After Brexit, Make Trade, Not War

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Jeremy Lott Senior Fellow, Defense Priorities
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Strange as this sounds, when President Barack Obama warned UK voters against “Brexit” in April by saying their nation would go to “the back of the queue” for trade deals with America if they voted to go it alone, he may have been trying to do the British government a huge favor.

That’s not how it came off, of course. But remember, at the time the British government itself was in full spin mode, warning of the absolute financial calamity that would befall their nation if the people voted to leave the European Union. Obama, speaking in London, was only reinforcing that sky-will-fall horror story.

It went over badly with the Britons. In the press scrum, one reporter told Obama that many voters “think this is none of your business” and practically scolded Prime Minister David Cameron, saying, “Some of your colleagues believe it’s utterly wrong that you have dragged our closest ally in[to] the E.U. referendum.”

When Brexit passed late last week, it was seen, among other things, as a rebuke of Obama’s arrogance.

It wouldn’t be the first time Obama’s words badly misfired like that. Remember the hue and cry over his comments about those rural conservative folks who cling to their guns and their religion? That was actually candidate Obama’s earnest, professorial attempt to defend said voters against charges of bigotry by liberal donors!

If the American president had truly meant to be vindictive about the Brexit vote, he would not have dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe to urge the leaders to go easy on the UK, as he did Monday.

America and Britain are said to have a “special relationship,” dating back to World War II. It mostly has to do with foreign policy. During the Cold War and unto the present day, the UK’s government has been as accommodating of the American government’s wishes and needs as it could manage. This fealty even earned Britain the derogatory nickname “America’s poodle” during the Iraq war.

Obama reaffirmed the “special relationship” by name when he urged Britain to stay in the EU, but in truth there’s not much left to it, militarily. Cameron tried to model his foreign policy after the wishes of American interventionists, but lately Parliament had taken to shooting him down — quite spectacularly in the case of Syria under Assad.

After the Brexit vote, Cameron is a lame duck, serving until the Fall when his Conservative Party can put up another Prime Minister who is not likely to be so gung ho. Opposition party Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a man of almost pacifist intentions whose foreign policy views are not in sync with ambitious American goals.

Britain needs America now, not to rescue it from bombs but to help shore up its economy as it readies to exit from the daunting supranational bureaucracy that is the EU. A new trade deal should be a simple enough affair for American negotiators. Our nations are already highly integrated through language, commerce and cultural exchanges. More to the point, the British are likely to be very accommodating in order to strike a deal.

Before Obama is an opportunity for America to expand its influence not by invading or bombing or even twisting arms, but by agreeing to more trade with a willing partner. The president’s attempts to burnish his legacy by passing larger trade deals have faltered. Thanks to Brexit, this one lies well within his grasp.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.