It’s official: Britain is done with Europe.
Prime Minister Theresa May has formally triggered the process for withdrawing from the European Union, ensuring that the United Kingdom, one of the largest and most prosperous countries in the EU, will soon leave the 28-member bloc.
While the process could drag on for two years or more, the Brexit decision serves as a historic and stinging rebuke to proponents of a unified Europe. Perhaps more importantly, it calls into question the very future of the EU.
Pro-Europe commentators, on both sides of the Atlantic, have argued that Brexit is a historical blip, a rash decision made by an uninformed electorate after a vicious and one-sided campaign. But to dismiss Britain’s decision as an anomaly is to ignore the facts. We may be witnessing the twilight of the multilateral era.
A not-so-perpetual peace
The history of civilization has been one of peoples coming together in larger and larger collectives — from villages to city-states, from city-states to nations and from nations to international organizations. Today, we live in an era typified by the proliferation of global bodies like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the European Union.
People have created these greater communities for a number of reasons, but the overriding one has always been the most basic: security. As German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1795 in his essay “Perpetual Peace,” the only means for nations to emerge from a state of constant war was to “give up their savage, lawless freedom… and, by accommodating themselves to the constraints of common law, establish a nation of peoples that (continually growing) will finally include all the people of the earth.”
The European Union is arguably the greatest example of this ideal. An organization forged from the desolation of two world wars, the EU brought the states of Europe together in a continent-wide commitment to cooperation and integration. Its ultimate aim was to draw nations together so closely that war would become unimaginable.
An impeccable aspiration, to be sure. But Britain’s vote last year to leave the EU illustrates the costs associated with that aspiration, and with multilateralism more generally. Governments have become increasingly detached from the people they govern. Local communities have surrendered control over an ever-growing array of matters to distant bureaucrats. And people increasingly perceive that their own groups and beliefs are under siege by outsiders.
This sentiment is not isolated to the United Kingdom. Disillusionment with multilateral agreements is widespread today. Just look at President Donald Trump.
During and after the presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly denounced America’s international agreements. The targets of his ire have ranged from free trade deals (think NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) to defense pacts (e.g., NATO) to environmental accords (see the Paris climate deal). In January, The New York Times even reported that the Trump administration was preparing an executive order entitled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations.” This rhetoric has struck a chord with many Americans who fear that international agreements have destroyed American industry and cost Americans jobs.
But to say that we are disillusioned with multilateralism does not provide an answer to the more difficult question: If not multilateralism, then what?
Going it alone
The answer, it appears, is aggressive unilateralism. Instead of working through multilateral institutions to solve their problems, countries are increasingly going it alone.
The United States, for example, has responded to the failure of international negotiations on a range of topics by imposing its domestic laws abroad. The U.S. forces foreign banks to abide by its financial regulations, foreign businesses to comply with its corruption laws and foreign producers to adopt its climate change-related emissions standards. All of these laws were made and enforced without international agreement.
In many ways, the rise of unilateralism may be a great boon for societies. The outpouring of activism and political engagement in the U.K. both before and after the Brexit vote signals a certain optimism about the ability of Britons to govern themselves. With any luck, this optimism will lead to a rejuvenation of democracy in the country, a welcome contrast to the deep cynicism more typical of politics today. Similarly, U.S. action to regulate foreign companies may help provide solutions to problems that have been stubbornly resistant to global agreement and treaty-making.
But the disillusionment with multilateralism also comes with a dark side. It is one thing when countries like the U.S. and Britain decide to start taking action in the face of stalled negotiations over climate change and corruption. It is another when countries with very different concepts of the rule of law and democratic processes start imposing their own rules, unilaterally, on American companies.
Multilateralism has been a great engine of peace over the course of human civilization, and we should tread carefully in rejecting it. As Kant warned, the alternative is for us to “find perpetual peace in the vast grave that swallows both atrocities and their perpetrators.”