Apart from creating economic turmoil, Britain’s calamitous vote to leave the European Union could have no less profound foreign policy consequences, weakening the interlocking web of Western institutions and alliances that have helped guarantee international peace and stability for 70 years.
This is also a testing moment for President Obama, who has been understandably preoccupied with building alliances in Asia, but must once again make Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance a priority and find ways to rebuild consensus and chart a united path forward. Otherwise, the major beneficiaries will be Russia and China, both challenging the established Western-led order.
Since World War II, the United States, aided principally by Britain, has worked to reduce the potential for international conflict, with particular success in Europe; encourage democratic governance; promote free markets; and lift billions of people out of poverty. This was achieved by working with its allies to establish multiple reinforcing institutions, including NATO, the military alliance that now has 28 members; the E.U., the economic alliance that will have 27 members when Britain leaves; the World Bank; and the International Monetary Fund. In short, together America and Europe wrote the rules and norms by which much of the world now lives.
The policies pursued by the West have sometimes been flawed and sometimes failed, but the system that linked America and Europe in a common defense and common political cause ended the Cold War, reunited Germany, built a new Europe and sought in one way or another to address every other major threat. A crucial brick in that system is now in danger of being removed.
This stunning development comes at a time when these institutions were already under stress and when many people on both sides of the Atlantic had grown complacent about the relationship and its reinforcing commitments. Europe is economically battered, overwhelmed by refugees fleeing chaos in the Middle East and fearful of attacks within its borders by the Islamic State and other terrorists.
Compounding the problem is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Ruthlessly playing a weak hand, he has worked hard to undermine NATO and challenge the post-Cold War order by invading Ukraine, funding right-wing groups in France and elsewhere and recklessly brandishing his military power from the Baltics to Syria. European countries have struggled to remain united on issues ranging from NATO’s budget to how best to respond to Mr. Putin.
Meanwhile, China, a rising power that sometimes makes common cause with Russia, has been challenging the United States by expanding its control over the South China Sea and establishing its own Asian regional development bank as a means of wielding economic influence.
Britain’s departure must be negotiated with the E.U. and could take as long as two years. Even with this break, Britain would remain in NATO, but less as a leading European power than as a more inward-looking nation consumed with national politics. That would mean a Britain less able or willing to address the economic and security challenges of Europe as a whole and less inclined to support American-led responses to crises across the globe. The referendum could also inspire nationalist forces elsewhere in Europe to step up their own assault on European integration.
The vote is a setback for President Obama, who urged Britain to remain in the E.U. when he visited London in April. On Friday, he insisted that Britain and the E.U. would both remain America’s indispensable partners. Other administration officials promised to work closely with Britain to ease the E.U. transition.
It’s hard to imagine that Europe could once again deteriorate into rival nation-states and that Europe and America could drift apart. Even so, Mr. Obama must work with Germany and France, the other two European powers, to understand the forces behind the Brexit vote, address the grievances that produced such a result and reaffirm and strengthen the alliance and its common agenda. Next month’s NATO summit meeting is an opportunity to begin that process.
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