The unthinkable has happened with the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. (BBC)
Arguably, this is potentially the most serious development in world politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Curiously, both catastrophes happened ‘voluntarily’.)
What lies ahead? Let me outline three concentric circles – Britain’s future comes, of course, in the First Circle; followed by the fate of Europe in these uncertain times; and, enveloping the above two circles, the shift in the ‘co-relation of forces’ in the international system and world politics.
Unsurprisingly, David Cameron has done the honorable thing to do – draw a line on his public life as a statesman. He made a disastrous miscalculation by assuming that the conservative British people will never want to take a peep into the abyss. Well, they have, and he needs to quit. Three cheers for British democracy.
More important, however, the verdict itself is such a fractious and contentious one that it opens ancient wounds in Great Britain’s gory history. Scottish and Irish nationalism will inevitably rear their heads and militate against Britain’s departure from the European Union. So, how long can Britain survive in the present form? That is the troubling question.
Second, the British vote also strikes chords within other EU member countries – especially in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and so on. There is a pervasive weariness over the EU, accentuated by more or less the very same grievances that Brits have harbored – over migration, loss of sovereignty, security concerns, decline in welfare system and austerity, economic inequality, and so on.
So, what happens if the EU unravels? This is the second question.
If we go back in time and recall the impetus behind the European project as such, we are bound to come across ancient ghosts that the continent had desperately needed to bury but are still around – the great mutual revanchism between the peoples of France and Germany dating back to the 16th century, in particular. It is vital that the European project survives to ensure that those ghosts of history remain forever in the attic.
Even if EU doesn’t unravel, Britain’s role as a ‘balancer’ will be keenly missed. A new equilibrium will need to evolve. Which is not easy since Germany is already much more equal than the others in the tent.
So, will the German question, the most daunting spectre of modern European history, resurface? This is the third question.
In the international system, there is certainly going to be much volatility. Britain’s exit from EU deals a body blow to the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership. Indeed, there is no alternative but to mothball the Trans-Atlantic Partnership Agreement. It was meant to be a ‘platinum grade’ FTA, as John Kerry one put it. Washington may now have to settle for whatever is available, which may be no FTA. The advantage goes to China and Russia.
Beyond that comes the US’ geostrategy. Certainly, if Moscow is wringing its hands with pleasure today, there is good reason for it. A disheveled, disoriented Europe makes a weak negotiating partner for Russia. Combined with the strong ‘Russian lobby’ within Germany (and France, Italy and Greece, etc.), it becomes highly problematic for the US to keep the sanctions against Russia going.
So, will the US’ containment strategy against Russia be sustainable for long? This is the fourth question.
Then, there are the unavoidable fallouts – euro’s uncertain future, for instance, and the concomitant turmoil in exchange rates; or the decline of London (‘The City’) as the world’s financial capital; or the capacity of the US dollar to retain its status as the world currency; or the surge of yuan; or the investment flows in general, etc.
The post-cold war multipolar order rests on four key pillars – US, China, EU and Russia. If one pillar becomes shaky, the architecture weakens. Serious repair and renovation work will need to be undertaken. But the big-power rivalry doesn’t easily allow that.
The good thing is that this momentous development has happened before Hillary Clinton and her neoconservative retinue moves into the White House in January. It comes as a badly-needed reality check for them on the serious limits to US power in world politics.