The stunning British vote to leave the European Union has roiled foreign and economic ministers and central bankers across Europe and the United States. The political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic are finally beginning to get the message. For too long, their policies have failed to provide either shared prosperity or security. For too long, they have ignored the many who are struggling while catering to the few who are thriving. The British vote should force fundamental reassessments in the E.U. and the United States — of austerity, of rule by technocrats, of immigration policy, and of economic and foreign policies.
With its allies in NATO, the United States should join in this reassessment, with a particular focus on the dangerous descent toward a new Cold War with Russia that has received shamefully little attention. William Perry, defense secretary under President Bill Clinton and a scientist with a lifelong expertise in nuclear deterrence, warns that “today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated dangerously in the past few years. The dominant Western media and establishment narrative has treated Russia as the sole aggressor, while failing to account for the E.U. and NATO members’ role in the crisis in Ukraine and worsening relations.
In the past few years, the United States and its NATO allies have imposed sanctions on Russia, deployed anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and Romania, dramatically augmented land, air and sea forces, and expanded military exercises on Russia’s borders. (The Anakonda-2016 “exercise” conducted this month in Poland involved more than 30,000 soldiers, most from NATO countries.)
Not surprisingly, Russia has responded by reinforcing its forces along its Western borders, including more nuclear-capable missiles — increasing the risk of accident, miscalculation and escalation. Meanwhile, E.U. members France and Germany have either failed or refused to move the Ukrainian government to live up to its agreements under the tenuous Minsk accords, which were designed to bring about a negotiated end to the civil war. If Ukraine has any chance of recovery, assistance from Russia and the West will be needed.
The United States has largely spurned cooperation with Russia to try to take out the Islamic State in Syria, even while continuing to arm insurgents to overthrow Russia’s Syrian ally. Calls by Hillary Clinton and others for escalation in Syria or enforcement of a “no fly zone” could lead to direct confrontation with Russia. The increasing tempo of exercises on the Russian border is seen as prelude to a larger permanent presence. No such hostile forces have amassed so near Russia’s Western borders — now from the Baltics to the Black Sea — since World War II. The NATO meetings in Warsaw next month are slated to ratify this increasingly hostile and dangerous posture.
The roots of this escalating tension and military buildup come from the U.S. decision to expand NATO to Russia’s very borders after the end of the Soviet Union. Instead of building a zone of peace that would acknowledge Russian security concerns, the United States pushed to incorporate former Soviet satellites into NATO, even including newly independent states such as Georgia and Ukraine that were historically part of Russia and the Soviet Union. George Kennan, one of the fabled post-World War II “Wise Men” and author of the famous X Article, which formed the basis of the Cold War “containment” strategy, warned prophetically in 1996 that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory would be a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”
The Brexit vote — which, if nothing else, will force the European Union and Great Britain to focus more on their internal challenges — may help trigger a fundamental reassessment of this course. Already France and Italy are chafing at the costs of the sanctions imposed on Russia. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has labeled the recent NATO exercises on the Russian border as “saber rattling and war-mongering.” The United States and NATO countries have compelling reasons to try to cooperate with Russia: to coordinate efforts to take out the Islamic State, to help negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war, to restart progress on loose nukes, to halt nuclear proliferation and to advocate nuclear disarmament.
A serious reassessment could revive discussions of building a zone of peace on Russia’s borders. After all, as British scholar Richard Sakwa said , “The EU has failed in the biggest challenge of our era, to create an inclusive peace order from Lisbon to Vladivostok. . . . A divided continent, with a new ‘Berlin’ wall being built from Narva in the Baltics to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov, can hardly be considered a success of the EU.” It might begin with E.U. pressure to sustain the Minsk accords and exploration of a broader settlement for a non-aligned Ukraine — one inside the E.U. but precluded from membership in NATO. It could build on the Iranian agreement to expand cooperative efforts with Russia to bring the Syrian civil war to a negotiated settlement, helping to relieve pressure on Europe from the tens of millions tragically displaced in that calamity. The reassessment could be grounded in the necessary recognition that other powerful nations do have zones of security, and that neither NATO nor the United States has the charter or the resources to police the world.
Commentary about the Brexit vote has focused largely on its potentially destructive economic consequences to Britain and the E.U., and on the ignorance and supposed second thoughts of “leave” voters. Foreign policy commentary has sounded the dangers that Brexit might weaken NATO or strengthen Russia’s role in a divided Europe. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the people’s vote forced the E.U. to lighten its destructive austerity, gave impetus to a negotiated settlement in Syria and led NATO to reconsider its increasingly reckless posture toward Russia? If that happened, the voters in Britain, unknowingly or not, will have done a great service.