In the course of his recent European tour, President Obama decided to intervene in the domestic politics of the United Kingdom — and not on a minor matter. A referendum on whether the British should remain in the European Union is scheduled to be held by the end of 2017 under legislation now being debated in the British Parliament. This question goes to the heart of the U.K.’s democratic sovereignty, and opinion polls suggest that the electorate leans towards staying in, but by a modest margin. For the British it is a massive constitutional battle& on the order of the Glorious Revolution or, well, 1776.
Nothing daunted, Obama jumped into the fray with both feet, having failed to take the precaution of first removing them from his mouth. He stated that “we are very much looking forward to the United Kingdom staying a part of the European Union because we think its influence is positive not just for Europe but also for the world.” He added other remarks laced with flattery about Britain’s “leadership . . . strength . . . host of global challenges, etc., etc.,” straight out of the Speaker’s Handbook for Retirements and Funerals.
As Nile Gardiner of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, moreover, this is not the first time the president has intervened in this way or on this issue. When visiting Australia, he took time out to attack the environmental policies of Prime Minister Tony Abbott before an audience of students guaranteed to be friendly to him and hostile to his host. As early as January 2013, the White House issued a statement that “the United States values a strong U.K. in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world,” that was plainly intended to influence U.K. domestic politics. And a whole menagerie of State Department officials, including the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, have been telling the British that they have to stay in the EU because it is in the U.S. interest that they should do so — and if they don’t, well, we’ll just go ahead and shut them out of our diplomatic circle!
To misquote Horace Walpole, U.S. diplomacy is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel.
Let us make the charitable assumption that U.K. membership of the EU may be an important American interest. For the British it is undoubtedly a vital national question one way or the other. Those Brits who feel that their sovereign independence is being gradually whittled away by EU laws and regulations are unlikely to change their minds because they are told that this sacrifice is necessary to protect U.S. access to European markets. They are more likely to feel resentful, hostile, and skeptical about the value of the U.S. as an ally (though here they would be at the back of a long line), whatever the outcome of the U.K. referendum. Those Brits who favor the absorption of their nation into a Euro-superstate may be grateful for the practical help of the American president, but they too are bound to notice that he is treating them purely as an instrument of American policy.
Brits who feel that their sovereign independence is being whittled away are unlikely to change their minds because they are told that this sacrifice is necessary to protect U.S. access to European markets.
But is the State Department’s judgment on Britain’s utility as America’s Trojan horse inside Fortress Europe valid? It is certainly one of Foggy Bottom’s longest-lasting policies, dating back to the early 1950s. It therefore enjoys a presumption of reasonableness. But many things have changed since the early days of the Cold War. For one thing, it’s over — and Europe’s Atlanticist attachment to the Western alliance inculcated by fear of the Soviet Union has been replaced by a Europeanist sense of economic, political, and even ideological rivalry with the U.S.
European leaders see the EU as a new sort of international organization that is destined to replace the Westphalian system of nation-states, of which the U.S. is the preeminent example. The longer Britain remains inside this new kind of polity, the more it absorbs the attitudes appropriate to its new European quasi-state. Ask U.S. diplomats at the U.N. whether the Brits there are as cooperative as they used to be before they began regularly caucusing with the other EU ambassadors. (You’ll have to get them drunk to get the truth, but the Russians can tell you how to do that.)
Put it this way: What would have happened in the Trojan War if the Greek soldiers had come down from the Trojan horse, started partying with the locals, and begun thinking “Hey, these Trojans really know how to live — long vacations, short hours, cushy welfare benefits, and, yeah, high prices but those with jobs can easily afford them”? America could soon find that as a result of Obama’s pressure on the Brits to stay inside the EU for America’s sake, all it would end up with is an empty horse.
Obama might not mind that outcome, however. It’s clear to all those with eyes to see that the president actually prefers the kind of political economy represented by the European Union — tightly regulated, politically centralized, highly “progressive” in its social policies — to the freer economy, less deferential society, and more democratic polity of the United States. In that sense Britain has been a mid-Atlantic power — halfway between these two models — for most of the postwar world. That helps to explain why the U.K. has also been a more reliable and robust ally of America’s than almost all other European nations over the same period. Obama probably doesn’t approve of that either — and now he’s acting to make it less likely in future.
Even if we ignore these underlying political currents, the case against Obama’s megaphone diplomacy is a simple one. In pursuing their interests, nations should generally respect borders between domestic and foreign policy as much as those between countries. That does not require them to abandon pursuit of the national interest; it means only that they should pursue it diplomatically rather than through interventions in other people’s democratic elections.
It’s not difficult. Asked whether Britain should stay in the EU, a sensible U.S. president would reply: “That is a matter for the British people. They have been our close friend and ally in war and peace for more than one hundred years. We in America — and here I speak for both parties — will continue to be their good friends and allies whether the British people decide to stay in the European Union or to work with other European countries in a different relationship.”
And that would be the right reply whatever the actual policy of the U.S. government.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.