Commentary / World

Brexit, Trump and a warning

by David Howell

Is 93 too old to change your view and embrace a new idea? Not, it seems, if you are U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger, who is reported now to have concluded that Brexit is no bad thing. It is good news that one of the wisest minds in the West has grasped that the British reaction against over-centralized and over-intrusive European administration is just part of a larger pattern of forces operating in the digital age, and affecting societies, politics and attitudes everywhere — certainly throughout the rest of the European region — and that it could have positive outcomes.

For far too long there has been a Washington establishment tendency to get the European scene wrong and assume that a conjoined and compacted United State of Europe is just round the corner, and represents strength and progress.

Now the realities of the digital age, which work in the opposite direction, toward decentralization, localization, diversity and flexibility, could at least be coming home to thinking Americans concerned with events and responsibilities in the wider world outside.

If further evidence of deep and imminent change in Europe is needed, it should be noted that there are no less than seven upcoming elections in EU countries — in France, Germany, Netherlands, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal and Slovenia. Any one of these could lead to political upheaval on a grand scale, with Marine Le Pen, a French presidential front-runner, actually pledged to take her country out of the European Union altogether.

All this is a reflection of forces gathering momentum long before Brexit and leading inevitably to a different and radically transformed kind of European arrangement. In constructing this the United Kingdom can and should play a strong part, whether in or out of the EU. All the so-called fundamental freedoms of the old EU are in question, especially the freedom of movement of persons, which has now been curtailed by many countries as they struggle with unparalleled levels of both refugees and migrants from Africa and the Mideast.

In this altered landscape, 20th century concepts such as single protected markets or customs unions, or, for that matter imposed single currencies, will have a diminished place, as British Prime Minister Theresa May has rightly recognized in her latest speech on the British approach to its new relationship with the rest of Europe, and to overall European reform.

There are many who believe that the emergence of President Donald Trump in America is part of the same phenomenon of street empowerment, weakened elites and liberation all round. He and his supporters keep claiming as much. But there they are wrong. The anti-establishment, pro-local mood, boosted worldwide by the internet, produces quite different outcomes in different countries and societies. In Europe it could indeed lead to a re-balanced and less suffocatingly regulated kind of world, with creativity blossoming. This is presumably what Kissinger now senses and where he thinks Brexit could now lead.

In the Middle East, where there is no tradition of local democracy, of restrained use of power or of solid citizen responsibility, the same anti-elitism has already led not to more democracy and freedom but to tribalism, fragmentation, anarchy and violent chaos on a major scale.

And in America it has led to Trump. The big question is whether this represents liberation and open economy values, with America playing a responsible partnership role in a network world or whether it means the narrowest form of demagogic nationalism, which can only be delivered,if at all, at the expense of America’s friends and at the expense of world stability.

Kissinger seems to be leaning toward the more benign view. But after listening to the raucous generalities and dismal cliches of the Trump inaugural speech it would be hard for any intelligent person to conclude that this is the voice of the new, open and responsible United States.

What the world now needs is a balanced international approach which recognizes that top nations, superpowers and protected blocks,whether in Europe, America or elsewhere have had their day. Network connectivity, total, constant, absolute, has taken over — and knows few frontiers or boundaries. Borderless production increasingly prevails. Interdependence is indispensable.

The British should be good in this environment of much freer trade and more open commerce, if it is allowed to develop. They have experience. Yet some voices in the U.K. are arguing for “getting closer to Trump,” who is an avowed protectionist. They are excited by his declared fondness for the U.K., his admiration of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his enthusiasm for an early bilateral trade deal.

But they should beware. And May should be very cautious when she meets him shortly. There are two kinds of America, the wide-open friendly and generous sort, and the Trump sort. The U.K. should stay clear of the latter. The emphasis in any meeting of leaders should be on a normal and balanced business and security partnership basis, not on ingratiating subservience with the American leadership regardless of its direction of travel.

Balanced relationships, friendly but not too close, are difficult and demand immense skill, experience and statesmanship. A wisely led U.K. today in this global network age should be not too close and committed to America, as the U.K. seemed at the time of the Iraq invasion, and not too close to China — at the expense of good relations with Japan and other Asian powers — a direction in which some British politicians seemed to want to push it. And it should from now on be not too close and committed to a protectionist EU, resting on an outdated model, at the expense of its old friends and new ties in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

If this is the conclusion that Kissinger — the great strategist and master of real-politik — has now reached, then that should be good for everyone all round.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.