Why Brexit Should Inspire More Breakups

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A demonstrator stands in his trailer at Indy Camp, a pro-independence camp near the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on April 1. The organizers of the camp say they will remain there until Scottish independence has been achieved, and call for a second referendum on Scottish independence in the wake of Brexit. Danny Lawson/PA/AP

Brexit voters probably don't realize it, but they've set in motion a brilliant strategy for nations in this ultra-connected, software-eats-everything era.

The U.K. should break into pieces. England should tell Scotland and Northern Ireland to sod off, and London might as well secede from the rest of the country. And next, the U.S. should capitalize on the rancor stirred up in this presidential election to split itself into about seven affiliated countries.

The result would be an enormous competitive advantage that would leave Russia and China, weighed down by their giant land masses and industrial-age ambitions, stuck on the hind end of history.

Say what now?

Look around at the business world. Big companies with lots of different interests tend to struggle when small, focused digital companies invade their market space. Scale used to be a competitive weapon. It's increasingly becoming irrelevant, if not a drag. Procter & Gamble can't squash the Honest Company. Marriott can't react to Airbnb. Even a young company like Google realized it was getting too unwieldy and split itself into smaller self-governing entities under the Alphabet umbrella.

Geopolitics doesn't always work like business, yet certain truths apply to both—truths made unequivocal by new technologies and their impact. "Connectivity"—technologies and policies that encourage as much networking as possible—wins. Agility wins. The most valuable resources are data, talent and networks. Even oil and gas, the most empowering natural resources of the past 100 years, are losing their mojo. In another decade, electric cars and cheap solar panels will make oil wells as desirable as asbestos mines.

This new era for nations is detailed in a book that's getting a lot of attention in influential circles: Connectography, by Parag Khanna. Using a hailstorm of facts and data, Khanna makes the case that connectivity will determine winners and losers in geopolitics. And this connectivity will unleash a yin and yang of forces that Khanna calls devolution and aggregation.

"Devolution is the perpetual fragmentation of territory into ever more (and smaller) units of authority, from empires to nations, nations to provinces, and provinces to cities," Khanna writes. "Devolution is the ultimate expression of the tribal, local and parochial desire to control one's geography." Brexit was a vote for devolution. Scotland's apparent desire to break from the U.K. is devolution, as is London Mayor Sadiq Khan's reaction to the Brexit vote: "I am demanding more autonomy for the capital right now…to protect our jobs, wealth and prosperity."

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The Texas and Confederate flags fly from a cart as revelers gather along the Boulevard of the Republic at the Republic of Texas Biker Rally in Austin, Texas June 13, 2015. Reuters

Big nations have become too complex, with too many competing interests, to govern. Connectivity drives that too—it tends to bind like-minded people together in an echo chamber and emphasize their differences with outsiders. So Congress doesn't work but city governments generally do. Democracy doesn't produce gridlock—complexity does. "Self-determination is a sign not of backward tribalism but of mature evolution," writes Khanna. "Remember that territorial nations are not our 'natural' unit; people and societies are."

So the natural force now is for nations to break apart. But if that's the yin, here's the yang: Success for devolved nations means aggressively connecting with the rest of the planet. Nations need to create networks and ecosystems, just as successful people and companies do. "The connected world thus has an ironic rallying cry: The more borders, the better," Khanna writes. "Devolution-aggregation is how the world comes together by falling apart."

That means that if England turns xenophobic and gets both smaller and—by shutting down trade and borders—less connected, it will shrivel. Self-determination, yes. Anti-connectivity or anti-globalization, no. Smaller and more connected is the winning formula.

The European Union has to change too. Its roots go back to the 1950s, long before connectivity mattered. Today, the EU is probably too much a governing body with too much bureaucracy, trying to manage great complexity. In an ultra-networked world, the EU needs to be a lightweight umbrella that helps bring together member nations and takes care of governing grunt work that devolved small countries don't want to do. Basically, the EU needs to be an Alphabet that frees up its Google and Nest and Verily to each go its own way.

In the U.S., maybe the rancor in the current presidential campaign is a sign of the tension of trying to keep a nation together that really wants to devolve. Look at the red vs. blue map. Politically, the U.S. is clearly at least two different countries. Economically and culturally, say Khanna and other academics, it's probably seven: West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Southwest, Plains states, Gulf Coast, South, Midwest, Northeast.

This seems crazy to consider, but in the long arc of history, connectivity might be driving the "United States" to also become less of a government and more of a platform and networking hub serving the devolved pieces. Just as the Brexit vote seems to be setting devolution in motion in the U.K., a Donald Trump victory in November could stir up secessionist movements in the U.S. Connectivity suggests that it might be the right impulse.

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The "Yes California" movement wants the state to secede from the union and set up its own nation with individual states. Seung Lee/Newsweek

Devolution and aggregation could also ease the sense of economic gloom felt by the kinds of people who back Brexit or Trump. When more decisions "are taken at the level at which the economy actually works," writes Ben Harrison of the Centre for Cities, government "can play a vital part in improving the life chances of people in those places."

What about maintaining the wherewithal to wage war and balance out other powers? That's still an important role for a big, rich nation like the U.S., say some of the political experts I've talked to about this. Yet, as documented in books like Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, war and violence are on a steep historical decline. The world's great security problem these days is terrorism, and terrorism is a cellular threat that might be better addressed by more cellular nations.

And the threat of a country like Russia? "Russia is the largest country in the world but by far the least connected of major economies," Khanna writes. As oil and gas become less relevant, "Russia's influence beyond its so-called near abroad of former Soviet republics will continue to fade."

Brexit could still be a disaster. Leaving the EU and closing borders would be the opposite of connectivity. Then again, if the vote splinters the U.K. into more governable units, most of those pieces (Scotland, Northern Ireland, London) would likely stay in the EU and increase connectivity. And if the Brexit vote forces the EU to become more like an Alphabet, what now seems like bollocks might turn out to be smashing.

Why Brexit Should Inspire More Breakups