1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Brexit: Slap in the face for US foreign policy

Michael KniggeJune 24, 2016

The US has always staunchly advocated Britain's EU membership. That's why Brexit supporters who thought that Britain's leaving the EU wouldn't affect - or could improve - ties with the US are in for a negative surprise.

Brittische und Amerikanische Flagge
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Leal-Olivias

Friday was not a good day for the much touted, but steadily loosening, "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain. Coined by Winston Churchill 70 years ago, the term highlighted the unique ties between the countries. The special bond endured through World War II and the ensuing Cold War and only started showing real signs of strain during the Iraq War. Since then the relationship between the US and UK has remained cool, but both partners have still shared a common philosophy and outlook on key political and economic issues.

But the decision by British voters to exit the European Union has dealt a serious blow to the special ties between Washington and London. A strong and united Europe is a central pillar of US foreign policy. Britain, acting as a kind of natural proxy, always played a crucial role in ensuring European unity and representing common UK-US interests and ideas vis-a-vis the continental Europeans. With Britain leaving the EU, this indirect but important leverage and influence will be gone.

"From that point of view, it's really a historic defeat of American foreign policy," said John Harper, professor of US foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna. "It's quite a historic moment in a negative sense for American foreign policy."

Contrary to what many Brexit supporters may believe, the UK's exit from the EU will make it less important for the US in both political and economic terms. Economically London will now have to negotiate its own new trade agreements with Washington - a prospect that many in the US have warned will not necessarily be a priority for administrations busy with more pressing affairs.

Großbritanien Barack Obama
Obama came out in favor of British EU membershipImage: Getty Images/WPA Pool/B. Stanstall

"Britain will have to get in line and won't be at the front of the line when it comes to negotiating new tariffs and trade deals," said James Davis, dean of the School of Economics and Political Science at St. Gallen University in Switzerland.

As far as economic issues are concerned, Davis said, the US is going "to focus first and foremost on relations with the EU. It's a huge market that still dominates trade in a way that a market of 60 million Britons will not."

Brexit voters who thought that their country could get a better deal economically from the US by going it alone than as an EU member are mistaken, Harper said: "The Americans have said clearly, 'Don't expect any favors from us.'"

Germany gains clout

When and if the United States is ready to hammer out new trade agreements with Britain, it will not be a partnership among equals like US-EU trade deals, but between a big player and a small one. "If the people who have voted for Brexit expected that their economic conditions are going to improve, I am afraid they are in for a disappointment," Harper said.

Britain's political clout with the US, which has already suffered from London's decision to stay on the sidelines of many key EU issues, will only decrease following the decision to leave. With Britain out of the EU, it can no longer play its traditional role as a trans-Atlantic voice on the continent. As a consequence, Washington will focus its efforts even more than it has already on the only powerful ally still standing in the EU: Germany.

"I think the US is going to look at Angela Merkel as their only real partner in the EU today," Davis said. "The efforts of France and others on the southern tier to turn the EU into a more protectionist market towards the rest of the world can only be counterbalanced if you have a strong counterweight in Berlin. So I think for the US Angela Merkel becomes even more important."

Churchill und Eisenhower 1952 Grosvenor
Special relationship at its peak with Churchill and Eisenhower in 1952Image: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Second fiddle

As Germany will on political and economic issues, NATO will gain in stature for Washington when it comes to security and military matters. Britain, however, will have to get used to playing second fiddle to the European Union in Washington.

After the Brexit the United States will concentrate its political energy not on holding the UK's hand, but on preventing what it now considers the biggest challenge for US foreign policy in Europe: the potential unraveling of the EU should other countries follow Britain's example.

"That is the real nightmare for the United States," Harper said.