The Future of Europe? Bummer...

Many words could have been used to describe the transformative events following the UK’s historic and unprecedented decision to leave the European Union. Asked over the weekend about the exchange between President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday following the results of this seminal event and his resignation, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the President described the outcome as a “bummer.”

The loss of $3 trillion in global market value over the course of two days is indeed a bummer. As for the complete lack of political clarity from both London and Brussels about how the “exit dialogue” will be conducted? Ditto.

President Obama too has also weighed in and has assumed a more British attitude than the British themselves at the moment: “… so I don't anticipate that there is going to be major cataclysmic changes as a consequence of this. Keep in mind that Norway is not a member of the European Union but Norway is one of our closest allies. … [if] Europe, Great Britain ends up being affiliated to Europe like Norway is, the average person is not going to notice a big change."

Nothing to see here folks except a 64 million person super-sized Norway (population 5 million). Surely there are better ways to describe this particular moment in time.

Looking to history for insight, this moment has August 1914-esque qualities to it. As the outbreak of the First World War began, European countries assumed certain responses and reactions by other nations. Those assumptions were false. Fatefully, the outbreak of the First World War had a too meticulously crafted German war plan – the Schlieffen plan—which automatized the response. In the 21st century, the stock and currency markets, with their algorithms and global interdependence, automatizes a shock not anticipated. Speed – like the Schlieffen plan—is again a key factor in deciding the future fate of Europe. There was the conventional view in 1914 of a quick resolution— “the boys will be home by Christmas” —as there is now an assumption that clarity and conclusion will be reached within two years. The United Kingdom wants to slow down its exit; Europe wants to hasten it. A final lesson from a century ago is that punishing aggrieved parties sows a future seed of discontent. British and European leaders clearly do not have a plan.

Washington’s response to this historic decision has been to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to London and Brussels. What government is he consulting in London? Who exactly speaks for Brussels at the moment (hint: German Chancellor Angela Merkel)?

Secretary Kerry has practically lived in Europe for a good portion of his tenure as he has gone back and forth between Vienna (Iran nuclear talks) and Paris (Syrian peace talks and occasionally discussions regarding Ukraine). But Mr. Kerry has not spent much time on Europe itself.

To be fair, over the past decade Washington has generally given very little thought to Europe. Europe was placed squarely in the “done column.” Wealthy, advanced democracies don’t need American policy attention, they simply need to follow U.S. leadership (unless this leadership assumes that Europe should lead and the United States will follow). If a crisis begins to threaten the U.S. interests, surely a presidential phone call or a visit by the Treasury Secretary with a friendly but firm “fix it” message will resolve any unpleasantness quickly. Mr. Kerry’s visit to Europe this week summarizes the U.S. “too little, too late” approach.

We have reached the end of the post-World War II era. Like then, Europe is exhausted but in the 21st Century, the United States is no longer a significant factor. European leaders had assumed that there was only one historic trajectory and that was only one of “more Europe.” The UK referendum was an attempt to achieve clarity over an uneasy 43-year-old relationship with Europe, but it was also a rejection of globalization and its by-products of immigration, technological and economic disruption, and supra-national forces which have left many feeling left behind and without control over their future. The UK referendum has completely shattered this assumption by demanding much less despite the fact that the UK had effectively opted out of most European integrative efforts. Yet it still was not enough.

Today, European leaders speak of a new Europe rather than more Europe. Unfortunately, these leaders only know “more” after 60 years of practice and “new” is simply a different way to express “more.” But “more” has been rejected by democratic choice.

Perhaps the markets and the ensuing political chaos in London will be so unkind to the UK that the outcome of the referendum will be a sufficient cautionary tale to prevent other EU members from rethinking their own relationship with the EU. Or perhaps the turmoil gives euro-skeptic voices incentive to take political advantage. Just as we did not know the results of the referendum, no one knows the path that lies ahead for Europe.

It is for these reasons that, as we enter this new era that will shape a “new Europe,” we urgently need a new American diplomacy toward Europe. As we near the 70th anniversary of the Marshal Plan, when big and bold American ideas were pursued, the United States has forgotten its vocation as a European power which has a unique role to play.

Europe is unable to forge a new path alone which requires the United States to engage thoroughly in building this new Europe. Although the growth of special envoys has become a particular brand of U.S. blight upon effective modern diplomacy, this is one instance where a senior U.S. diplomat, with a small team of seasoned diplomats steeped in European expertise, must engage simultaneously with its counterparts in London, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris for the long haul.

The United States must help Europe formulate a new vision that will in turn create a new Europe. This new vision will be less intrusive and where efforts towards greater integration must be slowed to build greater public support. Many Europeans will declare this vision a failure; but it is not. This Europe will receive greater support from its citizens in the long-term. And, just as the ideas of the European Enlightenment arrived on America’s shores over 200 years ago which formed the basis of American governance, perhaps new European ideas—ones that both harvest the positive aspects of globalization while focusing public policy on those in society who feel that they have been diminished by these forces —can infuse a new American vision as well.

Heather Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.