This story was updated on November 16, 2018, at 10:15 a.m.
President Donald Trump commits outrage after outrage that no previous U.S. president has done before. But at the same time, he also omits to do things that every previous president has done or would do.
America’s close friend Great Britain has thrust itself into desperate trouble. In a tight referendum marred by aggressive disinformation and violations of campaign-finance law, the United Kingdom voted in the summer of 2016 to exit the European Union.
That vote triggered a negotiating process that yesterday reached its perverse but inevitable outcome. The U.K. and the EU have committed to negotiate a new trade accord. Pending that treaty—which could take many years—Britain will remain within many EU structures, subject to EU rules but lacking any voice in the making of those rules. Meanwhile, in order to avoid redrawing a hard boundary across the island of Ireland, the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom will face different rules from the rest of the United Kingdom. In other words, a vote to affirm the sovereignty of the British state has instead dissolved the unity of the British state.
Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled the agreement Wednesday. Since then:
- The British cabinet secretary in charge of the Brexit negotiations has resigned to protest the deal he was supposedly responsible for—the second resignation from that office this year. Three more junior cabinet officers have resigned as well.
- The value of the pound lurched and heaved, dropping 1.7 percent against the dollar at one point after the Brexit secretary’s resignation. The S&P 500 dropped 0.5 percent when trading opened in New York City on Thursday.
- The European Council president, the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, has described Brexit as a “lose-lose” proposition: bad for Britain, bad for Europe.
For support, May’s communications team rounded up tepid endorsements from business groups. Here’s the U.K. Federation of Small Businesses: “A deal is now on the table and it is important that the UK government and the EU press ahead as this is the best chance of avoiding a catastrophic cliff edge …”
Yet there is another loser, too, one not being mentioned nearly often enough: the United States of America.
American presidents have historically had their own view of the U.K.-EU relationship: They wanted Britain in Europe, both to expedite trade and commerce across the Channel and because they counted on Britain to veto anti-American actions by other European countries, especially France.
British governments tended to agree with the United States that the defense of Europe was a job for the U.S.-led NATO alliance—not for some autonomous European defense force. British governments usually opposed state ownership, efforts to build protectionist barriers around Europe, and other dirigiste industrial policies that ran counter to U.S. economic interests.
President Obama expressed America’s long-standing preference for U.K.-in-EU during an April 2016 visit to Britain, both at a joint press conference with then-Prime Minister David Cameron and in an op-ed in the Euroskeptical conservative newspaper The Telegraph: “The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the U.S. and the world need your outsized influence to continue—including within Europe.”
But by the spring of 2016, the U.S. presidential election was vigorously under way. The Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage dismissed Obama’s warnings of difficulties ahead as concealed anti-British animosity from a president more Kenyan than American. “Look, I know his family’s background,” he said. “Kenya. Colonialism. There is clearly something going on there. It’s just that you know people emerge from colonialism with different views of the British. Some thought that they were really rather benign and rather good, and others saw them as foreign invaders. Obama’s family come from that second school of thought and it hasn’t quite left him yet.” Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson concurred: Obama’s part-Kenyan heritage had biased him toward an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, expressed strongly pro-Brexit views. Many in Britain counted on Trump, should he win, to fast-track a U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement that would more than compensate for any economic shocks of EU exit. Some are still counting on it, long after they should have known better. Instead, Trump hit Britain, as well as other trade partners, with steel and aluminum tariffs in the summer of 2018—and then threatened a follow-on strike against autos, an important British export to the U.S.
Now the British are well and truly stuck. Under present EU rules, they cannot simply give up Brexit after having formally initiated the departure process. They would now legally have to apply for readmission to the European Union—and as a newly admitted state, they would theoretically be obliged to submit to the Euro currency and to the Schengen rules on free movement of labor. The pre-Brexit U.K. had been exempt from those rules.
But it’s not just Britain that is the loser. Brexit, along with Trump’s trade war, is jolting the world economy, frightening financial markets, and edging us all closer to the next global recession. Trump’s big deficit-financed tax cuts have pushed the U.S. into deficits as deep as those incurred to fight the Iraq War. The most powerful anti-recession stimulus available is freer trade.
A responsible American president would pull America’s friends back from this brink. For all the anguish, Brexit has not happened yet. Britain has filed formal notice of its intention to leap off the precipice, but its feet as yet still touch the ground. The EU authorities have accepted the notice, but paperwork does sometimes get postponed, revised, lost, or forgotten. By now, the U.K. and EU alike would likely welcome a face-saving compromise—one that spares the U.K. the humiliation of asking to be released from the exit process it triggered, and that protects the EU from the disruption of losing its most economically dynamic and militarily capable member state. The EU’s own rules offer no obvious off-ramp from the looming crunch—but American help and American pressure might possibly construct such an off-ramp just in time.
Maybe the solution is postponement followed by a second British referendum on the choice between the new renegotiated deal and the pre-2016 EU status quo.
To date, though, America has played no role, raised no voice. Trump has repeatedly welcomed Brexit. His national-security adviser has long advocated it. The rest of the administration is too paralyzed and dysfunctional to remonstrate against the president’s malign indifference, much less reverse it.
Why is America AWOL when Britain and Europe need America more than they have perhaps at any time since 1989? Who abdicated American leadership in a way that damages every U.S. strategic and economic interest, while also staining America’s long-standing image as a faithful and helpful ally? How did “America First” become code for “U.S. Friends Abandoned; U.S. Interests Betrayed”?
You know the answer—and it’s an answer that underscores that as lazy, inept, and frivolous as this administration appears from day to day, from year to year it is inflicting deeply serious harm that may never be healed.