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217 EIGHT­ Don’t Tread on Me The United States and International Organ­ izations Boris Johnson, the mop-­ haired former mayor of London, was incredulous. It was mid-­ April 2016. President Barack Obama had just inserted himself into the most momentous po­ liti­ cal decision to confront the United Kingdom in de­ cades: ­ whether to leave the Eu­ ro­ pean Union. Johnson, a leader of the “Leave” campaign, found it “absolutely bizarre” to be “lectured by the Americans about giving up our sovereignty,” and he scoffed at Obama’s plan to deliver his plea in person just two months before Britain held its pivotal referendum. “I­ don’t know what he’s ­ going to say,” Johnson told the BBC, “but if that is the American argument then it is nakedly hypocritical.” ­After all, “the Americans­ won’t even sign up to the international convention on the law of the seas, let alone the International Criminal Court.”1 One week ­later Obama stood beside U.K. prime minister David Cameron, himself a champion of the “Remain” camp. The president made it clear where he stood. Leaving the bloc would carry enormous risks, he warned, and also place Britain “at the back of the queue” in negotiations to enter the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). “A strong Eu­rope is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership ,” the president elaborated in the Telegraph the next day. “In ­today’s world, even as we all cherish our sovereignty, the nations who wield their influence most effectively are the nations that do it through the collective action that­ today’s challenges demand.”2 08-3159-7_ch8.indd 217 9/11/17 1:10 PM 218 THE SOVEREIGNTY WARS Many ­ others made similar pleas, including officials from the Bank of­ England, the City of London, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organ­ ization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as leading academics. In the end, none of it mattered. On June 23, 2016, British voters handed the Leave campaign a shocking if narrow victory, choosing by 52 ­ percent to 48 ­ percent to depart the EU. Johnson heralded it as Britain’s “In­de­pen­dence Day.”3 The result threw the EU into turmoil. The bloc had long suffered from deficits of both democracy and affection, of course. “Brussels”—­ where most EU institutions are located—­ had become shorthand for officious, unaccountable Eurocrats meddling in every­ thing from national fisheries policies to the proper shape of bananas.4 For too many of its 500 million citizens, the EU seemed distant, opaque, and unresponsive. Now it faced a real possibility of unraveling­ were other members to join the United Kingdom in the departure lounge. In the past Eu­ ro­ pean leaders had seized on crises to deepen integration, depicting “more Eu­ rope” as the only solution. That dynamic seemed to have run its course. From its origins as a tight bloc of six members, the EU had grown into an unwieldy, continent-­spanning behemoth encompassing twenty-­ eight heterogeneous nations. Stuck in an unmanagable halfway ­ house between a confederation of sovereign states and a federal po­liti­cal ­union, the EU seemed less likely to achieve the “ever-­ closer ­ union” envisioned in its Lisbon Treaty (2009) than a looser, multi-­ speed arrangement that allowed members greater flexibility to opt into (or out of) par­ tic­ u­ lar provisions and initiatives.5 The Brexit vote reverberated across the Atlantic. Donald Trump, by then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, lauded Britons for their “brave and brilliant” decision to “take back their in­ de­ pen­ dence.” He promised to help Americans do the same. “Come November, the American ­ people ­ will have the chance to re-­declare their in­de­pen­dence. . . . ​They ­will have the chance to reject ­ today’s rule by the global elite and to embrace real change that delivers a government of, by and for the ­ people.”6 BREXIT’S RELEVANCE FOR U.S. SOVEREIGNTY DEBATES The U.S. media depicted Brexit as part of a populist storm surge inundating Western democracies, one propelled by the economic anxiety and po­ liti­ cal alienation felt by globalization’s “losers.” What united Johnson and Trump, in this narrative, was their ability to tap into voter discontent and class resentment.7 08-3159-7_ch8.indd 218 9/11/17 1:10 PM ­Don’t Tread on M 219 This was at best a partial explanation, and it is worthwhile exploring the...


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