Headaches of Empire: Brexit and the United States

By Binoy Kampmark

The case for Britain’s exit from Europe has been treated as a dramatic blow against the imperium’s three main concerns on the continent: its own, fragile economic recovery, the broader trade agenda spearheaded with the EU, and matters of security.


President Barack Obama, like other leaders who were taking the gruel of Brexit for his breakfast serving, did not react well to Britain’s referendum result of June 23. Over time, he has been unduly chiding in his manner, reproachful about the affairs of another country in how it would vote on its relationship with the European Union.

In April, Obama warned British voters that a trade deal with the United States would be a rather tough thing to achieve from outside the European Union. This trend followed that of warnings to other countries, such as Greece, who had flirted with the idea of leaving the zone. The cudgel used on this occasion, as previously, was that of economic consequences. Leave, and observe… “It could be five years from now, 10 years from now before we’re actually able to get something done.”1

Whatever pretence the United States maintains about the equal order of states, sovereignty and its “special relationships”, traditional imperial values are powerful. Much of this has seeped sufficiently into the body politic of the US to make anything that seems like rebellious fracture in Europe seem dangerous.

The case for Britain’s exit from Europe has been treated as a dramatic blow against the imperium’s three main concerns on the continent: its own, fragile economic recovery, the broader trade agenda spearheaded with the EU, and matters of security.


Economic Fears

The economic aspect got a jolt when the collaring markets, ever the deities to be worshipped by major capitals of the globe, did their stuff in wiping off $2 trillion in value in twenty-four hours. “I must say,” conceded Vice President Joe Biden, “we had looked for a different outcome. We would have preferred a different outcome.” Never spook the markets, goes such wisdom, especially with daft notions of democratic practice. The incentive of the money maker, and that of the practising democrat, never go together.

The result left Obama having to insist that not much would change in the US-UK relationship, much of it initiated by a concern to soften market shocks. During a trip to Silicon Valley a day after the vote, the president was trying to minimise its rocky effects. “Yesterday’s vote speaks to the ongoing changes and challenges that are raised by globalisation.” The vote was far more than that, a vortex opening up before Europe’s broader troubles.

Hillary Clinton, then presumptive Democrat nominee for the White House, also had the element of economic disturbance on her mind. The American economy, she was asserting, might suffer because of the British result. “Our first task has to be to make sure that the economic uncertainty created by these events does not hurt working families in America” (The Guardian, Jun 24).

Top US officials were also mooting the point that a British exit from the EU would be something of a stab to US financial stability, an assessment that did not resist a moralising undertone. Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, could see very little good coming out of a popularly mandated departure. In testimony before the US Senate committee on banking, housing and urban affairs, Yellen spoke in sombre terms about a “shift” in investor sentiment with a vote against the EU from the British electorate. “A UK vote to exit the European Union could have significant economic repercussions.”2

Another spoiler for the Obama administration lies in the chances to get the much vaunted yet problematic Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Act between the EU and the United States done by January next year. Things already seemed rather mucked given the growing hostility to the deal on both sides of the pond. It has dawned on some European lawmakers that the TTIP is less a citizen’s charter than that of a corporation’s.

Obama’s insistence has been to stand by previous statements that Brexit would lead to a banishment of Britain to the back of the negotiating queue. Trade deals were to be done with the entire bloc, not with each disagreeable state. Europe, in other words, had to negotiate with one voice.

Obama’s insistence has been to stand by previous statements that Brexit would lead to a banishment of Britain to the back of the negotiating queue.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz reiterated the point immediately after the vote. “Obviously, the president stands by what he said and I don’t have an update of our position.”3 Bad children who openly disregard the wishes of their teachers tend to find themselves at the back of the classroom in chastened defeat.


Security Fears

As for the security agenda, Britain’s suggested exit from the European institutional family is being treated as the disengagement of a valuable, pro-US partner on the continent. Fanciful observations have been made that Washington will look with keener interest to Berlin and Paris, refocusing their security concerns within the bloc.

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations struck a note about preserving the alliance: “We… maintain our trans-Atlantic consensus on how to deal with a resurgent Russia and the growing threat of ISIS.”4  

For decades, having Britain in European arrangements for the United States was tantamount to Rome having faithful Greeks oiling its foreign policy. This extension was also global, resulting in costly gambles in Iraq in the war of 2003. The difference there was that the Anglophone Greeks were not quite as informed as they should have been.

The point about such a connection between well worn sage of empire and sprightly upstart buck had been made by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during the North Africa campaigns of the Second World War. The orientation of power during the conflict against Nazi Germany had changed, shifting its axis across the Atlantic: the United States would be setting the terms; Britons would become the modern Greeks of future US administrations, the wise advisors in the face of a new supreme power. “We… are Greeks in this American empire… We must run the Allied Forces HQ as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius” (Sunday Telegraph, Feb 9, 1964).

Sensing an aspect of this strategic facet of US-European relations unravelling, the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin sensed that Russian-EU relations would alter after the fact. With confidence, he suggested that Britain’s exit from European arrangements meant one less voice on the anti-Russia bandwagon. “Without the UK, there will be nobody in the EU to defend sanctions against Russia so zealously.”5  

Other European countries had been less than enthusiastic to impose sanctions on the Kremlin in light of its policies towards Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Not Britain, egged on by Washington. The issue has been deemed critical to differences between the way the European Union handles global matters to that of the United States, which retains a customary military posture towards matters of crisis. As Robert Kagan would argue, the gentle approach of the EU was paradisiacal in its approach, a Pollyanna view of the world; the US had it down pat with ideas of traditional power plays.6

Andrei Klepach, deputy chairman of the Russian State Development Bank Vneshekonombank (VEB), went so far as to make a prediction at this potential, rapturous detachment from the European bloc. Brexit might well provide changes for “good potential for growth in the value of securities” that would benefit the Russian economy.7 That is very unlikely to transpire in any genuine sense.

Commentators in Britain have also noted the prospect of internal unravelling of the UK, an aspect that has worried a range of US strategic planners. Scotland, whose voters solidly backed Britain staying in the union, may well seek another referendum over independence.

As Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister has firmly stated, the Scots voted one way, the English and Welsh, another. Strategically, Scotland, being home to the UK nuclear submarine fleet, complicates things further. A potential UK break-up is in the offing.


The Imperial Motive

There remains a conspicuous fear in the US Republic that civilisation tends to be a centralising endeavour. The point was noted in rather negative fashion by the historian Brooks Adams in The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), who saw matters in eccentrically biological terms of energy and dissipation. One important point could be gleaned from this: the subject can become the prisoner of purely economic considerations.

The hegemon dictates the measures to be taken, even if they may be cushioned by promises of good relations and a false sense of autonomy.

Smaller states only matter if they are wedged into a series of locking agreements and arrangements with an overseeing, essentially directing hegemon. The hegemon dictates the measures to be taken, even if they may be cushioned by promises of good relations and a false sense of autonomy.

While Donald Trump has been dismissed as a loud lunatic on this subject, amongst others, his statements about the way Obama behaved on Britain’s referendum were relevant. Was it the business of a US president to tell the British voter how to go about his or her business? No.

A close ally of empire, and the US project in Europe, had flown the coop. That, however, still remains a statement of opinion rather than practice. More will need to be done to implement the result, by which then a second referendum may well have taken place. Britain is hardly going to be getting away that easily.


About the Author

Kampmark_Picture[1]Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


1. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/24/leave-campaign-obama-trade-warning-eu-referendum
2. Remarks available at: http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/testimony/yellen20160621a.htm
3. http://www.euronews.com/2016/06/25/obama-stands-by-back-of-queue-warning-on-post-brexit-uk-trade-deal/
4. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-usa-biden-idUSKCN0ZA24G
5. https://twitter.com/@MosSobyanin
6. https://www.amazon.com/Paradise-Power-America-Europe-World/dp/1400034183
7. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/arts_n_ideas/news/article/russia-reacts-to-brexit-referendum/573389.html


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.