In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany when it invaded Belgium. The Kaiser, like Napoleon, had hoped that Britain would remain neutral.
In 1939, together with France, Britain declared war on Hitler the day after he invaded Poland. At that time the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany and the United States remained neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What will now be needed is for the EU and the United Kingdom to work together on all major foreign-policy issues in the years to come. That will not be difficult if the will is there. Britain as a nuclear weapons state, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it has the largest European defense budget in NATO, which is crucial to Europe’s ability to show its strength and purpose.
The UK, of course, will not sit on the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU after May 2019. It will no longer be able to block the EU from deciding on a foreign policy or security initiative that France and Germany have agreed upon. But on the big issues such as Russia sanctions, policy towards Saudi Arabia, or how to deal with China, France and Germany will want to maximize Europe’s influence on the United States, on the UN Security Council, and on the wider international community.
Striving for a common European foreign and security policy is one area where the UK has not been the awkward partner. Britain, France and Germany have a shared view on the Iran Nuclear agreement, on the need to support Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia, on opposition to the American transfer of their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, on climate change and in support of a rules-based order.
What, therefore, will be needed is a EU+1 on major issues, which is necessary to maximize Europe’s influence over the rest of the world. There is the precedent of the P5+1 when Germany was invited to join the permanent members of the Security Council in order to put maximum pressure on Iran. The desirability of some arrangement of this sort is not seriously disputed in Paris or Berlin.
Dare I say it, there should be a cautious response to predictions that British influence will plummet as a result of Brexit. When Britain was defeated by the United States in the American War of Independence the Austrian Emperor, in 1783, remarked that “England has descended forever to the rank of a second-rate power like Sweden and Denmark.” That prediction was a little premature and turned out to be the fate of the Emperor’s own country rather than of the United Kingdom.
The implications of Brexit are only one element of the challenges that the United States and the West now face.
In the aftermath of the Cold War many believed that liberal democracy had triumphed over both communism and other forms of dictatorship.
That remains true to a considerable degree. Communism is dead and buried even if China and one or two others still claim allegiance. All of Europe is democratic apart from Russia and Belarus. So, too, is North America and all of Latin America apart from Cuba and Venezuela. India, soon to overtake China in population, is a stable democracy that has been joined in recent years by Indonesia and most of the Far East from South Korea to Malaysia. Even Africa now has a significant number of states with governments that change peacefully, by the ballot box.
Where we were mistaken, however, was in believing that liberal democracy is a single phenomenon. It is not. Hong Kong, as a British colony, enjoyed liberal values and the rule of law but had little democracy. What we are now seeing is that countries can become, or can remain, democratic while diluting or damaging their liberal values. That is what seems to be happening in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines and elsewhere. It is what some people fear could happen, to some degree, in the United States or in Italy. It is what Putin would relish.
The core of liberal values, apart from democratic elections, are the rule of law and respect for the rights of minorities.
We have seen multiple democratic governments, with a mandate from the majority of the electorate, using that legitimacy to damage the independence of judges, to reduce the power of constitutional courts, and to justify diminishing the rights of minorities—either migrants, refugees, or citizens deemed to be critics or opponents of those in power.
Immature democracies, not just dictatorships, sometimes find it difficult, or inconvenient, to respect the equal rights of those who voted against them. Britain must be unique in having, over two centuries ago, designated the government’s main political opponents as Her Majesty’s Opposition in recognition of its legitimate role. In Northern Ireland it was recognition that the Ulster Catholics were a permanent minority who could never win a majority in Northern Ireland that led to institutionalized power-sharing as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. So “majority rule” cannot be used as a justification for the disregard or persecution of the interests of minorities.
Today there are two fundamental threats to the United States, and to the West as a whole. They are the threat to democracy as a system of government and the threat to liberal values. But these two threats are different. The threat to democracy is external. It comes from Russia and China. The threat to liberal values is internal. It comes from within our own countries.
The threat to democracy is not as serious as sometimes suggested. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and its ideology were a real threat to the democratic world. Communism was a global ideology that had its believers and adherents in every country. The Kremlin controlled half of Europe. Central and Eastern European nations were satellites of Moscow, which controlled their social and economic systems as well as their foreign policy.
Today, Russia and China may be self-proclaimed enemies of democracy but neither country has an alternative ideology or set of beliefs that can appeal to the rest of the world.
Putin’s greatest failure has been in modernizing the Russian economy. Russia’s geographical size and military capability make it a formidable opponent, but it is offering little to the world as a whole other than petroleum, arms sales and military support to threatened dictators. Tsar Alexander II once remarked that Russia had only two friends, its Army and its Navy. Today it has been suggested that Russia has only two friends, its oil and its gas.
Putin is a real threat to Ukraine and Georgia, and a potential threat to the Baltic states. He is meddling in the internal affairs of many European countries. But he will fail as long as the West is united and the United States provides unambiguous support to NATO.
China is a more serious challenge because of its economic growth and transformation. It aspires to offer a model of government to Asia, Africa and Latin America based on its own form of state capitalism combined with one party dictatorship.
But, in truth, it is because China has a population of more than a billion that we have become aware of its achievements. China’s economic success, while impressive, has been no greater than that of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or other Asian countries that achieved similar economic growth years ago. Indeed, China’s achievements remain significantly less than its Asia neighbors who have shown that one can combine prosperity with genuine democratic systems of government. They are more attractive role models for developing countries to follow than is China.
Some see China not only as a new superpower, which it is, but one that aspires to one day replace the United States as the dominant world power. Already China has become the most powerful state in the Far East.
But global supremacy will be near impossible for China to achieve. The world has changed fundamentally since the British Empire covered a quarter of the world or since the United States achieved its own global power after 1945.
The British Empire only happened because the Industrial Revolution gave Britain unprecedented economic and naval strength. That led to Britain gaining control over weak, poor, undeveloped countries unable to resist it during the nineteenth century. The United States then replaced Britain; its extraordinary dominance occurred in the twentieth century, after 1945, with a Europe and wider world devastated by World War II.
In contrast, today, all of China’s Asian neighbors are modern, successful states. While they cannot individually compete with China, they are slowly forming new alliances to check Chinese ambition. Thus, India and Japan have joint naval exercises and communist Vietnam is getting closer to the United States than it is to China. India, South East Asia and Japan will balance China’s strength—especially if the United States remains fully committed to the region.
Finally, I turn to the internal threat that we face and that should not be underestimated. Both in the United States and in other democracies there are those who resent the subordination of presidents, prime ministers and government officials to the rule of law.