On June 23, the British people will commit to the second greatest decision that they have been asked to make in over one hundred years: whether or not to remain in the European Union. “Brexit,” (“British exit”) has the potential to turn the entire international system on its head, including the very political/economic definition of Europe as we know it and the “special” American relationship with Britain, going back to the nineteenth century.
The stakes are truly historic and rise much higher than any temporal or technocratic gains or losses in the short run and even long run. The real stake is strategic and could redefine the character of world politics in any foreseeable future and, at bottom, issues of war or peace. These issues, as well, go far beyond Europe and will affect Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, in their turn.
This has always been the case, as it was in the “first” great decision. This occurred in August 1914, when Britain decided to join France in the war against Germany, despite no legal commitment to do so. The background to this decision goes to 1904 when the two countries signed the Entente Cordiale, which divided the Middle East between them (especially Egypt and Morocco) but contained no obligation to fight in Europe. In the ensuing years, both nations’ militaries collaborated on theoretical defense plans against Germany, but when war broke out between France and Germany on August 3, Britain had to make a decision.
Just as now, the outcome was uncertain, and both the government and public were divided. In his war message to the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey appealed to British pride, profit, and patriotism in making the case. Citing British “interests … honour … [and] obligations,” Grey pointed to the possible domination of Europe by Germany, the defense of Belgian independence (a “straw man” at best) and, in deference to France, he rejected “unconditional neutrality … We cannot do that.” In a passage that has haunted Britain since, Grey dismissed the consequences that nobody could foresee: “We are going to suffer … terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. Foreign trade is going to stop.”
It was much more than foreign trade that stopped! It was the empire itself.
Years later, with nearly a million dead, a shattered empire, a Communist Russia, an isolated America, a politically paralyzed France, and a Nazi Germany, people would look back and wonder what it was “all about.” Grey himself had a premonition that something truly big was at stake. In drafting his message to Parliament, he noticed the lamplighter below dousing the streetlamps. Turning to his secretary, he uttered history’s most prophetic insight: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” But unbeknown to Viscount Grey, he was in the process of putting them out himself, and with consequences that not even he could have foreseen.
Unlike Britain’s upcoming decision, the Britain of 1914 went to war without either a referendum or full parliamentary participation. The ultimatum to Berlin was issued by the Foreign Office and came and went without any semblance of national debate. In the reflection on whether Europe was killed in 1914 or committed suicide, the answer remains academic. Either way, as a primary factor in world politics, Europe would soon be eclipsed by outside powers from North America and Eurasia. And that remains the case today, as Great Britain will go to the polls to determine if this long slide continues or ends.
For the supporters of Brexit, like Secretary of Justice Michael Gove, a British withdrawal from the EU will be a “galvanizing, liberating, empowering moment of patriotic renewal.” But both opponents and supporters are at least united on one point, and that is the importance of the vote. As Prime Minister David Cameron (an opponent) has said, the issue is “perhaps the most important decision the British people will have to take at the ballot box in our lifetimes.”
In terms of the international system and the momentum of history, any British rejection of the post-Cold War movement toward greater unity, “globalization,” will have enormous consequences toward a future “world order.” In his most recent book of the same name, Henry Kissinger posits a world order reminiscent of the “Westphalian” system that characterized Old Europe, leading to an order based upon a “concert” of free nations. Indeed, the rejection of the European Union by England might well be a profound restoration toward that order. The future may well hold a reverse movement away from unified nations into a system where geopolitics, culture, and sovereignty reign. On June 23rd, the stakes are high.