If Brexit Britain wants to find its place in the world, it’d better start soon

It was the most spectacularly inward-looking of elections. Of course, all politics is local, as a US congressman once famously said. Everywhere, people tend to vote according to the preoccupations of their immediate vicinity. No one can be forced to contemplate global trends, shifting geopolitics, conflict dynamics or trade routes before they cast a ballot.

But as it teeters on the precipice of Brexit – the intricacies of which have never been thoroughly debated in this campaign, and the outcome of which will define more about the country’s future than any single party manifesto ever could – Britain today stands strikingly apart from other large western democracies in its bewildering parochialism.

The words “global Britain” and “internationalism” have been cast around, but there has been dramatically little effort to shed light on what exactly they might now mean, and how they could be translated into reality. There are many reasons for this, not least in the awkwardness of political leaders – left and right – whose personal attitudes towards Brexit have been ambiguous.

But the result is that the public has been left in bleak ignorance of what may lie ahead, and how Britain could redefine its place in the world – that is, if the country still cares to demonstrate it has influence. This means the hard work starts now. But an opportunity has been lost. The many and daunting questions attached to Brexit remain wide open.

To be fair, in-depth discussion of foreign affairs hardly ranks as an absolute must in the political debates of Britain’s key western partners, either. But some discussion of the state of the world and of one’s country’s place in it were at least part of the public discourse in last year’s US election, as well as in the recent French campaign. The same will be true in Germany.

The omission in Britain, after an election specifically called to shape the country’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, seems inexplicable when so much is at stake.

And yet, with the start of negotiations just days away, there is a conversation about positioning and philosophy that must be undertaken. It should, I believe, embrace a series of truths.

We know we live in a global era of accelerated change – something political scientists have called an “ordering moment”. It’s a transitional phase in which, as the historian Mary Elise Sarotte describes it, “previous authorities, identities, norms and structures lose their dominance and multiple new paths to the future become feasible”. It happened when the Soviet Union crumbled a generation ago, and also when the Middle East started unravelling entirely over the last decade.

Trump, Brexit, Putin, Erdoğan and Xi are all part of today’s “ordering moment”, but globalisation and digitalisation are obviously deeper trends that transcend the personalities of leaders. Thinking they can be undone is like believing you can uncook a cake. Depending perhaps on where your political beliefs lie, you’ll celebrate the “end of the western-led world” or you’ll shudder at the “collapse of the international liberal order”. If you’re democratically minded, you tend to worry.

What seems likely to unfold is a battle between two distinct visions: an effort to harness a rules-based global governance as it emerged after 1945, if need be by amending parts of it; or the acceptance of a world in which no-holds-barred geopolitical competition becomes the name of the game. Take note that something approaching the latter vision has been laid out not by a Kremlin ideologue nor by a Beijing nationalist, but by two members of Donald Trump’s team.

General HR McMaster, his national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, wrote in an ominous op-ed after Trump’s Europe tour: “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-government actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage … Rather than deny this elemental nature of international relations, we embrace it.” Those words will surely have been noted by those who must now orchestrate Brexit. Concerns about Trump making a state visit to Britain, or not, fade against that backdrop.

Consider also the regional dynamics. In Europe today, as a result of Brexit, it’s likely there will be more, not less, discussion of Germany’s role as the continent’s centre of gravity. This will happen in parallel with a renewed effort to reinvigorate the Franco-German relationship, made possible by the election of Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned successfully on the notion that French patriotism derives directly from the country’s commitment to the EU, not from shunning it. Angela Merkel’s words about Europeans no longer being able to count entirely on others have set the stage for a reckoning on the continent’s strategic prospects.

Britain has much to gain – in terms of strategic heft as well as its own security – by making sure it stays as close as possible to its European partners. Exceptionalism will only go so far when a US president shows only disdain for traditional allies, as was the case at the recent Nato meeting.

With Nato’s collective defence guarantees in question, it makes sense to explore all options for bolstering European stability. That the Middle East seems on the verge of unleashing new dimensions of chaos within itself and beyond – witness the current crisis in Qatar – is also relevant. Britain, like the rest of Europe, sits on that geopolitical doorstep. It is also within reach of the long-term, anticipated migrant flows that many experts point to when they look at the demographics of Africa. Surely these issues point to more, not less, cooperation with European partners; also to development aid.

Then look at China and consider how its “One Belt One Road” project of soft power will affect us. Don’t be surprised if China now strives to fill the void being created by the US embrace of Trump, an opportunity magnified by his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The Chinese make no secret of the fact they see their country reclaiming a place in the world that was wrongly denied it over a period stretching back to the mid-19th century.

And then think about the unthinkable, or at least the unexpected, the “events, dear boy” of Harold Macmillan. Remember that in 2013, when David Cameron announced a Brexit referendum, there was no way he could have known that a major refugee crisis would soon affect Europe (and British public opinion), nor that Russia would attack Ukraine, nor, for that matter, that we were about to be dragged into the world of Trump.

There is a comfort to the familiar. Perhaps that explains the dynamics of a general election that promised to look outwards and ahead but instead kept eyes fixed inwards. Defining a destiny for Britain alongside but not away from Europe will now be an even greater task, but it can be done. It’s in fact unavoidable, but can only start with a cool-headed and informed debate. Britain’s European friends would welcome that more than they currently care to say.