Brexit and the End of Europe's Golden Age
Britain's vote to secede from the European Union poses a greater existential threat to NATO than any foreign military. In leaving, the United Kingdom has accelerated the political disintegration of Europe and threatened to rob NATO of the prosperous European economy it relies upon. Consequently, NATO must fully transition to a new role it has only just discovered: that of a politico-economic confederation, not just a defensive organization.
A quarter of a century has passed since the West watched the Soviet Union fall. NATO has searched in the intervening years for a suitable enemy, blundering about the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It has made mistakes; wasting resources, manpower, and political capital through mired conflict. The greatest mistake made by NATO so far, however, was keeping silent during Britain's debate to leave Europe. The United Kingdom's vote to secede holds profound implications for the existence of both the European Union and NATO. Because of its silence, NATO now faces two imminent realities: international independence movements and economic recession throughout Europe. If NATO is to survive, it must publicly advocate for European integration.
British secession will destroy the spirit of cooperation so crucial to both Europe's and NATO's stability. When 72.2% of British citizens went to the polls and 51.9% of those voting chose to leave, the United Kingdom set a legal precedent for the political disintegration of the European community. Within twenty-four hours of the verdict, a front-runner candidate for Dutch Prime Minister, Geert Wilders, called for an EU independence referendum in the Netherlands. Leading French Presidential Candidate Marine le Pen of the National Front hailed the result as "victory for liberty" and called for a referendum in France. The leader of the Italian anti-establishment Five Star movement—which won nineteen of the twenty municipal elections in 2016—called for an independence referendum in Italy. As populism gains traction in Europe, the political will to cooperate with neighbors with vastly different demographics and histories will wane. European militaries that have stood down since the end of the Second World War will look more guardedly at their neighbors; already, relations between Britain and Spain have soured over a piece of land two miles wide. On the same day the United Kingdom voted to secede from the European Union, Spain called on its citizens to raise "the Spanish flag on the Rock [of Gibraltar]." Britain responded by deploying a warship to Gibraltar armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles. NATO's charter charges the organization with monitoring threats and reacting to crises—yet, confronted now with an era of increased conflict between European nations made possible by European separatism, it has done neither. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has kept silent during this time of crisis, issuing just one brief statement on the eve of the referendum whose result now poses so great a threat to European unity and peace: that a "strong" UK would be "good." Few Britons probably recalled those ambiguous words as they elected to secede.
The consequences of NATO's silence on the British referendum not only threaten the diplomatic and political stability of Europe, but also that of Europe's economy. If the French, Dutch, and Italian independence referendums are successful, the European Union will consist solely of Germany and the nations it subsidizes. Lacking the political will to cooperate will their neighbors, nations will close their borders. Tariffs will rise. The flow of goods and people will dry up. Economic recession will overtake Europe in a manner not seen since the Second World War. In a world already economically depressed, no Marshall Plan will appear on the horizon. The bulk of NATO's costs are funded by its members according to a cost-sharing principle derived from each nation's Gross National Income. If Europe is to fall into recession, member states' abilities to fund their own defense—let alone that of the entire Alliance—will weaken. Without funds, NATO will be rendered powerless. Swathes of Europe will fall into economic recession, and those that remain prosperous through luck and industry will lack the force of arms to protect themselves from larger foreign powers.
Thus, NATO cannot let the European Union fail. Their existences are inseparable from one another. NATO is only viable if Europe is prosperous and at peace; Europe can only remain prosperous and at peace if its Union persists. If the EU falls, so will NATO. To prevent such a disaster, NATO should establish regional offices from which it can conduct high-profile, low-cost publicity stunts. From these offices, NATO should repair roads, potholes, bridges, and dams. It should fund community organizations, schools, and parks. It should conduct a war of public relations to win the hearts and minds of Europe's populists—convincing them that there is far more to gain from remaining integrated with the international system than there is from leaving it. NATO must also make frequent public statements supporting European integration. Armed in one hand with gifts and in the other a political agenda, NATO will be able to bring stability to Europe. The United States—which holds a vested interest in the preservation of the world—could appropriate funds from its Foreign Aid programs to finance these public relations initiatives. As the US gives foreign aid to 96% of the world's countries, a few dollars could certainly be retooled to build some roads and prevent the collapse of the international system.
Skeptics may claim that NATO's status as a military organization should preclude it from interfering in the politics of its members. What they fail to recognize is that a civilian statesman heads NATO's administration, and in February 2016 it began a humanitarian mission in the Aegean Sea. As NATO begins to more resemble a political confederation and less a defensive one, to call it a mere military entity would be to ignore some of its most important functions. With a crumbling EU and a powerless UN, no other organization can bring stability to Europe. NATO has made the mistake of silence in the face of crisis. The time has long passed for it to find a voice.
William Remsen is a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He studies international relations.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
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