Daniel Larison

‘Brexit’ and the Unappealing EU

Tim Black observes that even supporters for staying in the EU can’t muster any enthusiasm for it:

Just listen to someone make the case for Remain: they’ll admit the EU is flawed; they’ll say it could be more democratic; and they’ll even acknowledge that, despite some left-ish postures, it has screwed whole peoples over, strangling the life out of Greece, economically colonising Italy and Ireland, and causing chaos in Ukraine. It makes for a dispiriting sight. When Remainers make their furtive pitches, their hearts don’t swell; they sink, weighted down by caveats, bad faith and dead-eyed pragmatism.

As I’ve said before, a major reason why the Remain camp can’t make a positive case for the EU is that a distant, dysfunctional, transnational organization can’t inspire any loyalty or affection. That is why the case for staying has relied so heavily on appeals to economic interests and fear-mongering about the dangers of withdrawal. The EU today already is a disaster for tens of millions of people that live in it, and the simplest way to keep people from voting to flee it is to paint an even darker picture of what life would be like outside of it.

Fear of the unknown may end up winning the day, but if it does it will be the most grudging sort of victory for Europhiles. A narrow victory is all they’ll need to claim that the question is now “settled,” but Leave voters aren’t going to be satisfied with that. The referendum campaign has made the supposedly “unthinkable” option of withdrawal a plausible, debatable option, and if Leave doesn’t win today it may not be very long before there is another vote. If Leave wins (and my guess is that it will), it will be a fitting rejection of Remain’s attempt to terrify voters into submission.

Black continues:

There really is nothing appealing about the EU. As a pragmatic, political arrangement, which has done terrible damage to whole nations, it is steadfastly rebarbative. Its supporters cannot be attracted to it. They see its flaws, the way it treats people, its flight from accountability. So, no, they’re not attracted to the EU – they’re repelled towards it, repelled by the sight of ordinary people being able to determine their political future, by the spectre of the democratic will, in all its grubby uncontrollability and aspiration. It is fear of people, not love of the EU, that makes Remainers’ hearts beat that little bit faster.

The conventional wisdom is that most voters end up preferring the status quo option in votes like this, but I think this could be one of the exceptions. When so much of a deeply distrusted political class is on one side of the debate, and when the status quo option involves something as unappealing as the EU, it would be very tempting for most people to repudiate both by backing the other side. If the referendum is a contest over the country’s identity, Remain is at an even greater disadvantage. They are trying to defend a political arrangement that inspires no one, while the Leave side believes they are protecting their country’s traditions and self-government. Given that choice, it would make sense if voters reject the devil they know for the chance of something different.

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Rubio’s Running Again

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Because he said he wasn’t running for re-election, I included Rubio as one of the Senate hawks that would be out of office next year in my article for the current issue of TAC. I should have known better than to expect Rubio to stick to what he said. The Post reports that Rubio will run for a second term:

Sen. Marco Rubio will announce Wednesday he will seek re-election to the Senate, reversing a pledge he made a year ago to either assume the presidency or return to private life in Florida, instantly transforming an already competitive race and improving the chances that Republicans can maintain the Senate majority.

Rubio does have obvious and significant advantages over his competitors in the primary in terms of name recognition and fundraising, so he should be able to secure renomination. However, the fact Rubio is getting back into a race that he repeatedly said he wouldn’t enter may create an opening for his remaining opponents. One of them, Carlos Beruff, is looking to paint Rubio as an untrustworthy establishment figure. Rubio has alienated enough Republicans over the last five years that he could have a bit of a fight on his hands in the primary.

The senator has a few serious weaknesses. Rubio didn’t do much for his constituents during his first term, and one of the few things he tried to do–the Gang of Eight bill–blew up in his face. He justified his extensive Senate absenteeism by deriding the importance of being in the Senate, and now he is going to come back and insist that he really wants to go back there. His reputation for opportunism and inconstancy has started catching up with him, and he will have a hard time defending his record of neglecting his job while trying (and failing) to use it as a springboard to higher office.

Rubio probably does give the Republicans a better chance of holding the seat, but it isn’t certain that they will. He polls better against Rep. Patrick Murphy than other Republican candidates because he is better-known, but his support remains below 50%. His best recent approval rating in Florida is an underwhelming 45% (the worst is 30%), and it’s entirely possible Rubio will end up losing the race. The 2016 electorate will be larger and less hospitable to Rubio than the 2010 electorate was, and even in that very good year for Republicans Rubio won a three-way race with just under 49% of the vote. He won’t have the advantage of a Crist independent candidacy splitting the Democratic vote, and this time he will be running with the baggage from his first term and his failed presidential campaign.

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Will the EU Learn Anything from a ‘Brexit’ Vote?

Efired / Shutterstock
Efired / Shutterstock

Noah Millman makes a good case that “Brexit” could be good for the EU by forcing its leaders to make their institutions more accountable, but he may be a bit too optimistic in his conclusion:

Similarly, if the EU’s leaders take Great Britain’s departure to heart [bold mine-DL], they will work to redress Europe’s democratic deficit, and make its institutions more responsive to Europe’s electorate. If that happens, Britain may discover that joining again makes sense further down the road.

I agree that British withdrawal could shock EU leaders enough that they do this, but that depends on their learning the right lesson from it. They would need to admit that the democratic deficit in the EU is a flaw that needs to be repaired instead of an essential feature to be preserved at all costs. Everything we have seen from the EU’s responses to crises over the last decade suggests that when they are put under pressure they redouble their commitment to the project of building centralized European institutions and concentrating more power in them. If some member states have to be impoverished in exchange for keeping the project going, that is what they will do. Like adherents of any ideological project that has gone awry, the EU’s supporters seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with the project that can’t be fixed by more of the same. Insofar as they believe that the EU cannot fail, but can only be failed, they will probably conclude that “more Europe” is the answer.

As I said yesterday, the drive for “ever closer union” doesn’t much popular support anywhere in Europe, but I should have added that a lack of popular support has never stopped EU leaders from doing whatever they liked regardless of the political or economic costs. EU leaders will almost certainly greet a “Brexit” vote with dismay, anger, and increased contempt for voters, and my guess is that they will conclude that the problem lies with the voters and not with their institutions. That will be the wrong response, and it would presumably make more people in more member states start considering the merits of leaving, but it would be entirely consistent with the poor decision-making that has brought the EU to this point.

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Clinton’s VP Choices

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Clinton is narrowing down her choices for running mate:

Those on the shortlist include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressives who has emerged as a blistering critic of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump; Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a well-liked lawmaker from an important general election battleground state; and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro of Texas, a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Kaine would seem to be the best choice of these three. In addition to having worked much more on foreign policy and war powers than Warren, Kaine was a governor from a purple state. Kaine has the relevant experience and preparation to be president that the other two simply don’t have, but choosing him would not be the attention-grabbing or “exciting” one that selecting one of the others would be. Having Kaine on the ticket would show seriousness about governing, and having someone prepared to take over in an emergency would be the responsible thing to do. Because Kaine has been leading the effort to get a vote on authorizing the war on ISIS and has been an advocate of restoring Congress’ role in matters of war, it is possible that Kaine could help check some of Clinton’s hawkish tendencies. I wouldn’t expect too much on this score, but it is something to bear in mind.

Taking Warren out of the Senate would be a mistake for Democrats, since that is where she is likely to have the greatest impact on the party’s agenda. Picking Warren would be seen as a concession to Sanders supporters, but the effect of it would be to make her a defender of whatever Clinton chose to do. Progressives would probably rather have her in the Senate acting as a critic of Clinton’s policies than as the person assigned the task of selling those policies to the left. Regardless, Warren doesn’t have much in the way of foreign policy or executive experience, and there is no obvious electoral advantage in naming a senator from a deep blue state. If Warren is not prepared to be president, Castro is even less prepared than she is, and choosing him would be a fairly odd choice in a year when the Democratic ticket isn’t going to have much trouble winning over Hispanic voters.

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Calling for Military Action Isn’t ‘Speaking Truth to Power’

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Richard Haass puts an unbelievably positive spin on the State Department dissenters’ call to attack the Syrian government:

But what these 51 signatories have done is spoken truth to power [bold mine-DL]. And even if what they have to say is rejected now, it might be welcomed by the next occupant of the White House — especially if it were to be Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, showed considerable willingness to use military force in pursuit of US foreign policy aims.

It’s fair to say that the diplomats that signed this memo are challenging administration policy, but it is hardly speaking “truth to power” when one is endorsing a course of action that has the backing of most hawks in Washington. It can’t be “speaking truth to power” when one is urging the government to initiate hostilities against another state. Foreign policy establishment figures have been publicly chiding Obama to “do more” in Syria for years, and now some State Department diplomats are doing the same thing. It would be more accurate to say that they are repeating the conventional wisdom that other powerful and influential people also accept. If their recommendations are likely to be accepted by the next president, that suggests that their dissent from current policy will probably be rewarded in the future.

There is also something distasteful in saying that advocating military action in Syria has something to do with “speaking truth” to anyone. Nothing could be easier or more predictable for someone in our government than calling for U.S. airstrikes against another state, and there is nothing particularly courageous in agitating for the U.S. to inflict death and destruction in a foreign country. Maybe the memo’s signatories genuinely believe that doing this would create conditions to bring the war to a close, but they’re mistaken and it seems clear that they haven’t thought things through or accounted for what could go wrong.

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The EU’s Days of ‘Ever Closer Union’ May Be Over

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The Post reports on fears that “Brexit” could be contagious:

Even if nations defuse their own burgeoning Euro-skeptic movements, the days in which leaders convened in Brussels to hand ever more sovereignty to the E.U. may be over if Britain departs, diplomats say.

According to a survey of public opinion in several EU countries, those days may be over regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s vote. Pew found that there is broad support for returning more powers to national governments in many EU member states.

Disagreement on ‘ever closer’ union

The constituency for transferring more powers to Brussels is a minority, and with approval of the EU declining in most countries it seems unlikely to get larger in the near future. When the results are broken down by party, we see that supporters of almost every major party in Europe wants to keep things as they are or return more powers to the national level. There is no appetite anywhere in Europe for “ever closer union.” If the EU misinterprets a British Remain vote as an invitation to pursue further centralization, it is likely to encounter significant resistance in many countries. Pushing for the transfer of additional powers to Brussels could end up provoking the exodus of members that Europhiles fear “Brexit” might cause.

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How Threat Inflation Works

(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)

Bonnie Kristian makes a very good observation about Russia and threat inflation:

The massive momentum of the U.S. military may presently be on the side of the inflaters, but the facts are on the side of the skeptics.

This is normally how it works. As we know, threat inflation typically relies on misrepresenting the facts, or presenting them in the most alarming way possible. If another state is behaving in a way that our government doesn’t like, sometimes the mere fact that it is displeasing is treated as proof of a dire threat. It doesn’t matter if the threat is a relatively minor, manageable one–it has to be cast as a threat to regional stability and “world order.” It doesn’t even matter if the U.S. and its allies are actually threatened by the behavior in question, since the assumption that the U.S. is a guarantor of “world order” dangerously makes any and every threat to anyone our problem.

Threat inflaters naturally aren’t interested in accurately assessing another state’s capabilities and intentions, but always look for ways to take relatively normal, self-interested behavior and make it seem especially sinister and extraordinarily dangerous. If the other state’s behavior is in fact more aggressive than it has been in the past, this is tendentiously read as proof of grand imperialist designs that “require” a massive military build-up or containment strategy. Inflaters also like to treat other states’ actions as unprovoked and driven by the obsessions of foreign leaders, and never consider the role that U.S. and allied actions may have in triggering undesirable behavior. Inflaters invent threats where there aren’t any, exaggerate the ones that do, and help to create new ones by urging aggressive policies to “respond” to the dangers they blow out of proportion.

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Why the Remain Campaign’s Arguments Fall Flat

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John Browne exaggerates the consequences of British withdrawal from the EU:

Leaving the European Union would leave Great Britain diminished on the world stage. Where once we were a world leader in trade and global diplomacy, an exit vote would see the U.K. reduced to the level of a second- or third-tier nation [bold mine-DL].

Warning against the loss of Britain’s international status is one of the odder arguments from the Remain camp. If Leave wins and Britain withdraws, the U.K. would still be a permanent member of the Security Council, one of a handful of states with nuclear weapons, and one of the top five or six economies in the world. It is very unlikely that any of that will change. Regardless of how Britain votes on Thursday, it will remain a major power for the foreseeable future. No one could seriously call a state like that second- or third-tier, then there seems to be no claim too ridiculous for this referendum. Britain will have less clout with remaining EU members, and it will not be party to EU negotiations with other states, but it will also not be limited by the need for consensus within the EU when it makes its policies and it may be able to strike deals that are more in line with its particular interests. There is no question that there is a trade-off in British withdrawal, and in the end it may be a trade that the voters don’t want to make, but it is not nearly as one-sided as the Remain camp claims.

The argument is even stranger because Remain needs more than anything to win over disgruntled voters unhappy with the political class’ neglect of their interests at home. That isn’t going to happen by warning about the possible danger to the EU or the decline in British power, which are primarily the concerns of pro-EU elites. Neither of those things is likely to matter very much to people that think their government has ignored them and their complaints for decades. Even if the warnings are correct (and that’s questionable), the possibility that a “Brexit” vote might lead to the break-up of the EU isn’t going to worry voters that already view it with disdain.

The referendum polls have once again tightened, and Remain may end up prevailing after all, but the margin will be so close that it is unlikely that this campaign is the last we have heard about a British exit from the EU.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How “Brexit” won over the Tories. Matthew d’Ancona traces the history of the idea of withdrawing from the EU.

The case for leaving the EU before it’s too late. Philip Johnston says that the U.K. should get out before the EU becomes even more centralized.

How the U.N. failed Yemen. Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam America details the multiple failures of the U.N. and its member states.

Imagination rules the world. Gerald Russello reviews Bradley Birzer’s biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

Kyrgyzstan turns a hunting reserve into a snow leopard sanctuary. Adam Cruise reports on the creation of a new preserve for snow leopards.

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The Diplomats for Unnecessary War

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Some diplomats at the State Department are agitating for an attack on Syria:

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

We can hope that this memo will be ignored, but it is worrisome that it was even written. It is rarely a good sign when diplomats are the ones pushing for military action. More often than not, they are yielding to the desire to “take action” without understanding the action they are demanding, and they have usually not thought through what would come next if their “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” fails to have the desired effect. There isn’t any obvious U.S. or allied interest served by ensnaring the U.S. further in Syria’s conflict, and attacking Syrian government forces runs the risk of escalating tensions with Russia and Iran just as it has for the past several years. Given the presence of advanced Russian air defenses in the country, it also runs the very real risk of killing Russian personnel and triggering a crisis with a major power.

As the report notes, military commanders have had no interest in attacking the Syrian government:

The president has resisted such pressure, and has been backed up by his military commanders, who have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Mr. Assad was forced from power — a scenario that the draft memo does not address.

The dissenting diplomats insist that they are not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” but then I suppose few people explicitly admit that their call for military action could lead to a much larger, more dangerous conflict. The key flaw in all this is that neither these diplomats nor the U.S. government as a whole can control what happens next. They might not want the dangerous consequences of their proposed action to happen, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. Attacking Syrian forces when Russian air defenses are present practically guarantees a confrontation with Russia. At the very least, it puts the U.S. openly at war with the Syrian government, which is foolish enough all on its own. The danger of this proposal is not that there could be a “slippery slope” that catches us unawares. What the diplomats recommend is akin to jumping headlong down the slope.

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