After Brexit: “Very Well, Alone”

by Robert E. Hunter

At first blush, there are two big international winners from the British Brexit vote: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The former gains from the intense energy of reaction to uncontrolled immigration, assuming that that was a major factor in the British 52-48 vote to leave the European Union.  By happenstance – if you believe that – Mr. Trump was in Scotland when the results were announced, ostensibly visiting his golf courses.  He was quick to say how much he approved of what the British people had done. Of course, standing on Scottish soil, he was in the home of the enemy.  Not only did every electoral district in Scotland vote “Remain,” but Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, promptly said that another Scottish referendum on independence is “highly likely” and that she sees Scotland’s future as with the European Union.

Trump, who is not the stupidest politician-performer to come down the pike, recognizes that discontent in the United Kingdom, especially among the middle class, is similar to the rising in the United States, a fact that also largely explains the otherwise weird popularly of a gray-haired socialist, Bernie Sanders, who sounds similar themes though at the other end of the political spectrum.  Hillary Clinton, with her wonkish approach to politics, which was much on display in her major economic lecture in Raleigh, North Carolina, this week – that’s right, “lecture,” not “speech” – may have the right analysis, answers, and approach to getting things done, but she rarely touches either the heart or the gut.  “Governor Stevenson,” a woman said to the Democratic presidential candidate in 1956, “all thinking people support you.”  “Madam,” he replied, “unfortunately I need a majority.”

The denouement of “will the US be like Britain?” is not until election day on November 8th.  But calculations about the other international winner of Brexit, Vladimir Putin, need to be made sooner than that.  It does not take much imagination to understand that Putin wanted Brexit to win, in order to help weaken, by however little, the cohesion of the European Union and, with it, the West in general. Ironically, he has benefitted from the British passion for keeping the EU as weak as possible, in part by making it as large as possible.  British policy for a generation could be summarized as “small NATO, so it will work; large EU, so it won’t.”  Now, by leaving, Britain is helping to achieve the second goal and Mr. Putin couldn’t be more pleased.

To be sure, some EU members will be happy to see Britain go and have wondered why it stayed ever since the broadside launched by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her famous speech in Bruges in 1988. Some EU members have considered a “two-speed” Europe, with an inner core of tightly integrated states, mostly based on the original six members from the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and others that are less well integrated and also with less of a say in the directions to be taken by the Union.  From this perspective, it would have been better that Britain had never joined. Always wanting to change the rules of the club to suit one’s only circumstances is not the way to win friends and influence people.

But more thoughtful observers of the European and transatlantic scenes will recognize that a step as fundamental as the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU cannot be separated from other factors, including in the realm of security and defense.  At the narrowest level, the EU’s fledgling foreign policy and defense structures, the Common Foreign and Defense Policy, will have to proceed without one of its key components. Britain was always part of the ruling triumvirate with France and Germany.  CSDP may not be in mortal danger, but the possibilities of a major European military institution, complementing NATO, will be significantly reduced and, with it, one of the incentives for EU member states to spend money on defense.

More important, it is hard to believe that NATO will continue to be as effective, either within or without Europe, when Britain leaves the EU, even though London pledges to remain a stalwart ally.  In theory, the EU and NATO are apples and oranges.  In fact, they are not.  “Security” from the late 1940s onward and also following the end of the Cold War has always been an amalgam of politics, economics, and military matters.  It has always been a three-legged stool.  Weakening the strength of one leg, or even entering a period of major uncertainty, cannot help but weaken the other two.  Indeed, ever since the Cold War ended, a major problem for European security has been that NATO and the EU have each maintained major barriers against cooperation with the other. This has been folly, given that much that has had to be done about security in Europe is about both political and economic development on the one hand and strategic confidence on the other.
The key current security challenge to the West in Europe comes from the Russian Federation, not just because of its 2014 seizure of Crimea or even its continued military operations in other parts of Ukraine, but in the West’s need to provide reassurance to other Central European states.  They all see the most important component of that reassurance as membership in NATO and, more particularly, in America’s strategic engagement.  But much of their genuine security lies in the economic realm, just as the Soviet Union was eventually hollowed out by the West’s economic success in contrast to European communism’s failure.  Take Britain out of the EU and NATO has an added set of problems, as much as it whistles past the graveyard.

In two weeks’ time, the NATO allies will meet at the summit level in Warsaw.  Their central preoccupation will be with beefing up NATO military capabilities in Central Europe, especially with rotational combat brigades in the three Baltic states and Poland. There may be a need to reassure these states and others in the region that any Russian military incursion would serve as a “trip wire,” setting off broader NATO military responses.  But it is also important not unnecessarily to give Mr. Putin further ammunition to use in his domestic politics, by alleging that Russia is being “disrespected” following the Cold War and even surrounded – as absurd as the latter seems to Western ears.  This is strange, given that Putin started the problem by violating agreements and committing aggression against Ukraine.  But politics are what they are.  Indeed, President George H.W. Bush understood the need to avoid, if possible, a revanchist response in Russia, following the Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War, analogous to the German response after the punitive provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The United States, as leader of the alliance, long since forgot Bush’s insight.

A balance needs to be struck if both the West and Russia are not to blunder into the rigidities and structures of a new Cold War.  Unfortunately, the agenda for NATO’s Warsaw summit doesn’t offer promise.  It will be complicated by the news out of the United Kingdom this week. Even if the EU can live without Britain (and it will), the efforts required to counter what Putin has already done, to inhibit him in further inroads against Central European states (likely to be in cyber and energy areas rather than military aggression), and to build up economics and democratic structures for the long term will be weakened. This is inevitable, as the EU now goes into a lengthy period of major adjustment to accommodate what the British government, in its profound unwisdom, has done by calling a referendum that turned on potent emotional issues like immigration and the continued impact on the middle class of the breakdown of 2008, itself in major part engineered by greed emanating from the City of London.

The United States, of course, has a stake in all this, as a country that remains committed to keeping any hostile power from extending its reach in Europe: a “grand strategy” that has been essentially unchanged since the US entered the First World War.  That includes needing to have as strong an EU as possible; it also included having Britain as a member, as President Obama and other US officials made crystal clear though, obviously, without effect as tends to be true when foreign leaders try to tell voters what to do.

The United States has not just been an innocent bystander.  The flow of refugees from the Middle East, a phenomenon that was a key “poster child” for the British “Leave” campaign, was set in motion by the US-led invasion of Iraq 13 years ago, which led in time to the turmoil in Syria with the massive disruptions there.  Old sins cast long shadows.  Also, Wall Street bankers were very much involved in the financial collapse of 2008, and the US has been a major enabler of the unconstrained globalization that has done so much to produce stagnation for the middle class in the US, Britain, and elsewhere in the West.

Further, it is no secret in Europe that the Obama administration has not cared very much for Europe, as it has been preoccupied with trying to end two wars in the Middle East and avoiding a third (with Iran) and with its “rebalancing to Asia.”  President Obama makes good speeches and travels from time to time to Europe, but his heart and that of his administration have clearly not been in it and certainly not in trying to bind together political, economic, and strategic requirements into a single package, led by the United States.

The British horse has now bolted.  But in Warsaw in two weeks’ time, the US president at least can show that he knows what has been happening, what the stakes are, and the US role in how it happened.  He can begin reasserting the leadership of the United States in Europe, pulling together, both in the big picture and in critical detail, all the elements of transatlantic relations and the full compass of “security” in Europe, in all the sectors that are necessarily engaged, an integrated whole.  This US inspiration and leadership and been lacking in recent years but is the true reassurance that all need.  That alone can start to wipe the smile off Vladimir Putin’s face.  Dealing with Donald Trump’s smile is another matter.

This is President Obama’s last chance to get Europe right.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Mr Putin stated quiet clearly the he would not interfere or take sides on the UK referendum. He was true to his word. Several western leaders, including Mr Obama, supported the “remain” side. (I voted “remain). The assumption that the Russian leader supported “brexit” is make-believe. In this nuclear age the world needs leaders with the wisdom to unite all nations in the interest of world peace. To divide the Russian people from the rest of Europe only serves to create enmity where friendship is essential. The US elite played a huge roll in the coup d`etat in Ukraine and the killing that ensued. Mr Putin had little option but to respond when the large Russian ethnic community in SE Ukraine came under attack from hostile right-wing nationalists supported and financed by US/UK sources.
    The melding of EU financial interests with US controlled NATO was never justified nor was it supported by and European democratic process: the people were not consulted.. As the author reminds us: the flood of migrants and refugees into Europe is largely due to the NATO invasions of Iraq and Libya and its support extremist elements in Syria. Fear of being “swamped”, in “brexit” newspapers vocabulary, played a very large part in the “out” voters minds.

  2. “But it is also important not unnecessarily to give Mr. Putin further ammunition to use in his domestic politics, by alleging that Russia is being “disrespected” following the Cold War and even surrounded – as absurd as the latter seems to Western ears. This is strange, given that Putin started the problem by violating agreements and committing aggression against Ukraine.”


    Not all “Western ears” would mishear a claim from Russia to being disrespected and surrounded, since it definitely is. Indeed, it wasn’t Putin who “started the problem,” but rather, Washington, hiding behind the skirts of NATO, “colonising” Ukraine and the Black Sea, thus prompting Putin to reclaim the strategically important Crimea for Russia. After 50 years of Cold War, anti-Russia propaganda comes as naturally to the US as anti-Palestine propaganda comes to Zionists and Likudniks.

    But I think Hunter is right about Obama’s indifference to Europe. I hope Brexit gives continental Europe the opportunity to quit acting like a “poodle parade” (as Pepe Escobar calls it) for Washington. Get some backbone (and a decent military) and start behaving in your own best interest, Europe.

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