Trump, the Brexit, and the Fraying of the Western Diplomatic Consensus

By Michael Goldfien and Michael Woolslayer

In May, Austria came within a hair's-breadth of electing the first far-right head of state in the European Union. The narrow loss of Norbert Hofer prompted sighs of relief in elite circles in the United States. However, Austria is just the latest European country to flirt with a political outsider. Insurgent political candidates are succeeding across Europe and North America, from Hungary and Austria on the right and Greece and Spain on the left. Taken as a whole, the success of such leaders and movements, which often endorse anti-immigration or anti-trade platforms, suggests a breakdown of the political elite consensus in many Western countries.

This erosion of elite consensus could have an impact well beyond the countries in which it is taking place. Like-minded internationalist elites within European and North American countries have joined to forge over the past 100 years a Western diplomatic consensus that has transformed the nature of alliances in the West, from arrangements of convenience based primarily on power balancing to broad-based partnerships rooted in common values. Yet if revisionist politicians gain influence in Western capitals at the expense of these elites, the durability of values-based alliances will become less certain.

While far-right and far-left political forces are gaining traction across the West, the most troubling sign for the future of values-based alliances is the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit movement in the UK. America and Great Britain have not only been among the West's greatest champions of the liberal world order; Washington and London's "special relationship" is a testament to the power of ideas in transforming relations between states. Harm to the century-old Anglo-American special relationship, perhaps irreparable should Trump or the "Brexiteers" get their way, could well mark the beginning of a reversion to a more transactional alliance system harkening back to the pre-World War period.

Alliances, Then and Now

In contemporary American foreign policy, the term 'ally' is usually reserved--with notable exceptions, like Saudi Arabia--for like-minded states with which Washington has explicit or implicit mutual defense pacts. These security arrangements are defined in global terms: obligations to defend an ally apply to virtually any attack emanating from any source. In the case of NATO, the only invocation of Article V in the Alliance's history resulted not from a Russian invasion of Europe, as was long imagined, but by a terrorist attack on New York City and Washington, D.C. that was planned in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were seen not just as an act of violence perpetrated against one NATO member, but an assault on the liberal political, social, and economic order jointly constructed by the states of Europe and North America.

Traditionally, however, Western alliances were narrow arrangements. They were transactional promises to render specific services under a limited number of contingencies. Prior to World War I, alliance structures were highly dynamic, as navigating international politics necessitated an abundance of ideological and tactical flexibility.

However, following the devastation of the World Wars, many statesmen and policymakers declared this system of shifting alliances morally bankrupt and incapable of maintaining the peace. Interestingly, it was the United States and Great Britain, both of which had long viewed Continental realpolitik with some measure of disdain, that were most responsible for effecting a liberal transformation of international politics and the global economy. Amidst the destruction of WWI, Woodrow Wilson argued that in the new international system, "[t]here must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace." This sentiment was the seedling of collective security and the central pillar of post-WWII transatlantic security relationship. While the United Kingdom's power waned in the aftermath of each of the two World Wars, it found in the United States an ideological heir and proxy for the maintenance of the liberal global order.

Britain's celebrated economist, John Maynard Keynes, meanwhile, was a central figure in shaping the ideological and institutional foundations for a global economy focused on shared-prosperity. Keynes provided intellectual leadership at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, which saw the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, while the United States provided the financial might to implement Keynes' vision. Keynes and his American partners were also integral players in the drafting the International Trade Organization charter, though rejected by an uncooperative U.S. Congress, a forerunner to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and, eventually, the World Trade Organization.

Twin Challenges to the Western Diplomatic Consensus

The ideology of the Anglo-American elite in the interwar and post-WWII period laid the foundation for the current global order. That this elite developed a shared reverence for ideas and values in a way that had not previously existed in relations amongst Western states allowed for the development of a 'special relationship' based on more than just common interests. However, with the 'Brexit' vote approaching and the 2016 American presidential election on the horizon, will anti-internationalist political forces upend the 'special relationship' and the Western diplomatic consensus that it represents?

Take the Brexit, which 43% of Britons favor according to a recent Financial Times poll. Prominent "Brexiteers" like former Mayor of London Boris Johnson argue, in addition to claiming that the European Union seeks a "superstate" like that which Nazi Germany wanted, that a United Kingdom unshackled from the European Union would take back its sovereignty and curtail immigration. This is a far cry from Winston Churchill's call for the "natural grouping" of a "United States of Europe" buttressed by U.S. power and guided by the British through the special relationship. Churchill recognized that weakened global influence would make Britain increasingly dependent on its ability to shape U.S. power. As Richard Haas notes, one of the special relationship's main values to the United States is the access it provides the country to the European Union. No longer a sufficiently powerful partner on its own, a United Kingdom outside of the European Union could lose much of its allure as a close U.S. ally, and with it, a major portion of its remaining geopolitical importance.

The further collapse of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship would enfeeble the already-embattled institutions of the post-war order. As co-architects of the infrastructure of the liberal system, the British often provided support and the much need cloak of multilateralism to the wielding of U.S. power; American backing, in turn, helped maintain British influence globally well beyond its decline. Now emerging powers like China and Russia challenge pillars like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and NATO. The Anglo-American institutional partnership is already fraying; in 2015, much to Washington's consternation, the United Kingdom joined the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. A Britain withdrawn from Europe would only hasten the existing order's diminution.

Unfortunately, even if British voters reject the Brexit, neither the U.S.-U.K. special relationship nor the broader Western diplomatic consensus is safe. In November, American voters may yet choose a candidate seemingly committed to reordering the current international system. Donald Trump has already said that he does not anticipate having a "good relationship" with David Cameron after the British prime minister criticized Trump's proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.

More broadly, when given the opportunity to outline his foreign policy vision, Trump has made clear that he sees the United States' current alliance structure, in which Britain is a linchpin, as deeply unfair. While some mainstream American politicians and policymakers have expressed frustration with the terms of U.S. alliances, Trump has gone so far as to call NATO "obsolete" and U.S. involvement in the multilateral body too expensive for what the country receives in return. In this way, his understanding of international alliances reflects the view that prevailed in pre-World War I Europe rather than in the post-World War II liberal order; alliances should be coldly transactional rather than rooted in shared values. If Trump were elected president, his hostility to U.S. alliances with the United Kingdom and other like-minded countries would represent an extraordinary break from his predecessors, Democrat and Republican alike. John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, made an ambitious commitment to the liberal world order. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." In Trump, the United States would have a president to whom friends are a burden and liberty a hardship, and for whom the price of America's global commitments is always too high. It is no wonder that the countries most antagonistic to the current world order have cheered on Trump's candidacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Trump "talented without a doubt," while a recent op-ed in a North Korean state-run newspaper declared the real estate tycoon a "wise" and a "far-sighted" candidate.

Inflection Point

The combination of a vote in favor of Brexit and a successful presidential bid by Trump could strike a significant blow to the liberal world order, thereby weakening its most stalwart champions just as a wave of adversaries menaces its foundations. In the case of Brexit, a recalcitrant Russia awaits such a potentially fatal blow to the European Union, the diplomatic fallout from which could undermine cohesiveness in NATO. Meanwhile, a President Trump hostile to NATO could leave Europe unmoored from its most important security partner at a time of great instability. Even a Trump victory or Brexit alone threatens the increasingly fragile diplomatic consensus upon which the West's peace and prosperity rests.

For 70 years, the United States and the United Kingdom have been at the core of the most successful transnational political and ideological bloc since the Roman Empire. Even as Britain's hard power has waned, London's role as a liberal force in European politics and a cultural heavyweight has allowed it to be perhaps America's greatest ally in upholding the current rule- and trade-based international system. That system is fundamentally based on the proposition that international engagement, rather than isolation, is the best path to peace and prosperity. That so many in the United States and the United Kingdom question this proposition, as evidenced by the strong support for Donald Trump and a possible Brexit, is a worrisome sign for the international order indeed.

Michael Goldfien is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

Michael Woolslayer works in cybersecurity and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.