America will dump an isolated Britain and move closer to EU
Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30
To listen to John Kerry, the US Secretary of State as he tours Europe after the Brexit vote, you might think that the US is carefully hedging its bets when it comes to managing the fallout of the UK decision to leave, but you would only be half-right.
On one level, Washington is hedging, which is to say it is waiting - like everyone else - to see what happens next, first in London and then in the EU-UK negotiations that are going to follow.
For now, Mr Kerry, speaking in Rome yesterday morning, wants to emphasise "how important" the relationship of the EU is to the United States, but also pledges to maintain "close and special relations" with Britain.
But the layers of diplomatic fudge should not obscure the reality that a Britain outside Europe is fundamentally less useful to the United States than a Britain inside the European Union.
The long-standing Anglo-Saxon interface with the EU is about to go dead.
For now, senior officials in the White House say the absence of both market contagion and a decision on who succeeds David Cameron, has given everyone a little time to reflect.
But privately, they are already making a broad strategic calculation: while there is still some hope that Britain might find a way back from the precipice - via a general election perhaps - the over-riding concern in Washington must be to prevent political contagion across the EU.
That is why, for all the talk in Britain of the 'Special Relationship', the UK may not get much change out of Washington when it comes to negotiating the deal.
If it is judged that Britain's treatment needs to be punitive to prevent contagion, then, from an American perspective, so be it.
This, of course, is nothing more than the US looking after its own strategic interest - it wants as little blow-back into its own markets from this Brexit vote as possible, and it will prioritise the stability of the 440 million-strong EU market over the 65 million-strong UK one.
That is the cold reality.
As US President Barack Obama has re-iterated since the Brexit vote, the UK would go to the "back of the queue" when it came to negotiating trade deals.
That quote was taken as aggressive and spiteful during the campaign, but from a DC perspective it was little more than a statement of fact. Add to this the fact that the Obama administration already had very little sympathy with Downing Street and - like much of Europe - viewed Mr Cameron's decision to hold the referendum not as a brave exercise in democracy, but an act of astonishing geopolitical recklessness.
For Washington, the decision fitted perfectly their opinion of Mr Cameron as a small-minded politician who had already done much to shrink Britain's position on the world stage.
Mr Obama has never made much effort to disguise his mild contempt for Mr Cameron, happily causing a furore earlier this year by observing to an interviewer that the British prime minister had dropped the ball in Libya after becoming "distracted" and allowing it to deteriorate into a "s*** show".
This after Mr Cameron had already bungled the parliamentary vote over air-strikes in Syria, spent months quibbling over maintaining 2pc of GDP defence spending and pursued a relentlessly supine policy towards China, just at the time Washington was trying to put some spine into its dealings with Beijing.
All of which is to say that Brexit, from a Washington perspective, looks to be in keeping with a British retreat from the world that already leaves its transatlantic best friend less well-disposed to assist it in carving out a deal in Europe.
Mr Obama's departure at the end of the year will not change this.
It is true that the current president has always been a cold fish towards the UK, but the next one will face the same set of strategic considerations. In short, whoever ends up in the Oval Office, a Britain outside Europe is less useful than one inside.
Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department official who is now advising Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, made that point last Friday within hours of the Leave vote.
"After Brexit, US needs to pivot back to Europe - our largest trade partner/investor and ally, Nato. And DC-Berlin channel now critical," he tweeted.
None of this is to say that the Oval Office phones will stop ringing in Downing Street. Rather, in a world where the British prime minister stays home when the other 27 European leaders meet together, it will simply ring considerably less often. Britain will just slip a few notches down the speed-dial list.
And while the Nato and the intelligence relationship will remain - the UK has geographical intelligence assets in GCHQ and Cyprus that gives it unique utility to Washington - that channel is also being weakened by the shifting ground realities of the global terror threat which demands the US co-operate more broadly in Europe, reducing the primacy of the UK position over time.
On defence, Franco-German plans to boost defence co-operation and reduce waste in defence spending and procurement will be welcomed in a Washington that wants to see Europe increase capacity and, again, inevitably challenge the primacy of the UK-US defence relationship.
These are the geopolitical realities that flow inescapably from a Brexit.
They can be mitigated to some degree by the UK striking a strong deal with Europe, but not entirely obscured for the simple reason that if you are not in the room, you cannot be heard. (© Daily Telegraph London)
Peter Foster has reported for The Telegraph from New Delhi, Beijing and Washington for over a decade. His e-book 'Facing Facts - Is British power diminishing?' is now available