Is Brexit the End of the Postwar Era?


Most people with any sense of history know that the European Union came into existence as a consequence of the desire of Europeans to prevent a recurrence of the disputes and national rivalries that had led to the two great world wars, as well as to present a united front against the new threat to Europe, the Soviet Union.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, several countries of Eastern Europe joined the EU, eventually expanding the membership to 28 countries.  It is now 27 countries—and possibly on countdown, as other countries, exasperated by the lack of democracy and the failures of the EU governing classes, contemplate following the UK’s lead.

A faulty system will be tolerated so long as people believe that it is preferable to any other likely system; the EU has been tolerated largely because it was seen as preferable to the many wars that European nations had engaged in previously.  But the last great war ended seventy-one years ago; very few people who lived through that war are still alive and memory of it and its long aftermath of reconstruction and national reorganization is largely relegated, for most living Europeans, to history books.  This may be especially true for the British, whose island continues to keep it somewhat apart from events on the Continent.  The threat of Russia under Putin is one too close to, say, Poland and Germany, but a bit far for the UK.

Of course, the United States has not been a disinterested observer of the EU (as suggested by Obama’s remarks when he visited the UK earlier this year).  Having fought with the Allies in both World Wars, having financed the rebuilding of Western Europe through the Marshal Plan, and having been the prime mover behind NATO, one can argue that the US is as much a part of the EU as it would be if it were an actual member.  One might even argue that the EU is a continuation of empire by means other than outright warfare—perhaps we could even call the European project the “imperial project.”  Napoleon tried to unify Europe under the banner of France; the Austro-Hungarian Empire experienced some success in unifying parts of central and eastern Europe; and Prussia unified the disparate German states into Germany.  The rise of nation states themselves out of the motley assortment of duchies, kingdoms, free cities, and spheres of influence into the distinct nations we know today—France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, etc.—was itself a long imperial project (each of these examples was initially united under a national king who had defeated his feudal aristocratic competitors).  And of course, we know the efforts of the Nazis to impose a unified Europe by brutal force under the swastika flag.

One might say, then, that the EU is a bureaucratic rather than a military empire.  Almost by definition, empire attempts to unify national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious “tribes” under one government, but its Achilles’ heel, it’s genetic defect, is the persistence of those tribes despite the efforts of the imperium to eliminate their differences.  It happened to the Roman Empire, which was disassembled by the very tribes which it had incorporated into its borders.  It also happened to the British Empire, once the most extensive the world has ever seen but which now is reduced to the islands of Great Britain and a small part of Ireland—and which may be further reduced if Scotland and Wales, both long ago (but not forgotten) bloodily defeated and humiliated by the English.

The United States, too, has been an empire-that-will-not-speak-its-name (although the Founders were not chary in using the term when describing their continental ambitions).  We have seen in the last few decades a diminution in the global power and influence of the US as various historic threats have been removed, making others including Europe less reliant on our power, and previously backward countries have risen to the world stage, providing alternate centers of power for client states to orient to.  Our zenith of power was in the decades immediately following the end of WW2, but also for us with the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” memory of that triumph has faded, perhaps disastrously so.

So while it cannot yet be definitively confirmed, it does seem that the frustrations and resentments that built up to the Brexit vote could be a signal that the postwar era has come to an end.  If so, then the next question becomes:  Can globalization continue as planned and hoped for by the corporate, digital and government elites, or will tribalism and nationalism reassert themselves?  Will Europe (and the world) revert to its pre-WW1 national conflicts and warlike imperialist ambitions, or will it and the world evolve a totally new type of organization, one that no one has seen before or can as yet predict?  Or will things like global warming make all hope moot?

Stay tuned.

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