America, Stay Out of Britain's EU Debate

American interests and opinions have no place in the decision.

It's their decision.

Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama plans to deliver a message to the British people: Stay in the European Union and say no to “Brexit.” That’s what Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he has been led to expect.

At a hearing earlier this month, his committee heard from two witnesses who had served in the Bush and Obama administrations. Both of them urged the U.S. to make it clear, as Britain prepares to vote on its membership in the EU, that Americans want it in. 

As if the U.S. message wasn't clear already. The Obama administration’s mantra is that we want “a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union.” It has even hinted that it would not sign a trade agreement with Britain if it left the EU.

Support for deeper British involvement in a more and more united Europe has been a bipartisan American policy since the early days of the Cold War. But it is time for us to back off. The British do not need the U.S. government’s advice on how to vote on their referendum. Moreover, the case that their staying in the EU advances U.S. interests is weak.

Perhaps the most common argument for European unity you hear in the U.S. is that it has kept the peace on a formerly war-torn continent. But this seems like a straightforward case of confusing cause and effect: Peace, backstopped by American security guarantees, is what allowed the European Union to form and develop.

The witnesses at that hearing warned that a British exit would reduce the influence of a strong ally of ours within the EU, and even in the world as a whole. This argument begins with the accurate assessment that we have a tighter and friendlier relationship with Britain than with France, Germany or other European countries.

But an important implication of that argument went unmentioned: Britain might become less pro-American the more it assimilates into Europe. From the standpoint of U.S. interests, there’s a trade-off. It can’t simply be assumed that further British integration into Europe is good for us. Britain has in recent years been the most frequently outvoted member of the European Union, and by a large margin, suggesting that the value of its influence may not be very high for itself, let alone for us.

And this raises two further points. While we have an interest in making sure Britain continues to have global influence, the British themselves obviously have a larger interest in it. There is no reason to believe we can judge how to maintain that influence better than they can. They may even resent it if we lecture them on this issue.

The second point is that we aren’t likely to sway the British by making a case based on our interests, either. The referendum involves some of the most profound interests a nation can have. Many Britons see the European Union as a threat to their economy, their sovereignty, even their way of life. We cannot convince them they are wrong about these issues, and it is not our place to try. And it is not reasonable to ask people who have these concerns that they should look past them because we find their membership in the EU useful to our own foreign policy.

Threats about trade relations are worse than pointless. Refusing to negotiate a trade deal with a post-Brexit Britain would be a punitive gesture made at our own considerable expense. For that reason, the threat is not credible: Of course we would make a deal.

To reach back to the early Cold War again: The warning about worse trade relations with us is reminiscent of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s 1953 message that we would have to conduct an “agonizing reappraisal” of our defense commitments to France if it rejected a treaty to form a European Defense Community. The French rejected the treaty -- his comments probably contributed to that outcome -- and the Eisenhower administration continued to keep France under our military umbrella, which was plainly in America’s interest.

What President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other American officials should say to the British about their referendum, then, are words to this effect: We trust the British people to reach their own wise conclusions on their relationship with continental Europe, and we are committed to having a strong relationship with Britain whatever they decide. But even those words should be volunteered only if asked.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.