The last few years have been notable for the number of states fragmenting or dividing. Hot on the heels of Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Mali, Yemen and Libya, we now have the UK.
Whereas states like Sudan, Iraq and Syria are 20th century innovations; the crowns of England and Scotland have been united for over 400 years. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted decisively to remain inside the EU during last year’s referendum. Their dismay is unsurprising as the British government drags them inexorably toward the most extreme version of Brexit, severing Britain’s economy from the European single market.
A new referendum on Scottish independence is a real possibility. Northern Ireland may find it astute to unite with the Republic of Ireland and keep its European borders open. Even Wales could think along similar lines if dire economic predictions turn out to be true.
Young, well-educated professionals who voted almost unanimously to “remain” fear the consequences of a “hard Brexit,” which could damage the economy and Britain’s global position. The British government is stubbornly refusing to countenance the devastating cost to the economy, in which the business model for the banking and services sector is premised on London being a commercial hub for European and global markets. Some experts estimate that gross domestic product (GDP) could fall by up to £66 billion ($82 billion) a year. The decision not to guarantee the status of Europeans living in the UK leaves hundreds of thousands of people in limbo.
Making Britain great again?
Some voted for Brexit out of nostalgia for a “Great Britain” which supposedly surrendered its sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. I recall once asking former British Foreign Secretary Lord Geoffrey Howe why the UK did not use its influence more strongly concerning Palestine: “Young lady,” he retorted, “you fail to realize that Britain is no longer the all-powerful empire on which the sun never sets.”
The irony is that Britain’s global influence was largely a product of its role at the heart of Europe, marshalling its EU allies to take a constructive position on global issues. In contrast, Britain recently petty-mindedly sabotaged the efforts of its former European allies at the Paris summit on Palestine. Although the effort aimed to curry favor with Trump, it highlights the fact that Britain was useful to America chiefly because of its status in Europe. We now have a US regime actively hostile to the EU, symbolized by Trump’s refusal to shake Angela Merkel’s hand during her recent visit.
If Western countries abandon their commitment to foreign aid, they will soon have to spend 100 times more when certain regions of the world dissolve into anarchy.
The West’s panicked reaction to recent refugee crises was a major factor in the Brexit vote and upsurge in European far-right currents. The same xenophobic segments of the media which incited the British public against Europe waged a campaign against overseas aid. If Britain and the West abandon their commitment to devote tiny portions of their budgets to foreign aid, they will soon have to spend 100 times these funds when regions of the world dissolve into anarchy. A depressed and inward-looking economy indicates even fewer funds available for overseas spending from a post-Brexit UK.
Trump’s savage cuts
Meanwhile, Trump is gutting his own overseas development and foreign policy apparatus, with a savage 29 percent cut to the State Department budget and threats to halt funding to the UN. Given that aid spending is less than 1 percent of US GDP, the benefits to the US budget will be microscopic. Yet the impact on the beneficiaries of this money will be catastrophic, with only one nation safe from the cuts — Israel.
At a time when South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other African nations are undergoing the most acute famine in decades, the death toll from Trump’s maniacal assault on the US Agency for International Development could be in the hundreds of thousands — with immense political fallout for fragile states.
If Western nations surrender their conflict prevention and emergency aid roles and resort to cowering behind walls, they will quickly find millions of people swarming over these walls from disintegrating states around the world.
As “Great Britain” mutates into “Little England” and America lurches toward isolationism, there is a dire need for a rethink about the impact of this Western withdrawal from the world — for global security, for fragile states and for the poorest and most vulnerable.
The average British and American citizen is big-hearted and broad-minded. They will be among the first to speak out when millions of people in the Horn of Africa are dying of starvation and extremism rears its head in fragmenting Middle Eastern states — as a direct consequence of the West’s abdication of its global role and the drift toward xenophobic nationalism and isolationist populism. Such people are capable of learning from their mistakes and forcing their governments to change course.
Unfortunately, this will be too late for many people. We are all about to discover how catastrophic and ruinous these short-sighted policies are for the world. Hold on tight.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.