Brexit And Rare Accountability For Folly

Boris Johnson (Alexandros Michailidis /

by Paul R. Pillar

The Brexiteers in the United Kingdom who sold their fellow citizens a bill of goods before the Brexit referendum two years ago are starting to pay a political price. They are paying it as the countrymen whom they bamboozled begin to confront some of the painful reality of what they bought. The process began last month with the resignations of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, amid stalemate in negotiations over a new relationship between Britain and the European Union. A couple of years ago, Johnson probably was the most popular politician in Britain. Now, as British journalist Jenni Russell observes, “He knows that the verdict of history is about to come down on him—and bury him.” Most recently, Davis’s successor has had to warn British businesses about the red-tape-entangled nightmare that will ensue if the government fails to reach a new deal with the EU.

The vision the Brexiteers offered was never realizable. There was no way to enjoy the benefits of the continent-wide common market without the obligations that make that market possible. The numbers in the ledger books would never come out in a way that would, as the Brexiteers claimed, free up major resources that could go to Britain’s National Health Service. The impossibilities in the Brexiteers’ message have shown up in countless unresolved issues in the negotiations with the EU, such as how to keep the inter-Irish border open and how to avoid gargantuan traffic jams at Dover.

The leading Brexiteers probably were smart enough to realize this. But the demagogic opportunity to ride the Brexit issue to greater political power—and in Johnson’s case, perhaps into the prime minister’s office—was too tempting. The Brexiteers thought they could get away with it because they did not expect to win the referendum. As Russell writes, because the Brexiteers “were confident that the Leave campaign was a hopeless cause, they were free to make ridiculous claims that they had no expectation of ever having to fulfill.” There is an eerie similarity to events on this side of the Atlantic—at least as chronicled by author Michael Wolff, who wrote in his book about Donald Trump that Trump and his entourage did not believe they would win the 2016 election, until this disbelief was replaced on election night by the horrifying prospect of having to assume the responsibilities of governing.

Much commentary has described the Brexit movement in Britain and Trumpism in the United States as two manifestations of a wider transnational phenomenon that also includes xenophobic nationalist parties and leaders across Europe. That phenomenon has produced much grief and bad policy in multiple countries, from retrograde trade practices to the exacerbation of racial and ethnic tensions. But Brexit is an exception in beginning to show some political accountability for the grief. The reason Brexit is different is that it involves a deadline. In accordance with the rules of the EU for exiting the union, Britain is getting out next March. There soon will be either a no-deal Brexit, with all the glaringly obvious disruptions that would entail, or an agreement whose differences from the happy scenario the Brexiteers peddled will be just as obvious.

No Deadlines

The policies of the Brexiteers’ nationalist counterparts in other countries usually do not involve deadlines. There usually is no time limit to stringing people along. There usually is no moment, within a politically meaningful time frame, when the piper must be paid for policy malfeasance. And many purveyors of bad policy remain in power.

There are several reasons such purveyors remain in power even in democracies, where the antidote to policies that affect citizens badly is supposed to be for the citizens to cashier their leaders and vote someone else into power. Some democratically elected governments, such as in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, have become less democratic once in power and thus better able to maintain their grip on power despite policy failures. The same pattern has not yet prevailed in the United States, although it displays disturbing signs of moving in that direction.

Democracy does not need to be crippled for the accountability problem to persist. As Stephen Walt has written, lack of accountability for foreign policy failures, even really big failures, has long been a prevailing pattern in the United States.

The artistry of the demagogue may have much to do with this pattern. People can be strung along for a remarkably long time if inculcated with the belief that things are bad now but will get better if we just stick with whatever the demagogue is selling. In other words, keep swallowing the snake oil. Lincoln was right that a leader cannot fool all the people all of the time, but this is an instance of enough of the people being fooled for a long enough time.

Donald Trump has added the technique of creating an illusion of progress by first portraying an awful status quo and then, after holding a meeting or signing a paper, claiming a major breakthrough even if none has occurred. His policy on North Korea has featured this technique. A current question is whether this specific illusion is wearing away too fast to continue as the centerpiece of the policy. Most recently he has claimed to have made “maybe the largest trade deal ever” with Mexico and, with a name change, to have replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement when in fact he accomplished neither.

At least the ill effects of something like a trade war are not a can that can be kicked down the road indefinitely, and many of the effects are felt directly enough in voters’ pocketbooks to have political consequences. The stream of interviews with soybean farmers or owners of small metal-using businesses who supported Trump and say they are sticking with him for now despite the economic pain he is causing him cannot continue indefinitely.

Indirect and Long-Term Effects

But on many other issues of national policy, including foreign policy, the ill effects—although they may be substantial—are too long-term and/or too indirect to be easily felt and seen, or at least for most citizens to make the connection between the effects and the policies that led to them. Unilateralist policies that tend to isolate the United States and disrupt its most important alliances will make it more difficult for the United States to accomplish many of the things that it hopes to accomplish abroad, but the causality will be too subtle for most Americans who applauded the unilateralist rhetoric to be aware of that cost.

Or take one of the most egregious modern examples of lack of accountability for policy malpractice: the launching of the Iraq War in 2003. The most enthusiastic promoters of that war—one of whom currently is the national security advisor—have not paid a political price, nor any other kind of price, for that blunder. The immediate human costs of the war for Americans were disguised by an all-volunteer military, and the immediate financial costs were disguised by not raising taxes to pay for the war (unlike what Lyndon Johnson did during the Vietnam War). The total financial costs, which are well into the trillions, stretch out for decades (in such forms as care for disabled veterans), well beyond a time scale that makes accountability feasible. Major political and security costs of the war, including the stoking of sectarian conflict in the Middle East and incubation of terrorist groups, also have a long time frame.

Many other important policies exhibit similar lags in their ill consequences and thus similar difficulty in achieving accountability. This certainly includes climate change, in which denialist policies have catastrophic consequences that will be felt most brutally only by future generations.

Deadlines, where they are possible, work. They not only get students to submit their homework but also help to achieve democratic accountability. Brexit is a tragedy for Britain and for the European Union, but at least there will be some political reckoning regarding responsibility for that tragedy. Unfortunately, many other public policies do not lend themselves to deadlines in the same way. And that is a major reason that many policy misdeeds go unpunished.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).