This isn’t going to be extended or profound, so I’m just warning you. But Melanie Phillips had an excellent post Monday on some frisky signs of independence from the Theresa May government, and it’s worth taking note of them as we near the Trump inauguration.
President Trump is going to be operating in an emerging international environment that people haven’t really gotten their heads around. Most of the “Atlanticist West” – approximating how the Russians like to refer to it – still theorizes and writes as if not much has changed in the last eight years, other than some serious unpleasantness in the Middle East. Well, and some minor challenges with migrant pedestrians starting to show up north of the Danube.
But the truth is closer to the formulation of the indecorous Mr. Trump; i.e., that “NATO is obsolete.” The way I’d put it is that it isn’t clear what the point of NATO is now, and it’s past time to do something about that.
The core of any such project is defining what the point of Europe is now. Mrs. May was handed the keys to the UK in the Brexit vote last summer, which threw that question up on a Jumbo Tron in 6-foot high letters. With the two actions Melanie Phillips writes about, May has started a ball rolling, on a course we can’t see the end of from here.
One of the actions was pulling the rug out from under France’s “Middle East peace” conference. As Phillips notes, the May government sensibly observed that the timing is bad – just a few days before a new U.S. president is sworn in – and the conference could hardly hope to be even useful, much less definitive, without the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs there. May decided to send only low-level representatives, and declined to sign the conference resolution. (See also David Gerstman’s superb account at Legal Insurrection.)
But it’s the other thing she reportedly did that showed a hardening crust of independence. The UK is on the way out of the EU; but that didn’t stop May from using the veto she still holds to prevent the EU Foreign Affairs Council from voting to adopt the conference resolution. Asks Phillips:
Can this really be the same British government that just over three weeks ago not only voted for the infamous Israel-bashing UN Security Council resolution 2334 but helped draft it and push it through? No wonder Ha’aretz called today’s move “highly irregular”.
And the implied question is a good one, although I can’t swear to the answer. (I’m hearing from people in the UK that May was caught flat-footed by the Foreign Office’s shenanigans in the UNSCR 2334 kerfuffle, and has been reestablishing her authority, to put it politely, in the weeks since. But that’s hearsay at the moment.)
What is more important, however, is the trend of May’s action: away from collegial, perfunctory deference to the “sense of Europe” momentum that has prevailed at every juncture for the last quarter century. Theresa of Maidenhead didn’t just retire to a corner and excuse herself on this one. She stepped up and exercised a peremptory veto – at a time when she might have justified washing her hands of the matter in an effort to avoid confrontation.
Indeed, she earlier promised to exercise a veto in the UN Security Council, if anything close to what John Kerry outlined in December was proposed there. That public vow put paid to any real prospect of a UN resolution based on the output of France’s “two-states” conference.
Behind-the-scenes pressure from the Trump transition team has been credited with encouraging May’s backbone in that regard. But what’s more significant, in my view, is that she doesn’t seem to be trying to hedge her bets. If Trump has put some steel in her backbone, the essential fact is that there’s a backbone there to galvanize.
The other action Phillips highlights makes that especially clear. Here’s how Phillips describes it:
At the weekend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, was suddenly transformed from a mouse into a man-eating tiger. He threw off his previous temporising attitude and threatened that, if the EU tried to punish Britain for leaving, the UK government would turn London into a corporate tax haven and undermine the EU’s own economy.
Dang, as they say. Argue amongst yourselves as to whose economic power is the high card here; the point is that the May government isn’t temporizing in service of a higher group orthodoxy. Doing that has been the ruling dynamic of Europe for decades now. But if Britain is bailing out of the kabuki play – not just the EU, but the deference-to-Europe narrative – it’s the play that can’t keep going.
These things aren’t happening “because Trump”; that’s too simplistic a view. To be sure, I don’t think they’d be happening just as they are if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Trump undoubtedly makes a major difference. But May’s declaration of independence is more the early, irrevocable symptom of an idea whose time has come.
The arresting thing is that no one can quite say yet what that idea is. The Atlantic West is running in terror right now of a specter – an irredentist “populism” – but that seems to me to be off the mark, at least if populism is held to be a bad attitude prevalent among snaggle-toothed rubes.
Reality is more that the Western peoples are looking around and seeing that there isn’t a compelling idea that is both admissible in today’s public square, and capable of unifying them. The admissible ideas in the post-modern West are the ones turning their public squares unrecognizable, while criminalizing any complaint about that.
What Theresa May has just done is clarify that the incoming Trump administration, independently of anything Trump says, will in fact be dealing with an Atlantic flank and an Eastern hemisphere in which neither NATO 1.0 nor the Europe of the EU is a shibboleth, for which there are no thinkable alternatives.
And while some other commentators have previewed those ideas already, what hasn’t hit home, I think, is that Trump can’t afford to begin by working off of old assumptions. For America’s sake, he does need to do exactly what he’s doing: think past the ending to the next beginning. Otherwise he’ll just be in a tail-chase, at a time when the old assumptions are already collapsing.
France didn’t have to force the “two-states,” Israel-Palestinians issue, and set May up to use her EU veto. But France did – and in doing so may have administered what will be the fatal blow to the 20th-century European idea. I’m betting history will validate the assessment that this was a costly own-goal for “Europe.” The power of the European idea has been broken, in ways we can glimpse only in dim outline right now, by “Europe’s” misdirected obsession with the writ against Israel, and its failure to get it in stone.
I don’t think “Europe” has been hauled back from the precipice of irrelevance, so much as scattered upon it, even if that’s not fully evident yet. A lot of decentralizing trends are likely to start accelerating.