Foreign Policy

(This diary is in large part a distillation of a more extensive article published in the Guardian (UK) (8/4/19) ‘Something resembling hell’: how does the rest of the world view the UK?)

Brexit is shaping up to be one of the most monumentally stupid, self-inflicted injuries a country has ever perpetrated on itself. Even at the 11th hour, as it has become apparent that there will be no new deal with the EU, Boris Johnson and his blinkered band of nationalists are prepared to wager the UK’s future on a dream of Albion that hasn’t existed in over 100 years.

It is a self-delusion grounded in a myth of a long-lost empire that ruled vast swathes of land populated by unarmed, poor and uneducated masses. Britain controlled the seas and claimed dominion over 25% of the Earth’s land area. It doesn’t anymore. And the territories of the defunct Empire are now home to striving middle-classes, creating fabulous wealth while reaching to grasp the future.

The British misplaced sense of its importance has engendered sorrow, laughter, schadenfreude, and pity from Europeans and others further abroad. Here are the observations a few journalists.

In China, the Brexit fiasco has turned the young into nationalists, who see democracy as an inferior form of government. As Liu Ye, editor of international affairs at Sanlian Life Magazine in Beijing writes:

“The US and Britain have been cultural symbols in Chinese people’s eyes: the US powerful, rich, enviable; the UK exquisite, elegant. Public intellectuals, especially liberals, talk about the British style of constitutionalism, comparing it to our Soviet-style totalitarian regime. Students know more about Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher than JFK or Bill Clinton. That is real ‘soft power’.

But now this image has collapsed.”

In France, Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director, and contributor, Le Monde offers this:

“Once, we used to hold up British parliamentary life as an example, and watch prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons with envy: for us, accustomed to semi-monarchical presidents of the Republic, this was the very Rolls-Royce of liberal democracy. Now that Rolls-Royce looks more like a dodgem.”

In Germany, Khuê Pham of Zeit magazine puts to rest The UK’s image of itself as Cool Britannia:

Britain’s soft power has already started to diminish. Caught up in Brexit, the UK government doesn’t have the bandwidth to play a role in European politics any more. I think the German public has started to lose interest in the latest details of the negotiations – they used to think of Britain as being very cool, now it’s seen as a big mess.

In Japan, Nobuyuki Suzuki of the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper comments on the ruination of the UK’s reputation for sobriety 

“The Japanese have always seen Britain as a gentle, stable country, but that has changed, first because of Brexit and now because of the rise of Boris Johnson.”

In India, Mihir Sharma, author, Bloomberg columnist, and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi also reflects on the asininity of the new PM. 

“Britain’s reputation for common sense and pragmatism has been severely damaged by Brexit. I doubt it will survive a Boris Johnson premiership.”

From South Africa, Khadija Patel, editor-in-chief, the Mail & Guardian newspaper, Johannesburg, writes of the reaction a former colony to the stupidity of an erstwhile colonizer:

“There’s a gleefulness in watching the British realise the ineptitude of their own politicians”

In Russia, the powers that be see Boris Johnson as a temporary blot. As Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief, Echo of Moscow radio station, reports

Unfortunately, the view of Boris Johnson in the leadership is quite negative. They don’t think he is serious. They think he’s a clown. And second, they think he has little support in his party and his country. So he’s temporary… we’ll wait for the new leader.

From Brazil, Fernanda Mena, columnist, Folha de São Paulo, reflected on the inability of even an educated public to see they were being lied to.

“And as Brazilians we know that Brits in general are better educated than us. So it was quite shocking to see people being driven by lies to vote for Brexit – and betraying all those principles of multiculturalism, liberalism and free markets.”

Finally, in the US, Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter, Vox comments on the obvious similarities between the politics in the UK and US for the last three years. And ends with a sobering thought:

“If the comparisons between Trump and Brexit seemed straightforward – the rise of populism and rightwing nationalism; the distrust of institutions and the “elite” – it became clear the events connected in deeper, murkier ways. Misinformation became a feature of both the referendum and the presidential campaign: the UK had the Brexit bus, the US had (well, still has) Trump’s twitter feed. Fake news was amplified on social media.

Johnson’s ascension to prime minister feels a bit like we still don’t get it, that all the forces that made Trump and Brexit possible have only hardened in the three years since. Johnson, Americans know, is the guy that sold Brexit, and Brexit really has not gone well. But his party, at least, is buying into his vision, even doubling down on it. It puts a knot in our stomach about 2020.”

The British — more specifically the English — have a sense of their place in the world that is at odds with the facts. The UK is still the world’s fifth-largest country by GDP, but it is way behind the US and China. It represents only 15% of the EU’s economic output. Its GDP is smaller than California’s. And it will soon be behind France and India.

But cracks have appeared in this overly rosy self-assessment. The EU will not renegotiate. Boris Johnson’s pipe-dream of maintaining existing trade terms with the EU by invoking GATT 25 paragraph 5b is hokum. That strategy is disallowed in paragraph 5c. And the plan of creating an English speaking trade arrangement with the US relies on the constancy of Trump. A fool’s bet at best. 

It is dawning on even some of the most pro-Brexit proponents that the best Britain can achieve with a no-deal Brexit is something along the lines of a ‘Singapore on the Thames’. A lowly status indeed — even if it were achievable.  

Is there enough sense left in the old place to call the whole thing off?  


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