It’s okay for Donald Trump go it alone because he is at the head of the world’s most powerful country. For Greece, Great Britain or Italy, the return of a supposedly lost sovereignty is a myth, as their small size prevents them from packing a punch in the global game.
The lesson of the Suez Expedition fiasco in 1956 is applicable here. Even though they were united, France, England and Israel did not have the military and diplomatic power to recapture the canal that Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized. They had to succumb to two major powers, Russia and the United States. After Greece and Italy, it is now Great Britain’s turn to learn that the revival of sovereignty promised by the populists is likely impossible. Whatever their grandiose promises may have been and whether they like it or not, the leaders must get back in line.
Then there is, of course, Donald Trump. For him, the opposite is true. He has renegotiated NAFTA. He has attacked China and German cars. He has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. He has broken the nuclear treaty the U.S. signed with Iran. He is doing all that he said he would do. Contrary to all the initial predictions assuring that he would comply with diplomats’ imperatives and with the opinions of “serious experts” in Washington, after stalling for a year, the president no longer listens to them. He has pushed them aside and is making decisions on his own. His base remains loyal to him for at least giving the appearance of living up to his promises.
As a country, the United States is both big and influential; it’s the world’s largest economic, monetary, military, and technological power. When Trump attacks Mexico, Canada, Europe, and even China, he damages them. When he puts an embargo on Iran, it applies to all non-American companies due to the externality of U.S. law and the strength of the dollar.
Nobody can manage without the United States. The result is indeed an American disaster symbolized by the administration shutdown and global chaos, while Trump destroys the liberal and multilateral order that had rightly guaranteed Pax Americana. At the end of his term, after isolating his country, Trump will have strengthened China rather than weakened it. But, as we wait for history’s verdict, the size of the United States allows Trump to enforce his populist vision.
For all small and medium-sized powers, it is quite different. In Greece, the Syriza party was elected in the name of resisting Brussels’ dictates, but its leader, Aléxis Tsípras, quickly realized that he needed Europe’s money during the government debt crisis and therefore would have to play by its rules. To leave the European Union, to go it alone, would have been to jump into the abyss. Although one can say that Greece has suffered some violent treatment, the country does not regret having abandoned its populist illusions.
Italy followed the same course. Populists of both the extreme right and the extreme left have quickly reneged on their pretentious campaign promises. The odd couple has, at the end of the day, done virtually nothing. Apart from immigration no promise has been kept, except perhaps in cosmetic form. One can say the same for governments in Eastern Europe. They close their borders to migrants, but when it comes to other areas such as the independence of the judiciary, they cave. They have too great of a need for European aid and, more broadly, membership in the EU.
This general disavowal does not come from Brussels’ supposed desire to crush the will of the people, but simply from the reality of the world and from the inescapable fact that no small country can claim sovereignty anymore. Oh, how the Brexiters forgot Suez! Their promise to get Great Britain out of the European Union seduced people, but it is obvious today that the ability to rediscover sovereignty was an illusion. Great Britain stumbled over the indifference of the 28 member states of the EU. You want to leave? We’re laughing at you.
Theresa May, like Trump, stalled in the beginning but then realized she had to salvage what she could and choose the least harmful exit plan. Her compromise allows Great Britain to remain close to the single market, but according to its detractors, it ends with the country abiding by European rules while unable to vote on them. As far as regaining sovereignty goes, the deal is a loss. The critics are right.
But what are the other ways out? “No deal” means diving into a commercial, financial and industrial abyss. It is a myth, concludes The Economist, and only a handful of members of parliament support it. Will they agree to remain in the customs union for life? If so, where is the sovereignty? Or will they vote on the referendum again, hoping to put an end to this populist tragedy that has lasted far too long?