In an address to Parliament on Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose failed defense of Britain's place in the European Union doomed his political career, did not hide his disappointment.
"Mr. Speaker, the British people have voted to leave the European Union," Cameron said, referring to the narrow victory of the "leave" camp in Thursday's referendum. "It was not the result I wanted, nor the outcome that I believed is best for the country I love. But there can be no doubt about the result."
Everything else, though, is in doubt. Cameron's political obituaries have been written, but it's unclear who his successor will be and when that person will take charge. European leaders are pushing their British counterparts to speed the process of extracting themselves from the 28-member bloc. But British politicians, even the leaders of the "leave" camp, seem cautious about the way forward, while others are frantically searching for a way back.
How did it come to this? The past few days have had no shortage of hand-wringing and recriminations. The verdict of the referendum revealed widespread apathy and discontent with the European Union and a rupture between small-town England and Britain's cosmopolitan centers.
Former prime minister Tony Blair, a champion of European integration, lamented the power of the nationalist populism that spurred the "leave" campaign. "It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties," Blair wrote over the weekend. "What wasn’t clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can."
President Obama, who strongly sided with the pro-E.U. side in Britain, acknowledged the messy financial and political fallout from the British vote, and the fears of a fracture in European integration. But he predicted no lasting disruptions.
During an interview with NPR aired on Tuesday, Obama cautioned against "hysteria" in the wake of Britain's E.U. referendum. He said this could be a moment "when all of Europe says let's take a breath and let's figure out how do we maintain some of our national identities, how do we preserve the benefits of integration and how do we deal with some of the frustrations that our own voters are feeling."
Other diagnoses point to the deepening inequality brought on by globalization and the opening up of the world after the Cold War.
- Roger Cohen in the New York Times: "Technology accelerated globalization, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in Asia but also offshoring millions of European jobs. Societies disaggregated. For each City honcho receiving a daily Christmas delivery from Amazon Prime there was some poor sod out there in Nowheresville working a precarious warehouse nightshift packaging stuff. Britain, too, now has its 'flyover country,' a nationalist heartland distant from the metropolis. This is how globalization divides the world."
- Fareed Zakaria for CNN: "This is the new divide in the Western world. On the one hand, there will be those who view an open world — globalization and technological change — as broadly beneficial. But others regard these forces as threatening and destructive. The latter want to have protections of varying kinds — sovereignty, tariffs, and border controls, among others — to make their countries great again."
- Tony Karon in the National: "Voters in the advanced capitalist democracies appear more willing than ever to register a potentially catastrophic protest against a post-Cold War global economic order that has deified markets just as the fallen communist ideology deified the state."
Over at The Washington Post's Wonkblog, Matt O'Brien produced a fascinating chart that illustrated a global story. In rich nations, the wages of the working class have stagnated since the 1990s, even as costs of living have soared.
"This was a political powder keg," he writes. "If rich-world workers were losing ground even when times were good, what would happen if we got hit by one of the financial crises the new global economy seemed to spawn every few years?"
The recurring theme at the heart of the "leave" campaign was the primacy of the nation, the desperate need to reclaim sovereignty no matter the astronomical costs of sundering a pact with Europe.
"Brexit was the choice for Britain’s international engagement as a nation," hails The Post's conservative columnist George Will, who after parting ways with the Republican Party in the United States still managed to celebrate the success of the "leave" campaign. "The revival of nationhood is a prerequisite for the reinvigoration of self-government through reclaimed national sovereignty."
Donald Trump, the GOP's current standard-bearer and the source of much of Will's domestic disgruntlement, would happily cheer along with him.
"We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism," Trump said in a scripted foreign policy address earlier this year. "The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony."
The "false song" of globalization, in Trump's reckoning, brings with it the unpleasant strains of immigration and multiculturalism. The specter of the Syrian refugee crisis and an influx of Muslim migrants haunts all of Europe. It's a fear that plays to whole sections of Western society; indeed, anti-E.U. sentiment is as acute in countries such as France and the Netherlands, if not more so, as it is in Britain.
The European Union was built on idealism — that a continent shaped by centuries of war and hatred could stitch itself together into a peaceful, prosperous union. This makes sense in geopolitical terms, too: Europe's relatively small nation-states need each other to stay relevant in a world where China is now the biggest player in Africa and the United States has waning interest in being its Big Brother.
But the more "Europe" supplanted the nation, the more the E.U., in the minds of many, went from being the vehicle of Western progress to a bloodless bureaucracy of technocrats and apparatchiks, bent on control. The hostility to Brussels is pronounced even in Germany, the undisputed linchpin of the union.
“We must ask the question of whether so many decisions need to be taken in Brussels,” Günter Verheugen, a former E.U. commissioner from Germany, told my colleagues this week. “It’s simply too much. I don’t think this is what the people of Europe want.”
Stephen Walt, an academic known for his realist views, argues in Foreign Policy that "post-Cold War liberals underestimated the role of nationalism" in modern democracies.
"They assumed that such atavistic attachments would gradually die out, be confined to apolitical, cultural expressions, or be adroitly balanced and managed within well-designed democratic institutions," he writes. "But it turns out that many people in many places care more about national identities, historic enmities, territorial symbols, and traditional cultural values than they care about 'freedom' as liberals define it."
In other words, U.S. scholar Francis Fukuyama's popular post-Cold War thesis of an "end of history" -- "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government," as he put it — has collapsed. Instead, the politics of narrow nationalism, the appeal of nostalgia, and the resentments of a disenfranchised populace could scuttle the whole European Union.
To be sure, many were already making this point, including Fukuyama, almost a decade ago amid the havoc of the global financial crisis. He has spent the past few years writing about the dangers that increasing economic inequality poses for Western democracies.
“The gap between the fortunes of elites and those of the rest of the public has been growing for two generations, but only now is it coming to dominate national politics," Fukuyama wrote in Foreign Affairs last month. “Now that the elites have been shocked out of their smug complacency, the time has come for them to devise more workable solutions to the problems they can no longer deny or ignore."
After the referendum, it's hard to imagine what more of a shock the West's political classes need.
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