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What Brexit means for 'the special relationship'

When the news broke that the Leave campaign had claimed victory in the recent EU referendum to decide that the UK would withdraw from the EU, many pondered what would become of 'the special relationship' between the US and the UK. The Leave Campaign, which was characterised by an anti-immigration, populist agenda with a burning disdain for Europe's elites, has drawn parallels to the anti-establishment revolt within the Republican party that has enabled the rise of Donald J. Trump. At this point, the outliers between the EU referendum and US election render it too difficult to speculate on what effect this might have on the outcome of the US election.

Popular opinion assumed that a terrorist attack on US soil would benefit the Trump campaign, but his response to the Orlando shooting hurt his poll numbers amongst the American public on the basis of how leaders should respond to acts of terrorism. Many have assumed that the anti-establishment revolt of the Leave campaign would work in favour of Trump as well. Trump has attempted to connect the disillusionment with political elites of the Leave Campaign to the success of his own campaign. But arguably, the difference in voting demographics between the two political arenas does not guarantee success for Trump. Regardless of these differences between Brexit and the rise of Trump, the rise of a global trend of populist, anti-establishment rage steered towards anti-immigration policy appears undeniable.

Regardless of the upcoming US election, Brexit could have significant consequences for UK-US relations. Most notable are the consequences of Brexit for international security, which could undermine the special relationship. Washington would be right to be displeased with the fact that its closest and most important strategic ally in the region has just lost a huge amount of influence within Europe. The potential risks for instability within the continent as a whole would not work in Washington’s favour as it continues to exert political and strategic influence in the region. Brexit poses the threat of destabilising the EU by potentially influencing other member countries to also leave the Union.

A consequence of this could be a reduction of US influence in the region due to its historical alliance with the UK. This renders the possibility of the next US president seeking to strengthen Washington’s alliance with stronghold European powers such as France or Germany as highly likely. However, American strategic opportunism in the face of the UK's discord with the EU could also undermine the special relationship. Nevertheless, the prospect of the UK’s diminished influence in the EU would likely motivate the US to create stronger alliances within mainland Europe.

Another major concern for Washington is that the UK’s exit from the EU will only benefit Russia’s goal of furthering its strategic influence throughout the continent. Indeed, the dwindling of American strategic influence along with that of its strongest supporter in the EU will only serve Moscow’s goals of establishing a stronger military presence in Europe. This would result in further tensions between the US and Russia at a time when Putin is projecting strength abroad—which more often than not conflicts with the national security interests of the US.

If Brexit results in short-term economic constraints for the UK, then its commitment to ongoing NATO and US-led efforts to ensuring security and combating terrorism is in doubt. Indeed, economic hardships in the wake of Brexit could see the UK unable to sustain its commitment the 2 per cent of GDP currently allocated to defence spending. At a time when Russia is attempting to expand its territorial gains and Islamic State (IS) is also intensifying its international influence, the strength of UK-US relations would be significantly weakened if the UK were unable to fulfill its financial commitments to the security efforts. In particular, a weakening of the US-led coalition against IS in Iraq and Syria as a result of the UK’s financial constraints would compromise the broader UK-US alliance.

Notwithstanding the UK’s financial woes, Brexit is bad news for the US as it could lose a significant amount of political influence within Europe at a time when the US is already pivoting its foreign policy interests and resources towards Asia. This, in fact, may encourage the US to further focus its strategic interests towards Asia.

A further security-related consequence of Brexit is that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU could take years to negotiate, which could potentially undermine NATO and US-led security efforts and destabilise Europe as it attempts to re-organise itself in the wake of the UK's withdrawal from the Union.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, President Obama and a number of other key US political, diplomatic and security figures responded with disappointment at the result, but stressed the view that the ongoing relationships with both the UK and the EU would remain strong. Whether these alliances remain durable or not is impossible to tell at this early stage. However, the security challenges that Brexit poses for American interests are clear and evident.

Matthew Holding is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: Number 10 (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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