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Brexit and the US-UK Special Relationship

By Clifford Singer, ACDIS Director

The outcome of the June 23 vote on British exit (Brexit) from the European Union raises questions about the value to Britain of its “special relationship” with the United States. A recent Council on Foreign Relations piece lists some expected economic costs: renewal of customs duties and non-tariff barriers on trade with the EU, a reversal of UK trade agreements that have been negotiated by the EU with other countries, possible restrictions on financial transactions undermining London’s position as a financial center, and interference with the ability of UK citizens to work in the EU. Brexit could also complicate relations between the northern and southern parts of Ireland and/or provide Scots with an impetus to separate from the UK altogether and stay in the EU. Brexit’s appeal to the broader public in an era of Mediterranean economic stagnation and new immigration pressures is understandable. But why would a wing of the Conservative Party insiders with their historical roots in the British Empire want to take such un-conservative risks with the economy and perhaps even the continuity of the United Kingdom?

Perhaps an Anglo-American special relationship is seen as sufficient to keep the inheritance of Britain’s global influence alive, without dealing with the messy complications of cooperative work in the EU to engage in world affairs. If so, there is reason to suspect that this view is myopic about the tide of history. The 2016 anti-establishment tsunami that has swamped one major U.S. political party and pushed against the dikes of the other is explicitly about domestic issues. However, in the background lies the failure of four major U.S. military operations to achieve their stated goals: the October 1950 invasion aimed at expelling communists from North Korea, the attempt to halt communist takeovers in Southeast Asia, the attempt to keep most of Afghanistan from remaining under the control of the Taliban or an even less preferable group, and the goal of keeping Sunnis in and around Iraq from being a military threat in the region. A longstanding consensus about the United States’ global security role may not be undermined directly by angst about these military shortcomings. However, that consensus could nevertheless become a casualty of domestic political turmoil as a combination of another recession and the continuing conflict with the Islamic State and its successors further undermine confidence in the U.S. political establishment over the next eight years. If the UK Conservative Party Brexit enthusiasts see a special relationship with the United States and an alternative to being an integral part of a globally active EU, they may well find that they have hitched their horse to the wrong carriage.