On June 23, the United Kingdom shocked the world with its decision to exit the European Union. This result was termed “stunning” and “unexpected,” and the resulting uncertainty terrified investors, causing stocks to plummet and sending global markets into chaos. But while the outcome sent investors, politicians, journalists, and Facebook commenters alike into a frenzy, Brexit is not entirely surprising from a realist point of view. In fact, it serves as proof for some of realists’ most repeated dictums: institutions like the EU are actually quite fragile, while other forces, such as nationalism and the desire for autonomy, are ultimately more influential in state affairs.
Britain’s decision to exit the European Union is particularly upsetting to a world that has increasingly come to believe in the power of international institutions. Since the end of World War II, the world has become progressively more connected, and international organizations like the UN, the EU, NATO, the IMF and World Bank have arisen as integral components of global structure, order, and stability, persisting with remarkable resilience ever since. Neoliberal theorists have argued that institutions ensure cooperation between states through a shared commitment to rules, values, and norms, and that they have the ability to “lock” states into certain patterns of behavior. This allows states to trust the others in the institution, which in turn allows them to put aside their own interests for the greater shared aims of peace, cooperation, and stability.
This neoliberal point of view has undoubtedly become the dominant one in the Western world: today, the phrase “international relations” probably evokes images of delegates bustling around at some NATO summit or poised in rows in the UN General Assembly Hall. Alluding to the Western institutional order, former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stressed to the Gate the importance of the “defense architecture” built after World War II. Asked to describe his foreign policy approach, President Obama noted that he was “quite obviously” devoted to “strengthening multilateral organizations and international norms.” As further evidence, the EU and NATO have expanded eastward on the European continent, incorporating former Soviet states as still more seek membership.
Nonetheless, prominent neorealists have long argued that international institutions are ultimately not that influential. This is not to say that the international institutions are useless and can never facilitate cooperation, only that these institutions cannot actually force states to comply with international rules and to act contrary to their own interests. In other words, when push comes to shove, a state can—and will—do what it wants, so global institutions cannot guarantee cooperation and stability in all cases.
Despite major shifts in global power and state interests, the post-Second World War institutional framework has endured and expanded, and many have taken this fact as sufficient grounds to reject the realist view. However, Brexit suggests that we should not be so quick in that judgment. What Brexit has demonstrated is that institutions ultimately have no real coercive power, because it is entirely possible—and quite easy—for a state to simply pull out and walk away if it does not want to follow an institution’s rules. This undoubtedly comes as a blow to the neoliberal hopes that we have come to entertain: since the early days of the Cold War, the Western order has placed its trust in its liberal institutions, daring to believe that they might be the key to international accord and unity, the spread of democratic values, and perhaps the end of major conflict. After all, as German chancellor Angela Merkel put it, the European Union’s foundation was based on the “idea of peace.”
Brexit is so shocking and upsetting precisely because it suggests that institutions may indeed be as fragile as realists have warned. Indeed, the Polish foreign minister declared that Brexit showed “declining trust in the EU,” and Turkey’s prime minister tweeted that “the European Union’s disintegration has started.” With anti-European sentiment also increasing in countries like Greece, perhaps it was not all that dramatic for the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to warn that Britain’s departure could seriously threaten “Western political civilization.” After Brexit, the stability of the world as we know it is no longer guaranteed.
While the realist argument against liberal institutionalism is largely based on power politics, which did not really factor into the Brexit decision, realists have not been hesitant to acknowledge the significance of the force that Brexit did ultimately embody: nationalism. Nationalism has two components: first, the idea that people are divided into particular nations, based on things like a homeland, common culture, shared values, and a shared past, and second, the idea that each nation should have its own autonomous political state, with which it can make its own decisions and effectively enact its own destiny. Nationalism can be extremely powerful—after all, it is precisely what motivates soldiers to die for their country—as well as very dangerous. Often, a “nation” will cultivate jingoistic sentiment with narratives and myths that, in turn, foster feelings of superiority and entitlement in comparison to other nations and cultures. These attitudes can contribute to xenophobic tendencies, if not outright conflict.
Both components of nationalism are apparent in the Brexit decision. While the case to stay in the EU was based on economic self-interest, the case to leave was mainly centered around two other things: the desire to restrict immigration, and a greater desire to recapture Britain’s “lost place in the world.” The rhetoric of Britain’s “lost place in the world”—similar to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”—evokes not only the notion (or perhaps the myth) of a noble, shared past that has been tragically lost, but also of a right, even a duty, to reclaim it. Urban legends were circulated that claimed that different “aspect[s] of classically British culture”—double-decker buses, fish and chips—were imperiled . Of course, such claims were overblown, but they nonetheless served to subtly reinforce the idea that something special about British culture was in grave danger of being lost. As Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, explained, “There’s this feeling that we’re losing our cultural identity and our national identity at the same time that there’s this influx of people who are willing to work for low wages.” That is to say, an influx of non-British nationals is threatening to taint British culture. And this, of course, is inextricably tied to the second component of nationalism: that nations should have their own, sovereign political states. As Klaas put it, this is the idea that “Britain used to be able to do things without having to consult Brussels,” and it serves as the logic behind Brexiter and former London mayor Boris Johnson’s complaint that “the more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making.” Nor is it any coincidence that the kinds of highly charged decisions that many believe Britain should be able to make for itself include issues like immigration—which is effectively the ability to decide who is allowed to be part of the nation and take part in its culture. “Take back control”—the slogan for the Leave campaign—begs Britons to take charge of their unique British destiny.
Certainly, this does not mean that comparable movements will inevitably arise across the European continent and that a “Frexit” or “Auxit” will soon follow. Britain is undoubtedly a special case: physically removed from the rest of the continent, Britons sometimes refer to Europe as if it were a separate place. Britain in particular “never fully accepted the legitimacy of European control over British institutions in a way that other EU members did,” as illustrated by their eschewing the euro in favor of the pound.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that nationalism is an extremely powerful force in the world today. Despite a near consensus from economists that “leaving [the EU] would be disastrous for the British economy,” Britons prioritized full control over their immigration laws and signature double-decker buses; in short, their autonomy and culture. Yet as can be seen in the desire to close Britain’s borders to immigrants and refugees, nationalism is not only the patriotic waving of flags but a dangerous chauvinism all too often accompanied by extreme xenophobia and degradation of the “other.”
This is apparent in the hostility that has arisen toward immigrant communities in Britain since the referendum—to the point where the Polish embassy in Britain had to issue an apology (“We are shocked and deeply concerned by the recent incidents of xenophobic abuse directed against the Polish community and other UK residents of migrant heritage”) after a Polish family had its home set on fire and was sent a note that read, “Go back to your home country.” While this may be an extreme case, clearly the nation’s “rising antagonism against immigration” is creating a dangerous environment for immigrants and foreigners. And given that similar concerns over immigration also exist in other European countries which have struggled to deal with the high influx of refugees pouring in over the last year, it is not entirely surprising to see increasing evidence of anti-immigrant sentiment and a desire for greater autonomy in countries beyond Britain. The Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders declared that if “[the Dutch] want to survive as a nation, we have to stop immigration and stop Islamization,” and that such a feat cannot be achieved “inside the European Union.” France is another prominent example: still reeling from the effects of the attacks in Paris last November, it has long struggled to integrate Muslim immigrants into French society. Polls suggest that only 38 percent of French citizens today hold a favorable view of the European Union, as opposed to 69 percent in 2004.
In sum, Brexit has demonstrated that the power of nationalism must not be underestimated while the power of international institutions must not be overestimated. Since the end of World War II, the West has increasingly come to put its trust in international institutions, hoping to cultivate a world in which globalization, interconnectedness, shared values, and a collective desire for peace could preclude global conflict. These institutions withstood the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, giving many further confidence in the indefinite stability of the liberal Western order. Yet Brexit provides reason to suspect, as realists do, that this order is ultimately not sustainable: not only did Britain walk out of the European Union with relative ease, but neither side in the Brexit campaign even defended the European Union as a “meaningful or admirable institution.” Meanwhile, in spite of predictions of economic calamity, nationalism prevailed. The prospect of European integration had little appeal compared to the prospect of autonomy.
While the rest of the European countries may not immediately follow Britain’s lead and international institutions will undoubtedly continue to be of great importance for years to come, their foundations have been shaken. Although the institutional order has done us well thus far, we can no longer blindly put our trust in it. Britain has demonstrated how easy it would be to piece it apart at any given moment: as long as nationalism reigns, institutions can guarantee very little. And we should never underestimate the power—and the dangers—of nationalism. Double-decker buses may not quite spur the downfall of Western political civilization, but Brexit gives us enough reason to be suspicious of the resilience of the international order into which we have come to put our hope and trust.
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