WASHINGTON – Britain’s decision to quit the European Union could send damaging shockwaves through the bedrock Anglo-American “special relationship,” raising questions about London’s willingness and ability to back U.S.-led efforts in global crises ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine.
The loss of the strongest pro-U.S. voice within the 28-nation bloc, as a result of the “Brexit” referendum, threatens to weaken Washington’s influence in European policymaking and embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to further challenge the West, analysts and former diplomats say.
The British referendum on Thursday, widely seen as reflecting an increasingly nationalistic and inward-looking public, also risks the splintering of the United Kingdom itself, which could further reduce its role and stature in world affairs.
Britain’s departure — which is not immediate and must be negotiated with the EU — could present the next U.S. president with a decision on whether to turn to other key European partners like Germany and France, essentially downgrading a special U.S. bond with London forged in World War Two.
Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said Britain’s ability to press its views and policy preferences with its European allies and within NATO, where it provided strong political backing to the United States, will be diminished.
“You clearly have a much weaker Britain whose sway in European capitals is lessened by the vote,” Daalder said. As a result, he said, the United States likely will have to work harder to maintain trans-Atlantic and European unity.
Anything that divides Europe, he added, “is a win for Russia because that has been a policy of Putin and of Russia.”
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “This is certain to encourage the Russians to continue and probably intensify their campaign of supporting far-right nationalist movements in Western and Eastern Europe as part of their effort to neuter NATO.”
Phil Gordon, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, expressed concern that Europe will become inwardly focused on Britain’s departure and independence movements on the continent, leaving the United States to shoulder more of the international burden.
“The more time it spends on doing that, the more resources it spends on coping with the consequences of that, the less time and money and political capital it is going to have to help us with global challenges,” he said.
The administration of President Barack Obama was rattled by the stunning turn of events, including turmoil in world financial markets and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s subsequent resignation announcement.
British officials sought to reassure their U.S. counterparts that Brexit would not portend a withdrawal from world affairs, a U.S. official said. Some of those officials may not survive the change of leadership or further British political upheavals that could be spurred by the vote.
REBUKE TO OBAMA
While Obama insisted on Friday that Britain would remain an “indispensable partner,” the outcome of the referendum delivered a clear rebuke to the U.S. president, who made an unusually strong intervention into British politics against “Brexit” during a visit to London in April.
Britain’s vote to leave the EU threatens not only Obama’s security efforts across the globe but the U.S. economic recovery and the international trade agenda he is pursuing in his final seven months in office.
A similar mix of U.S. populist anger and anti-establishment sentiment has fueled the rise of Donald Trump as presumptive Republican nominee in the November U.S. presidential election.
“The drivers of Brexit are the same as the drivers of nationalist movements in western Europe and the U.S.,” Clifford Young, President of Ipsos Public Affairs in the United States, told Reuters.
Cameron has cooperated closely with Obama in the security sphere. Britain has been a major military player in U.S.-led campaigns against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, an active ally on the ground in Afghanistan and a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine’s separatist conflict.