Politics & Policy

Brexit and the End of International Progressive Inevitability

(Korinoxe/Dreamstime)
Whose side is history on now?

I’m old enough to remember when history had a side. History, you see, had chosen to progress toward an international order that de-emphasized international sovereignty, elevated a bureaucratic and technocratic elite, and sought to solve international conflict through a combination of moral and economic pressure. Nations caused wars, so nationalism (and even patriotism) had to be set aside. Democracy unleashed bigotry, so “the people” mattered mainly when they agreed with the elite.  

It was a system that worked remarkably well for the international upper class. Men and women dedicated to commerce enjoyed unprecedented access to international markets. Activists dedicated to social justice could engineer their societies without ever truly facing the accountability of the ballot box. The logic of the system was self-proving. It would triumph through the sheer force of its virtue.

Unable to grasp the extent to which the new international order had endured and prospered not so much through its self-evident goodness but through the protection of American arms, it proved completely incapable of meeting the challenge when America chose to retreat. Vladimir Putin wanted no part of a system that sidelined Russia and viewed it as just one more economic and bureaucratic entity in a global superstate and decided to exert raw power to shape the world. He put boots on the ground in Crimea, and he dared the world to move him. He exerted his will in Syria, and he dared the world to stop him.

In response, John Kerry actually said, “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” It’s a comment that would be hilarious if it weren’t so impotent. Putin did as he liked, and “history” had nothing to say about it.

EDITORIAL: Reflections on the Shock of Brexit

At the same time, ISIS emerged — reminding a world that had already largely forgotten 9/11 what jihad looked like. To men who believed in divine favor for holy war, the new international order meant opportunity. European countries compete for the title of “moral superpower,” while ISIS merely calls them “targets.” It confronted a civilized world that had vowed “never again” with a new genocide, and that civilized world — possessing immense military power — largely chose ”compassion” over confrontation, opening its borders to floods of refugees whose ranks contain those who despise European culture, subvert European values, and rape and kill European citizens.

Is it any wonder that citizens of one of the greatest and strongest nations in human history would recoil from an international order that was proving mainly that it could enrich an elite without seeming to lift a finger to preserve the nation’s core values and traditions — the very things that had made it great and strong? Is it any wonder that citizens of other great countries are —wondering what loyalty they owe to that same elite? 

#related#And so we launch yet another phase in human history, where what’s old — nations pursuing their own interests — is new again. On one end of the European continent sits Russia, a nation that is flexing its muscles and seeking to reclaim its traditional power. On the other end is Britain, a nation that has reclaimed its independence and now faces an uncertain future defining its new relationship with the world. 

Across the ocean, America faces its own crisis. Our technocratic elite has constructed its own self-serving system — one that mirrors the very system that Britain rejected yesterday. Our politics are more uncertain and chaotic than at any time in decades. We can’t predict what will happen. But one thing I do know — history never truly had a “side.” Instead, it is the story of action and reaction, and no outcome is inevitable. 

Britain has acted. The world is set to change, and history can’t tell us what’s next. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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