National Security & Defense

Brexit, Democracy, and Peace

Flags at the NATO Alliance headquarters in Brussels. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
History tells us that a strong sense of national identity can help preserve peace and liberty.

Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union last week has some predicting the end of the post-war order in Europe: Not only will the growth of the EU stall, it will begin to reverse when others follow the British example; Europe will lack the political will and military resources to confront the growing threats in Russia and the Middle East; Already weakened by the fecklessness of the Obama years, the United States will come under even greater strain in defending the Free World and maintaining a liberal global order.

These predictions are wrong. They confuse causes for consequences and consequences for causes. They operate under a profound misunderstanding of the peace in Europe, perhaps the greatest of America’s post-war achievements.

Europe’s peace produced prosperity, not the other way around. It was not the EU or its earlier iterations that ended more than four centuries of internecine European wars. Peace came not from free trade or a coalescing super-state, but from a coalition of strong, democratic nations, led by the United States. Together they created and sustained the most powerful military alliance in history, NATO.

Robust, democratic nation-states do not threaten the peace and prosperity of Europe. On the contrary, Europe depends on them, as it depended on them when NATO was founded. And that is precisely why the outcome of the Brexit vote is not a threat to Europe’s long peace.


What the Brexit Vote Meant

The Brexit vote was a vote for the sovereignty of an elected parliament, for a government that is accountable and responsive to its citizens, and for an independent, democratic nation. It was a vote against an undemocratic, supra-national structure that grew indifferent to the needs, interests, and wishes of those it governs. The EU has the outer form of a government — a flag, an anthem, a parliament, courts, a kind of executive, a large regulatory bureaucracy, even a rudimentary military. But the EU is more of a zombie-democracy than the real thing. The people of the EU do not rule through it; rather, it administers them. And the British people recognized that fact.

So why do some fear that Brexit sets Europe on the path to war? There are two main arguments that try to defend the EU project by claiming it prevents war: the first is economic, the second is political.

The EU is more of a zombie-democracy than the real thing. The people of the EU do not rule through it; rather, it administers them.

First, the economic argument. Free and open trade between nations can create interdependencies between nations. As nations follow the law of comparative advantage, they will exchange their need to produce everything for the choice to make what is most efficient. There is a respectable argument that economic interdependence can, and does, promote peace. (There is also a respectable argument to the contrary.) This is partly because trade interdependencies can create powerful constituencies in favor of peace. Interest groups will pressure their governments against destroying business relationships, while prosperity will make consumers less bellicose.

On this theory (which we have simplified here), free trade should promote peace. Many of the most important and far-sighted architects of the post-war world, such as Henry Stimson (who served as secretary of state and later, in a different administration, as secretary of war) firmly believed in “peace through trade.” And many still do.   

It is safe to say, however, that the creation of a bloc of states that trade freely with one another, that permit their citizens to move about freely within the bloc, and that permit capital to flow across borders without restriction, need not always bring about peace. World War I, after all, broke out among highly interdependent European nations; the level of world trade did not reach 1914 levels again until the 1990s. And even if the members of the bloc are tightly integrated politically as well as economically, the result is not necessarily peace.

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The perfect example of that is the United States itself. Our Founders conceived of the United States as a vast free-trade zone, stretching down the length of the Atlantic seaboard and reaching, in time, past the Mississippi. The Constitution transformed what had been a loose and decentralized association of distinct states — barely more than an alliance — into a union of federated states. It insured the free circulation of capital, labor, goods, and services throughout this Union. The Constitution prohibited the states from imposing customs or tariffs on goods imported from other states. The privileges-and-immunities clause of the Constitution enabled citizens of one state to live and work in another state.

Not only was the new American union an economic one, it was also political. A union-wide national government was created to handle the common affairs of the states, including defense, foreign trade, and diplomacy. And that national government was empowered, in the areas in which it was sovereign, to override the separate states.

The Founders intended to prevent war between the states and promote common prosperity. They failed. Within 80 years of origin of the union, it fell apart in a bitter and prolonged armed conflict. Free trade did not prevent the Civil War, nor did close political integration. If the original American union could not prevent war among its member states, then there is no guarantee that the EU could.

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The second main argument linking the EU to peace is political. It views nationalism as an inherently irrational, divisive, and destructive force that leads to war, as shown by the First and Second World Wars. It claims that the EU suppresses and defuses nationalism by melting down national distinctions, preventing conflicts over territories and borders, and demonstrating the futility of aggression and conquest.

But this argument is also flawed. Its analysis of the relationship of nationalism to war is mistaken. Large multi-national empires did not maintain Europe’s peace. In 1914, four great European empires — Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire — brought on war. President Woodrow Wilson believed that their very multi-national character, especially Austria’s, could not satisfy the demands of many of its national minorities, including Czechs and Serbs. To avoid that outcome, Austria, in a desperate throw of the dice, attempted to crush Serbia, which plunged the rest of Europe into war. It was not nationalism, but rather last-ditch resistance to it, that provoked the First World War.

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Europe’s experience in the Second World War shows that a vivid sense of historic national identity can protect, not threaten, liberty and democracy. Strong nationalist leaders such as De Gaulle and Churchill led their peoples to victory over Nazism. On the other hand, Stalin’s Soviet Union — a government both ideologically committed to internationalism and hostile to the nationalism of its own minority populations — made the war possible by its willing cooperation with the Nazis.

Both remote and recent European history show that where governments attempt to suppress legitimate expressions of popular nationalism, they may be planting the seeds of murderous ethnic conflicts. The multi-national Ottoman Empire fell prey to just such ethnic conflict, culminating in the Armenian genocide. So, too, did the former Yugoslavia — a multi-ethnic state that, from the end of the Second World War until the 1990s, was governed under the “internationalist” principles of Communism.


Toward a Post-National Identity?

We doubt that the EU project will succeed in creating a common European identity that will supplant historic national identities. During the tense negotiations over the refinancing of Greece’s debt, German and Finnish voters gave priority to the well-being and interests of their own nations. It might be true that younger Europeans tend to dismiss national boundaries within the EU as meaningless. But it is more plausible to attribute their attitude to a globalizing popular culture, to the greater ease of international travel, and to the revolution in digital communications, than to the efforts to form a post-national “European” identity and consciousness.

EU leaders are surely making their task vastly more complicated by their immigration and asylum policies. Already in recent decades, EU nations — France, Germany, and Holland among them — have found it difficult to absorb, assimilate, and acculturate immigrant populations from the non-European world. The introduction of hundreds of thousands Syrians into Germany, however laudable it may be from a humanitarian point of view — and however much it might relieve Germany’s shortage of younger workers — surely does not make the “Europeanization” of the continent any simpler.


What Produced Europe’s Long Peace?

What produced Europe’s long post-war peace? If that peace is not explained by either the prosperity or the transformation of consciousness produced by the EU (and its precursors), to what is it due?

Obviously, several factors have played an important role, including the still-vivid memories of the death and destruction wrought by the two world wars. But the primary cause and guarantor of peace has been NATO, the great post-war military alliance founded in 1949, and more generally the protective military and nuclear shield provided by the U.S. That peace in turn established the conditions in which the Western European economies — aided by the U.S. Marshall Plan — could recover and embark on decades of sustained growth.

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NATO depends on the proudly independent nations that form the alliance and on the vitality of their democracies. Historic national identity has made the U.S., Britain, France, and other NATO allies able to defend Europe. Outside threats, arguably including Russia once again, have not been deterred by the EU, but by NATO.

Even defenders of the current EU project must concede that the attractiveness of the EU’s model has been damaged by recent events that reveal a dysfunctional, undemocratic institution. The list of recent EU failures is lengthy. Massive unemployment persists in several EU member states, with young people hit the hardest. The EU appears incapable of jump-starting growth; indeed, EU policies may be retarding it. It has failed to provide the truly inclusive kind of growth that reaches down to the less affluent, less educated, and less skilled. Even if a rising tide of affluence has lifted some boats, a good many have remained beached.


What Does the Future Hold?

There is nothing sacrosanct about the current structure of the EU. It should have remained focused on expanding and deepening a free-trade zone, rather than replacing national governments with a new international institution. Several of these new features, such as the common currency and unified borders, are failing. Other EU members could experience such profound dissatisfaction with the EU that they will choose to exit. Italy and Spain might follow Britain’s lead, and there are calls to vote on exit even in EU stalwarts such as Holland.

The EU’s ruling class might try taking a hard line with Britain over the terms of its withdrawal, hoping to terrify other member states from leaving. But surely it would be wiser for the EU to adopt a more accommodating and flexible course. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s wrong-headed refusal to make reasonable concessions to British prime minister David Cameron undercut his arguments for remaining in the EU and may have provided the margin of victory for the pro-Brexit forces. If there are structural features of the EU that are causing massive popular dissatisfaction in many member states, the answer is not to double down. The answer is to change them.

#related#Even if the EU chooses to take a hard line with Britain, Brexit gives the United States an unprecedented opportunity. The next president should invite Britain to join NAFTA. Britain would make an excellent partner. It has unique and inestimable assets: a globally used language, a world-class financial-services sector, an educated and entrepreneurial population, superb universities, and much besides. Best of all, it has a deeply rooted tradition of national sovereignty and a freshly renewed democracy.

The qualities most needed in the post-Brexit world are courage and imagination. Existing institutions and practices such as the EU have failed or are failing. The answer is not to try, out of fear and desperation, to prop them up. The answer is to learn from their failure and to create something better. Brexit has not put peace and prosperity at risk. It has opened up possibilities for renewal.

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