North Atlantic’s love affair with isolationism must end

When the authoritarian powers of the East look West, what do they see? Does Russia see a unified European and American alliance acting and speaking in unison, ready to combat an assault on a modern, democratic Ukraine which seeks to immerse itself in NATO and the European Union? Is the European Union, which is now defined as one of the world’s leading economic superpowers, a formidable, united opposition which stands as a bulwark of democracy? Do China and Russia believe that the relationship between the United States, Britain and Europe is one of sincere co-operation both in core values and practical terms?

The answer is likely no. Although America remains the dominant superpower and the European Union continues in its efforts of integration, the autocrats of the world see an opportunity borne of assumed weakness. This perceived weakness relates directly to the decade long love affair with a divisive right-wing populism alongside an ideologically broader self-serving isolationism, which has possessed the hearts and minds of many in Europe, Britain, and the United States. This obsession rooted in a twisted nationalist identity has divided the post-war order into two directly conflicting ideologies in foreign policy and multilateral political cooperation.

The post-war order is a house divided and fractured almost beyond recognition. Britain has turned its back on the European project and embraced a senseless isolationism. Many in Europe fail to consider the enormous damage the exit of Britain from the Union has done to the global perception of Western dominance in matters military, diplomatic and economic. This has only been reenforced in the naïve disappointment experienced by the British Government once it realised that the United States did not view the creation of a post-Brexit trade deal as a priority, or even as a matter of significant importance.

This great fracture stems from the reactionary and isolationist right-wing which surged from the ashes of rapid globalisation, the Great Recession, austerity, and the ensuing disaffection. The right-wing Republicans in the United States and the pro-Brexit Tory Party have unravelled the fabric of the Euro-Atlantic tradition in a way which, if not remedied, could permanently destabilise the unprecedented peaceful order enjoyed by most Western citizens since 1945. America has begun to repair the damage one year on from electing a moderate institutionalist President who strongly values the post-war order, but a similar rejection of such ideals has not yet manifested itself electorally in the United Kingdom.

This distraction and deceit is just another clear exemplar of the deep need for us Europeans to aggressively reject the crumbling foundations of populism.

The populist-led pantomime revolving around the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has also intensified to a level which has left the European Union frustrated and distracted, America disinterested in deep political cooperation with the British and Britain itself almost permanently stuck in the Brexit politics which has endured and consumed the Western European agenda for over five years.

In the fashion we have come to expect from modern right-wing populists, Boris Johnson has continuously played games with the established and accepted standards of office in a liberal democratic society, engulfing Downing Street and his cabinet in a scandal which may end his political career, during a time of international crisis in Eastern Europe which demands a clarity of mission from all free nations of Europe. This distraction and deceit is just another clear exemplar of the deep need for us Europeans to aggressively reject the crumbling foundations of populism.

This great experiment with a virulent strain of right-wing populism has failed and has objectively damaged global democracy within the Northern Hemisphere. Former President Trump rattled Western confidence in NATO, undermined the long-standing respect held for America, its institutions and her people in Europe and promoted an isolationist model which has empowered malign actors to interfere in our democracies in the North Atlantic region. 

The former President of The United States made strange bedfellows at multiple, excruciatingly public conferences with President Putin, further entrenching the autocratic perception of western democracy as uncoordinated, weak, malleable and spineless. 

This has in part created the set of circumstances we see today in which Russia believes it can bully its way to a ‘sphere of influence’ defined by the dissolved and discredited Soviet Union. Putin sees the division evident throughout the last decade in Western democracy as an opportunity to test the limits of Western resolve and re-establish some of the territories of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. With this comes an emboldened view from the Kremlin that Russia has a divine right to reclaim its ‘rightful’ place in the world.

Britain bears a heavy burden of responsibility in this reality, as the second most powerful military force of a democratic nation in Europe and a core founding member of NATO, the exit from the European Union has sent a symbolic message of division to authoritarian adversaries.

Divisions are evident among EU countries in this crisis.

This set of circumstances is not the sole creation of a government which sits on another continent or one which has left the European Union. Europe has been far too slow in asserting its role as the largest, wealthiest and most intertwined supranational Union of democratic nations on earth. 

Divisions are evident among EU countries in this crisis. Germany’s domestically popular pacifism, combined with economic ties to Russia, is placing strain on a coherent European wide response. Germany depends on Russia for much of its natural gas supply, in 2021 32% of German gas imports originated in the Russian Federation. In a nation which meets only roughly 5% of its own gas needs, it is clear the Ukraine crisis will test Germany’s commitment to broader European Union interests over narrow national conveniences. By extension, this will test European cohesion. The highly controversial Nordstream 2, which is in my estimation a critical geopolitical blunder, has already sent a signal to Russia that Germany is willing to extend its dependence on Russian supplies, thereby potentially paralysing any German response to potential Russian aggression.

The expansion of European institution’s political power demands an expansion in its responsibility for European security.

This German reliance must be confronted and coherently addressed at EU level before Nord Stream 2 is approved by regulators. It is now abundantly clear that the European security risks posed by a further dependence and economic cooperation with Russia are severe. One would hope that there are strong points of objections being raised to Germany’s strategy in The European Council by EU leaders.

The EU will inevitably move farther into both enlargement and integration in coming years. The expansion of European institution’s political power demands an expansion in its responsibility for European security. Accordingly, Ireland also must examine its policy of neutrality held since the foundation of the state. We are no longer an insignificant underdeveloped nation which sits on the very periphery of Europe. As a member of The European Union, we must contribute in whatever small way we can to the security of our fellow member states. Neutrality is not a justifiable stance in the face of attacks on the very international order which allows us to live free, extraordinarily prosperous lives on the bridge of the North Atlantic.

Britain, to its credit, has contributed heavily in its material and political support for a democratic Ukraine. The same can also be said for many EU nations and The United States. This joint contribution is what drives my belief that not only is the post-war order recoverable, but it is also on the cusp of a meaningful revival into a new age of democratic security. One in which the Euro-Atlantic relationship can emerge stronger than at any point in history. Throughout the North Atlantic, the EU, US and Britain has a deep, wide and growing vested interest in peacefully promoting democratic values while maintaining a defensive security apparatus which consolidates and protects the shared values which span this region of the world.

The horrors of early 20th century Europe should not be viewed as a chapter sealed, the same forces of expansionist authoritarianism have awoken in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia

Perhaps it is time for a new commitment to Western military cooperation, in which the G7 materially commits to preserving and protecting liberal democracy and dealing with authoritarian forces emboldened within our own borders. A debate should be had discussing if every EU member state should seek to invest 2% of its GDP into defence, the standard of what is seen as credible military expenditure.

The horrors of early 20th century Europe should not be viewed as a chapter sealed, the same forces of expansionist authoritarianism have awoken in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and will begin to knock on our own Western European borders if left unchecked. The Russian build-up on the frontiers of a sovereign, democratic Ukraine which seeks only self-determination in its pursuit of membership of the European Union and NATO, is a stark warning shot across the legislatures of Europe and North America.

There is a caveat to this envisioned revival. It can only be sustained if the citizens of the United States, the European Union and Britain can begin to understand the crucial juncture which we have reached in our shared histories. Conservative or liberal, it is vital that the governments of our time share one common value which is more important than any national policy debate; the belief that free democratic society is the greatest gift we can ever seek to leave our children and grandchildren, the sincere belief that it must be defended at all costs. In this belief, there must be an acknowledgement that the world has gotten smaller, and in that fact, there must be the widely held conception that the success of fellow democratic nations is our own success. Isolationism will not meet the challenges we face as Western democracies, democracies all borne of the same ideals which span the Atlantic.

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