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New global Atlantic in the making

New global Atlantic in the making

A good shaking-up for Europe and America

by John Kornblum in Berlin

Tue 19 Jul 2016

British exit from the European Union provides Europe with what it needs most: a good shaking-up. The same goes for America. The EU will continue to exist. There’s even a chance that 'Brexit' could turn out to everyone’s advantage – Europe, Britain and America.

We should seek guidance from Tweedledee in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. ‘Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'

Whatever happens will be a logical outcome of facts, not of illusions.
The shock of Brexit creates a new narrative, helping Americans and Europeans perceive a new global Atlantic in the making. The lesson of the past 75 years is that American leadership remains the glue which holds the Atlantic together. Europe cannot manage this revolution without America, and America should not wish to manage it without Europe.

‘Europe’ as a community of nations has been stagnating badly for some time. Its goals are backward-looking, its mentality frozen and its institutions archaic. This (somehow) worked in a cold war world dominated by a global frozen conflict – the world in which I worked for many years as a senior State Department official. But it cannot begin to cope with the ruthless pressure of digitalisation and global supply chains. As I wrote in April, in the run-up to the UK referendum, 'the underlying reality is that the West is a totality and all parts are important. The EU is not pulling its weight because it doesn’t function.'

We are unlikely to suffer the catastrophe that pessimists in the UK and Europe are predicting. Britain will remain one of Europe’s most important nations, Europe’s second economic power, the financial centre of most of the world, the home of the world’s global language, a major global player.

America, meanwhile, is awakening from its transatlantic hibernation. Why England Slept was the title of future President John F. Kennedy’s 1941 book on the approaching war in Europe. We Americans regularly doze off after winning a big victory. ‘Clean it up and go home’ is our motto. It happened again around the year 2000 as the US rapidly turned to other concerns. Brexit seems finally to have shaken America awake.

Americans apparently did not understand that globalisation had made the Atlantic community more rather than less relevant. We are not a collection of cultures tied together by a cold war alliance. We are a rapidly integrating cultural and economic entity, with citizens sharing the same hopes and suffering from the same dislocations.

Relentless change has worn away at social solidarity and economic stability. Successive near-disasters have left Europe’s leaders reeling, its economy rudderless, its voters angry and alienated. Europe as a civilisation is in no danger of disappearing. But as an entity the continent is shrinking ever further below the sum of its parts.

As Alvin Toffler suggested in his 1970 classic Future Shock, too much change overloads us psychologically, and weakens our ability to act and make decisions rationally. Europe – leaders and electorates alike – have been suffering from a sort of collective post-traumatic shock disorder. America is not much different.

Life goes on. It took a while, but even losing two world wars and committing some of history’s worst crimes did not appreciably reduce Germany’s role in Europe. Indeed, the purging of the past brought by these crimes enhanced Germany’s fitness for the future.

A Britain free of endless grumbling about Europe will lose an important excuse for not facing its many internal problems. No more bureaucrats in Brussels or farmers in France to blame for one’s own shortcomings. Britain may be in Europe, but it is mentally not of Europe. Freed from EU frustrations, it will be psychologically a healthier place.

The 45 years of relative stability between the end of the second world war and German unification did not mark a path to the end of history. Rather, this was a welcome period of recuperation between two phases of radical industrial revolution.

Western technological society is unlikely ever to come to rest. The shock of Brexit might help speed the replacement of ‘Europe’, as defined by the EU, by something very different from the current model: hopefully still unified, but more attuned to the times.

John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany and Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.


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