Political attention across the United States is inevitably fixated on this year's extraordinary presidential primaries. But there is another vote, taking place across the Atlantic, that may yet have real bearing on America's future.
On June 23, the United Kingdom will decide whether it should remain part of the European Union. The early polls suggest that not only the Conservative government, but the whole country, is split. The mood is volatile; the risk of “Brexit” is real. Many of the same forces that have left the purveyors of conventional wisdom dizzy with bewilderment during these presidential primaries have also been unleashed in this referendum. Economic anxiety, hostility to elites, opposition to immigration and fears of terrorism have combined to loosen the ties which bind Britain to Europe.
And like the presidential primaries, the referendum is already proving to be a contest where those offering a pragmatic or more progressive view of the world are getting drowned out by those with the loudest voices and biggest egos.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has spent so much of his career appeasing opponents of the EU, now has just three months to find his own voice and make a compelling case for Britain remaining in Europe.
For 70 years, since the end of World War II, America has been the system operator of international order built on a strong, stable Transatlantic Alliance, supported by the twin pillars of NATO and the EU.
If Britain leaves the EU, America's closest ally would be marginalized on the European Continent. But it gets worse: A vote for Brexit would leave the whole European project at risk of unraveling at precisely the time new economic and security threats confront the West.
Indeed, the importance of the EU to peace and promoting democratic values has only been reinforced by Russia's intervention into Syria's civil war and its earlier incursion in Ukraine. With falling oil prices leading to increased economic and political pressure in the Kremlin, few can — or should — discount the possibility of further aggression in the years ahead. Little wonder therefore that President Vladimir Putin would be one of the few global leaders to see Brexit as a positive development, one that would fundamentally weaken the West.
In recent days, the U.S. military has begun voicing its strategic concerns. First, there was NATO's military commander in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, who warned that Russia is intentionally creating a refugee crisis to “overwhelm” and “break” Europe. Then came Lt. Gen Frederick Ben Hodges, who said that “if the EU begins to become unraveled, there can't help but be a knock-on effect for the [NATO] alliance also.”
Now President Obama, the commander in chief, is reported to be so concerned that he may travel to the U.K. so he can urge voters to stay within the EU.
That such an intervention is even being considered shows the White House understands there is real danger for the United States in this referendum.
Britain, which for so long has acted as an axis on which the relationship between America and Europe can turn, may be turning in on itself. And in Brussels, as in Washington, there are growing fears that the contagion of withdrawal could spread and lead to the collapse of the EU.
The bright vision of a Europe “whole and free” set out by President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War is fading fast.
In 1989, a wall that divided Europe came down. In 2016, barbed wire fences that divide Europe are going up. Donald Tusk, the European council president, recently compared these times to Europe “the day before World War I” when decades of prosperity disintegrated into darkness.
A British vote to leave would be a victory for isolationism over internationalism.
Rt. Hon. Douglas Alexander is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School.