Robin Niblett
Director, Chatham House
The price America has paid to build a peaceful Europe means it has earned a voice in this debate.
David Cameron and Barack Obama hold a joint press conference at Lancaster House on 25 May 2011 in London. Photo by Getty Images.David Cameron and Barack Obama hold a joint press conference at Lancaster House on 25 May 2011 in London. Photo by Getty Images.

On Friday 22 April, US President Barack Obama will visit the UK and likely endorse Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU. The intervention has drawn a crescendo of accusations of US hypocrisy from those who favour Brexit. How dare the president interfere in a domestic decision about the future of Britain’s sovereignty? And how dare he do so when the US is among the most jealous at guarding its own? 

Answering these two questions sheds light on two critical dimensions of the EU referendum debate. First, the US is not being hypocritical because each country must weigh up how it uses its sovereign power in international relations, and the US has more options than the UK. Second, the United States has earned the right to give its opinion on the referendum, not least given the scale of the issues at stake.

Logical, not hypocritical

The US can afford to be more selective than most countries on when and where it limits its sovereignty. Its population of 325 million is five times that of the UK and it spends 10 times as much as on defence, despite being bordered by two non-threatening neighbours. America’s military, intelligence and diplomatic resources are backed by the largest and most dynamic single economy in the world.

As a result, US administrations have the luxury of following their political and popular preferences and have constrained US sovereignty in very few areas, the most significant being through its commitments to its military alliances, including NATO and with Japan and South Korea. It has also agreed to abide by WTO decisions when it is found guilty of infringing international trade rules. On the other hand, the US has not created a customs union on the American continent, nor has it ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the Statute creating the International Criminal Court.

In contrast, the UK’s options are more limited. While the UK is still the world’s fifth-largest economy, it is in inevitable relative economic decline. Developing countries with far larger populations, such as China, India and Indonesia, are taking advantage of technological innovation, improved standards of education, free trade and foreign investment to catch up. The UK is now a net energy importer, while the US has become one of the world’s largest energy producers. And the UK is far more dependent on trade for its economic performance than the US. Whereas US trade in goods and services accounts for 30 per cent of its GDP according to the World Bank, the figure is 60 per cent for the UK, and around half of that trade is with the EU.

Nor does the UK enjoy such beneficial geography as the United States. Britain faces an authoritarian, nuclear-armed Russia to the east, a southern neighbourhood in flames and European partners struggling to cooperate effectively to deal with both.

The US is not being hypocritical, therefore, when it says it wants Britain to remain in the EU. It is being logical. Membership of the EU helps the UK, one of America’s most valued allies, manage its relatively weaker geoeconomic and geopolitical position.

A legitimate voice

This brings us to whether the US president has the right to comment on the British referendum. The reasons why he would do so from the perspective of the US national interest have been well-covered, including by eight former US treasury secretaries in their letter to The Times and in a new expert comment by my Chatham House colleague Xenia Wickett. But the US also has the right and duty to comment.

The US has had to rescue Britain twice from major wars in Europe in the past century; in 1917 and in 1941. Thereafter, the US based over 300,000 troops in Europe through the Cold War, protecting Britain and its European neighbours from Soviet military aggression and economic blackmail and putting its own citizens’ lives on the line alongside those of its allies in the event of a nuclear war. In 1948, the US insisted on the creation of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, the forerunner of the EU, as a condition for providing the Marshall Plan, knowing that European economies needed to pull together to survive and prosper in a brutally competitive world.

After decades committed to building a Europe whole, free and at peace, a peace that the US still underwrites today, the US president is right to share his view about the risks of the UK leaving the EU. If Britain were to do so, it would potentially destabilize the EU at just the wrong time: when a re-armed Russia has rejected the rules-based order created to sustain peace in Europe after the Cold War; when continental EU governments are struggling to manage an unprecedented inflow of refugees and migrants; and when populist parties are gaining in strength on the back of a still painful economic recession for many. And it would leave just as the US is trying to strengthen the transatlantic relationship in the face of a more economically and politically assertive China. Viewed from the Oval Office, a decision by Britain to weaken Europe at such a moment looks at best like self-indulgence, at worst like vandalism.

The United States believed in the 1930s that it could leave Europe to manage its future, but learned painfully that Europeans can forget the lessons of their own history. President Obama is right to speak up now before the British make the same mistake.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback