, anti-Americanism may have been one factor in the leave vote. By voting to leave the EU, the British may have attempted to escape from under the shadow of American leadership, and adopt a “rebalancing” in the face of waning U.S. leadership.
The U.K.’s departure from the EU will also destroy the balance of power in Europe by magnifying the influence of Germany. This will weaken the U.K’s diplomatic influence over Germany, and potentially destabilize Europe. This is hardly a desirable scenario for Britain.
The leave campaign emphasized that, given the vital role of NATO to national defense, the U.K.’s national security will not be weakened by its departure from the EU. However, there is a difference between national security and defense. The stable presence of the EU promotes the maintenance of day-in, day-out national security, thereby removing the costs and risks associated with invoking alliance functions at every crisis.
Nevertheless, the leave campaign claimed victory in the national referendum. There is a grave risk that, for both the U.K. and Europe, the “geopolitics of emotion” will bolster the forces of exclusion and protectionism.
This is an alarming development for Japan as well. In 2015, the U.K. angered Japan and the U.S. with its decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. According to a close associate, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe privately expressed his discomfort with Britain’s unilateral decision to seek membership in the AIIB — a symbol of China’s geopolitical offensive — and the U.S. inability to take an effective measure against the offensive, noting: “Japan prospers when the U.K. and U.S. display strong leadership and maintain strong ties with Japan.”
Both the Anglo-Japanese alliance (1902-1922) and the postwar U.S.-Japan alliance placed Japan at the heart of a free and open system of international cooperation. Japan has been both an architect and a beneficiary of this system. And for the U.S., the “bookend” positioning of Japan and the U.K., its two most trusted allies, at the eastern and western tips of Eurasia was a strategic factor of crucial importance to global stability in the postwar period.
Now the U.K. will be leaving the EU. Britain’s strategic importance to the U.S. will likely decline as a result. The development comes at a time when U.S. alliances with Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are already under stress.
At first glance, these circumstances would seem to increase Japan’s relative strategic value to the U.S. But Japan should not misinterpret what the development means in essence.
As allies become less deferential to its authority, the U.S. will retaliate by downgrading their strategic importance. This creates a vicious circle, within which Japan’s rising value to the U.S. will prove nothing more than a temporary phenomenon.
Yoichi Funabashi, a former Asahi Shimbun editor-in-chief, is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism). This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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