Notes From the Margins…

From Brexit to Trump: The Incredible Shrinking Countries

  • August 11, 2019
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I’m not much of a fan of the concept of ‘national greatness’.  It’s not I don’t think that nations can have qualities and achievements worthy of pride and admiration.  But the concept of national greatness is almost always steeped in a collective narcissism and national chauvinism that I find unedifying and inherently repellent.

Its proponents often seek some kind of moral uplift from their imagined greatness, and take a peculiar satisfaction from looking down on the rest of the world and imagining that everyone else is looking up to them.

Generally speaking, national greatness is associated first of all with military power, followed by various subsidiary markers such as international political influence, economic strength, diplomatic reach and cultural ‘soft power’.  Countries that believe themselves to be great may not engage in wars and wars of conquest, but they do like to dominate others, and this ability is often accompanied by a sense of moral and political exceptionalism and the belief that their country is ‘destined’ to be great.

Great nations hate the ordinary and mundane.  Even when they feel their greatness  waning, they are often desperate to cling onto it.

Some great nations fail to understand – often till too late – that they aren’t great anymore and they no longer have the power and influence they once had.  The greater they were, the harder it is to accept that they must now take their place in a world which they can no longer bend to their will.

Where they once dictated to others, these formerly great nations must reluctantly negotiate with their partners and competitors on an equal basis.  They must operate as members of international organisations, trade blocs, regional networks based on pooled sovereignty, security organisations which operate according to shared rules intended to benefit all their members, rather than any one country.

Smart countries can make this adjustment.  Others may experience the absence of greatness as an unpleasant shock.   Every nation that has once been great contains sections of its population that looks back towards old empires, great wars and battles and moments of national triumph or heroism.

Stripped of any counterbalancing factors or acknowledgements of less uplifting historical realities, the memory of their lost greatness will cast a warm sunset glow, that makes the present look thin and uninspiring, leading to a dangerous nostalgia that can easily rot a nation’s brain if it goes unchecked.

In the last three years America and the United Kingdom have provided object lessons in how toxic and dangerous such illusions can be.  The idea of making America great ‘again’ is not entirely new.  As far back as the 1980s the Reagan administration’s massive rearmament program, and its huge investment in global covert operations were intended to reverse American strategic defeats in Iran, Vietnam, Africa and Central America.

In the aftermath of the Cold War ‘victory’, American conservatives were often overcome by a sense of anticlimax the sense that the ‘indispensable nation’ might be losing its position of global leadership.  In 1997 the self-proclaimed ‘National Greatness Conservative’ David Brooks wrote a piece in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, in which he argued ‘The quest for national greatness defines the word ” American” and makes it new for every generation.’

To some extent, the ‘reactionary idealism’ of the neoconservative movement, and its lobbying groups like the Project for the New American Century were intended to preserve and extend American ‘pre-eminence’ into the 21st century.  The unilateral hubris with which the Bush administration responded to the 9/11 atrocities were also part of that same quest for greatness.

Even before Obama attempted to tilt America back towards a more multilateral position,  America had failed to translate its unrivaled military power into coherent strategic outcomes, and its moral reputation was tarnished by a trail of illegal wars, torture, and the violence, corruption and epic incompetence of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of this diminished Brooks’ belief in his ‘national greatness agenda.’    In 2010 he looked forward once again to a movement whose ‘goal will be unapologetic: preserving American pre-eminence. It will preserve America’s standing in the world on the grounds that this supremacy is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.’

Today America has that movement, in the shape of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ administration, but that outcome has already fallen some way short of a ‘blessing for the earth.’

Rather than ‘preserve America’s standing in the world’, Trump has alienated America’s allies through his incompetence, his bullying unilateralism, his disdain for democracy,  his fondness for dictators and authoritarian rulers and autocrats, his crass vulgarity, his tone-deaf viciousness, and his sheer lack of understanding of the basic tenets of diplomacy and geopolitics.

All this diminished the ‘soft power’ that once took America to places its military couldn’t reach.  At the same time, as India and China have proven during the last week, Trump has been entirely unable to impose its will on a multilateral world that no longer feels beholden to American economic and military power.

In attempting to make America great again, Trump has actively diminished his country’s standing and reputation.  A similar dynamic is underway in the UK, where Brexiters continue to pursue a more distant ‘greatness’ that was variously expressed in nostalgia for the British empire, a romanticised vision of World War 2,  or a stupefyingly weird conflation between Francis Drake and 21st century capitalism that was imagined to be equally ‘buccaneering.’

Three years after the referendum, these inane ahistorical delusions have brought the country to its knees.   Brexit has paralysed the nation’s politics and polarised the country to the point where a national consensus on the way forward is now impossible, and a tiny minority of the population is attempting to impose a damaging departure from the EU in what amounts to a constitutional coup.

Having withdrawn from a trade bloc that it voluntarily joined and helped to shape, the UK is now looking to negotiate a trade deal with a  predatory presidency that will inevitably dictate the terms in any forthcoming discussions.  Brexit has also paved their way for the breakup of the United Kingdom –   an outcome that may be welcomed by the Scots and the Irish, but was certainly not what the referendum promised.

A country that would elect a political monstrosity like Trump to power is not as great as it thinks it is.  And a country that detaches itself from a trading bloc with no alternative arrangements in place is either extremely foolish or narcissistically fanatical.

Whatever the explanation, the UK’s global reputation has been shredded, and no amount of ‘optimism’ or ‘belief’ can put it back together.

So Trumpism and Brexit ought to be cautionary tales for other countries that seek to become ‘great again’.   They ought to teach us that delusions of national grandeur can never survive any serious encounter with reality,  and that certain periods of ‘greatness’ once gone, cannot be recovered.

In the meantime we can only hope that these shrunken, diminished countries will learn, one day, that being ‘ordinary’ is not such a bad thing, and instead of trying to make themselves great again they might try to learn to cultivate decency, justice, competence, humility, and the common good.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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