The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has totally stunned the world. Almost no experts saw this coming, and professional foreign policy watchers appear to be in a state of panic. Not because they blew the call, but because the Brexit seemed too scary to actually happen.
To understand why so many experts are now so anxious, I spoke to Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an expert on the global economic and political system. He explained that the UK's "Leave" decision totally upended the way the world is supposed to work — and potentially created avenues for real chaos.
"This, globally, is the equivalent of Trump getting the GOP nomination," Drezner told me. "Everyone thought the way the world works was a certain direction, or that there were certain rules of thumb. Those rules of thumb are now being thrown out the window."
And this, he argues, is very, very scary.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which covered Brexit’s impact on issues as diverse as the economic system and Russia. I’ve edited it for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: What makes you feel terrified about Brexit?
Dan Drezner: What makes me feel terrified is [the following]. You could argue that for a lot of the global economy, certain rules of the game are given. It’s been assumed for quite some time, for the past 70 years, that the global economy was moving in one direction, and that that one direction was toward greater openness.
That fundamental assumption you can no longer hold as true. And that’s what I think shocked people.
The history of the last 100 years has been pretty clear. The global economy has done pretty well when it's open, but when we’ve switched toward closure — take the interwar period — it has gone really badly.
What’s striking is the degree to which a large number of people have decided, "We don’t care. We don’t like the effects that globalization has on our identities, and therefore we don’t care about economic costs, or we don’t believe the arguments that it would lead toward disaster. We want to chart a different course."
The other thing I think is particularly unique to Brexit is that during this referendum, I don’t think you could point to a distinguished expert that could say Brexit would work out fine for the UK, or that it would be an economic gain.
All of the major institutions — public sector and private sector — all said this would not end well. And yet British voters still said, "We don’t care."
ZB: It’s not that they just said they didn't care, right? It was that the whole reason the UK voted to leave the EU was that global economic coordination, in the form of the EU and its open migration policy, were bad.
DD: I’d say it’s two things. The first is that economically there’s this notion of, "What has globalization actually gotten us, particularly since 2008? It’s gotten us a stagnant economy, and therefore I don’t buy your argument, Mr. Expert, that this is working for me."
The second one, which is more political, is [the EU is] making Great Britain less like Great Britain, because these weird other people are now migrating in. So what happened to the Great Britain that I remember from when I was growing up?
ZB: It’s this form of nationalism that we thought had been pretty well contained. Global institutions, like the EU, kind of operated on the assumption that hypernationalism wasn’t a dominant force in Western countries anymore. All of a sudden, that seems badly misplaced.
DD: The primary cleavage going forward now in a lot of advanced industrialized democracies is between those people who, regardless of party, think there is something to be gained from maintaining an open international economy and those who do not.
ZB: This isn’t just economic; it has implications for global security. The EU and the US have depended on a united front on a score of global challenges, most notably with Russia. What happens now?
DD: The technical term is clusterfuck.
The UK is obviously not leaving the European Union tomorrow, so in a lot of ways what people are freaking out about are things that on the security side will not happen anytime soon. But if I had to hazard a guess, there would be three things that come to mind.
The first is what happens to NATO? We’re already seeing movement for a Scottish referendum as a result of Brexit. I guarantee you if Scotland has a referendum, they’re going to vote to exit the UK this time. In 2014, we had all these debates about what a Scottish exit would mean for NATO. Now we’re going to have to have these debates again.
The second thing is sanctions. The US has gotten a great deal of leverage by employing economic sanctions with the EU toward Russia. The question is whether an independent England would be as receptive to these ideas. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that maybe they wouldn’t be as receptive. It was Great Britain that was the first to go against American wishes on joining AIIB [the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is led by China], and there’s a lot of Russian money in England, so we may see them deciding they have different interests on this.
The last point is if the US decides they want to intervene anywhere, one of the first go-to allies is the UK, because the UK has always been both willing and able to assist in those things. The notion that a UK short of the EU or an England short of Scotland is going to be able to muster up any kind of forces for an overseas operation is laughable to me.
ZB: Wait, pause for second — Britain will be soft on Russia? That’s terrifying. I thought Great Britain had been one of the more stalwart critics of Russia in the EU.
DD: I mean, yes. But if you remember when Russia originally entered Ukraine, the British were wary.
Among other [reasons], there is a lot of Russian money washing around London. It took the Malaysian flight shoot-down to make [Prime Minister David] Cameron buckle down.
I’m not saying that’s a guaranteed thing, but I can spin a scenario in which suddenly Britain sees itself as independent of both the EU and the US and being a convenient stopping point for both Chinese and Russian investment. Which means they would have slightly different perspectives on those countries than the US and the EU.
ZB: So what does the security situation on the continent look like then?
DD: The question is — what’s the impact of all this on the EU? And there are two ways that can go.
The first is that the UK exit will encourage a lot of other rejectionist forces to call for national referenda for exiting the EU. In that case, God knows what the hell happens in Europe. I would not be shocked to see more conflict on the Eastern European side.
On the other hand, there is a second way in which this plays out, which is the UK by exiting eliminates a sort of dissident voice in the EU, and as a result you see a growing degree of Franco-German cooperation, which has always been the traditional engine for tighter European integration.
ZB: So the hopeful spin is that it leads to something more like a European superstate?
DD: It’s possible, yes. In other words, this might force the remaining members of the EU to decide whether they stay or whether they go. It’s possible that some go, but it’s also possible that the core European countries decide, sure, let’s create a superstate.
ZB: So, either way, it seems like the most tectonic geopolitical development since ... well, when? 2008?
DD: I don't think this rises to the level of the 2008 financial crisis. But you can argue that the security effects of that event were more subtle. This is more explicit.
[Moreover,] what makes this unique is the uncertainty going forward. What you’ve got are risk analysts who did not see this coming. You saw the predictions, right?
In some ways, this, globally, is the equivalent of Trump getting the GOP nomination in the US. Everyone thought the way the world works was a certain direction, or that there were certain rules of thumb. Those rules of thumb are now being thrown out the window.
ZB: Do you have anything else you want to add?
DD: Eat at Arby’s.
Thanks to Caleb Lewis for assistance with transcription.