The immediate and long-term impact on the United Kingdom remains an open question, but it is abundantly clear, even in these early days, that Brexit has effectively weakened the transatlantic alliance.
The ‘special relationship’ between the United States and UK will remain strong regardless of London’s actual relationship with Brussels, but its break from EU institutions deprives Washington of an ally with whom it shares many economic and security interests at the European table.
Germany will also face a difficult reality as it has never been comfortable taking a leadership role in Europe. Though it has reluctantly assumed that mantle recently on the migration crisis and on imposing Russian sanctions, its default orientation favours multilateralism.
The UK has served as an effective counterweight in the EU during the post-WWII era, not only for those European nations still wary of a dominant Germany, but for a Germany hesitant to go it alone. The change in power dynamics in Europe will have a knock-on effect that has the potential to undermine the predictability of Euro-American policy choices.
The consequences of a weakened transatlantic alliance can already be seen in Russia’s increasingly provocative behaviour in Ukraine, the Baltics and in Syria. The western response to Russian aggression has been remarkably united, but intra-EU resentment has surfaced due to the uneven economic sacrifices among the US and member states under the current sanctions regime.
The United States has always been in the enviable position of being able to aggressively push for increasingly stringent sanctions with very little economic risk due to its relatively meagre commercial links with Russia.
By contrast, European nations have varying degrees of interconnectedness with the Russian economy, and those differences have sparked a serious debate on the utility and equity of continued sanctions. Moscow has overtly and covertly attempted to undermine European unity, and Brexit has handed Russia an alternate catalyst for doing so.
From the geopolitical to the geo-economic, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) may become another unintended casualty of Brexit.
At the outset of negotiations, the United States was intent on reaching a comprehensive agreement with the EU and its market of over 500 million consumers. It was touted as an effort to establish the gold standard of trade agreements that would shape global rules and regulations for generations to come. And though TTIP is being negotiated by the European Commission, the economic heft of the UK gave negotiators additional leverage vis-à-vis the US.
Its absence from the agreement will likely change the calculus for American negotiators who may now feel emboldened to offer fewer concessions. The economic blowback could be severe.
In the void resulting from an abandoned transatlantic agreement, the global trading system will be left with two less appetizing alternatives: an ineffective multi-lateral trading system through the WTO, or a new race to the bottom through Chinese-led initiatives.
We are in the midst of a period of extreme geopolitical volatility, and a key anchor of the international system – the transatlantic alliance – is beginning to untether. Though Brexit was a decision by the British people, its effects will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
In order to reverse this trend, leaders in Washington, London and European capitals need to redouble their efforts to ensure that no daylight exists between them. That includes advancing TTIP despite the political hurdles; preserving sanctions until Moscow reverts to the status quo ante in Ukraine, and establishing a robust tri-lateral relationship among the United States, Germany and the UK to ensure European stability.
There are those who predict significant benefits for the UK following its separation from the EU in the years ahead. While that may ultimately come to fruition, the adverse impact caused by Brexit on the transatlantic relationship is undeniable today.
The question now is whether policymakers will take steps to contain the fallout, or whether we’ll be recovering from the inevitable blowback for decades to come.
Measurement and evaluation