Will the Brexit Verdict Inspire American Isolationists?

Demonstrators flash the peace sign during an anti-NATO protest march in Chicago on May 20, 2012. Stewart M. Patrick writes that Brexit will reignite simmering domestic debates over how to balance the defense of U.S. sovereignty with the imperative of international cooperation. Eric Thayer/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The shocking victory of the "Leave" campaign in Thursday's referendum was a massive repudiation of the elite-driven European project and a testament to the enduring pull of national sovereignty in an age of global anxiety.

It is a momentous decision that will reverberate well beyond the British Isles. Besides posing an immediate, existential crisis for the European Union and the United Kingdom itself, the outcome will embolden skeptics of international institutions and multilateral cooperation in the United States.

For the European Union, the referendum is a wake-up call that may have come too late. For decades, the EU has suffered from a dramatic deficit of democracy, as well as of loyalty.

Throughout the continent, "Brussels" has long been shorthand for officious, unaccountable Eurocrats meddling in everything from fisheries to the proper shape of bananas.

In an effort to close this deficit, the EU and its predecessors created several new institutions, most notably the European Parliament, headquartered in Strasbourg, France. But the EP lacks real power, and voter turnout in its elections is dismal. The EU—too often distant, opaque and unresponsive—commands little allegiance among its 500 million inhabitants.

These dynamics have been especially corrosive in Great Britain. The U.K. joined the EU party late (in 1973), after centuries of splendid isolation and imperial grandeur. And it has always been the EU's "awkward partner."

The British have enjoyed perks of the common market, as well as visa-free travel to holiday in Malaga, but their primary allegiance has and always will be to the nation. Their leaders have reinforced public cynicism, repeatedly using the EU as a scapegoat while promising, in the manner of (soon-to-be former) Prime Minister David Cameron, to "fix" it.

The British vote bodes ill for the EU's future. For decades the bloc's leaders have seized on the crisis of the day to deepen integration, arguing that the only solution was "more Europe." That dynamic has run its course.

The EU is mired in an ungainly halfway house between a confederation of sovereign states and a federal, even supranational, union. National governments retain many of their powers but delegate others, such as immigration and human rights policies, to the center.

That scenario might endure in a smaller grouping of the original six—Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries. But it is clearly unsustainable in the contemporary EU, a continent-spanning behemoth encompassing 28 member states.

The EU's dramatic, post–Cold War enlargement made eminent economic and geopolitical sense. But a more heterogeneous bloc is also a far more unwieldy one, as divergent national interests and political cultures complicate agreement on common policies.

These shortcomings have been on dramatic display in recent years, as the EU has flailed in formulating joint responses to the eurozone crisis and the flood of refugees to its shores.

For the first time in its history, the EU faces a real prospect of unraveling. Great Britain will not be the last country to hold such a referendum, or to demand major adjustments in its relations with Brussels. (Already, Marine Le Pen of France's National Front has insisted on a similar vote.)

For the bloc to survive, the continent's elected leaders must heed the will of the people and renegotiate political bargains among EU institutions, member states and citizens. The most likely outcome will be a "multi-speed" Europe that allows member states and their citizens greater flexibility to opt in or opt out of particular arrangements and initiatives.

For some, this may mean more Europe, for others less. Regardless, the accent must be on accountability and transparency.

Great Britain, meanwhile, may be in for a rude surprise of its own. In an ironic outcome, Brexit may cause the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself.

The Scottish National Party, which lost a hard-fought referendum on independence for Scotland in 2014, will surely insist that another vote be held promptly on that same question. And given that Scots voted overwhelmingly to "Remain" on Thursday, their English brethren will have no grounds to deny them the exercise of their own popular sovereignty as an independent nation.

Britain's choice, finally, will reverberate in the United States. While most commentators have focused on potential global economic turmoil, given London's prominence in financial markets, the political implications for U.S. global leadership may be profound.

"Brexit" will surely reignite simmering domestic debates over how to balance the defense of U.S. national sovereignty with the imperative of international cooperation.

On the one hand, we live in an era of global challenges—from climate change to transnational terrorism, from pandemic disease to financial turbulence—that no nation can manage on its own. On the other, conservative nationalists like John Bolton regularly warn us that global institutions like the United Nations, or proposed treaties like the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, place unacceptable restrictions on our national sovereignty.

Those voices will get louder in the wake of Brexit, which Donald Trump himself hailed as the wise and brave decision of Britons to "take back their independence."

Americans should resist the siren song of unilateralism—and recognize how different pragmatic U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions is from British membership in the European Union.

In April, President Obama implored British voters not to quit the EU. In response, Boris Johnson, the charismatic former mayor of London and champion of the Leave campaign, called Obama "hypocritical" for lecturing Brits "about giving up our sovereignty" when Americans wouldn't even sign up to the International Criminal Court.

Johnson's riposte was weak on decorum but strong on substance: The United States has always been determined to defend the supreme authority of the Constitution and the popular will of the American people. It has never subordinated itself to supranational structures—and it likely never will.

But sovereignty has two other dimensions besides authority. The first is autonomy, or the freedom to make policy decisions independently. The second is control, notably over the nation's destiny.

The dilemma is that autonomy and control often work at cross-purposes in managing globalization. To get what it wants—whether reducing carbon emissions to expanding trade—the United States must often make commitments, enter into treaties or support multilateral organizations. These arrangements can sometimes constrain its options, but they also promise the United States greater control over outcomes that it could never achieve on its own.

Britain's Brexit reminds us of the pull of national sovereignty and the imperative of democratic accountability in institutions of governance, whether at the domestic or global level.

But we should also remember that no nation, even Britain, is truly an island.

Stewart M. Patrick is senior fellow and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.