By Harlan Ullman
Why are Britain and America, the two greatest democracies of the 20th century, careening toward separate roads to ruin when China and Russia are seemingly in the ascent? And what, if anything, can be done to reverse these situations?
In the U.K., the 2016 Brexit referendum has now rendered Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party impotent and the country, barring a reverse Dunkirk-like miracle, without any seemingly viable options for leaving the European Union. Meanwhile, the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn has become toxic over charges of anti-Semitism.
Without a solution to Brexit, whether through delay or referendum, Britain risks becoming a second- or even third-rate power. If Republicans, especially in Congress, cannot grow spines and recapture the party, on the current trajectory, Trumpism will not only diminish American influence and credibility abroad. The $22 trillion swelling debt; a trade war with China; an arms race with Russia; and climate change are time bombs waiting to explode.
Further, with Trump and Brexit, the Atlantic Alliance that maintained the peace for 70 years could dissipate, following the same fate as SEATO, METO, CENTO and the Warsaw Pact. And even more worrying is that the public in both countries seems oblivious to the seriousness of where our respective governments are leading us.
In the U.K., the single thread sustaining the prime minister’s tenure is anxiety over who would replace her, particularly if it were Boris Johnson, Britain’s mini-Trump. Who or what follows the May government is as perplexing as what happens in America in 2020. The Tories lack a leader. And Corbyn lacks any credibility to lead.
American politics are in equally bad or even worse shape. Republicans and Democrats are vulnerable for different reasons. Trump has proven impervious to truth and fact. While he still maintains strong support among Republicans and his base, as Lincoln wisely observed, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
The Mueller investigation of Russian interference in American elections and that of the Southern District of New York could be political equivalents of a nuclear political Damoclean sword descending on the White House. And the explosive testimony before the House of Representatives oversight committee of Michael Cohen, who for a decade was Trump’s personal attorney, was not America’s finest hour. Nor did the collapse of the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, help the president.
Democrats are likewise in trouble. As the Tories were irreconcilably split three ways on Brexit, Democrats are similarly divided between the far left and the left, with the moderate left being under- represented. Donald Trump has opened fire by accusing Democrats of being “socialists.” Socialism fails as Trump frequently asserts and as the press is the enemy of the people, socialists are the enemy of the state.
What can be done in and by these great democracies to avoid disaster? The four main parties in the United Kingdom and the United States suffer from combinations of irreconcilable divisions and toxicity. As a result, both governments are failing. A reform movement has not appeared in either country. Nor has any new political leader of substance and character emerged on either side of the Atlantic.
Two slivers of hope are vaguely detectable. First, the prime minister must ensure the United Kingdom ultimately remains engaged with the EU. Only a referendum with carefully crafted options can achieve that. Second the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom that had its beginnings in World War I and came of age two decades later must be revitalized. This is more than closer military and intelligence cooperation that is nearly seamless.
The United States and United Kingdom need to team jointly on an array of advanced and potentially revolutionary technology projects, from 5G and quantum science to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and deep learning in which the common and strongest linkage is shared values. Unless efforts like these are undertaken, the future is not promising.
Perhaps some solace can be derived from that great composer, Beethoven. Though deaf, Beethoven mused that, “I shall hear in heaven.” Perhaps we shall, too. But buckle up nonetheless.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and a distinguished senior fellow and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.