Brexit, the short-sighted decision by British voters to leave the European Union, will take years to implement. But for Americans, it is already a setback, a serious danger from many angles and a cause for sadness. That's because Brexit is a repudiation of the far-sighted, open values the U.S. has championed in Europe since the end of the Second World War. It shows that the atavistic tribal values that the U.S. has struggled against during the whole post-WW II era are regaining ground.
I was in the State Department in the early 1960s in the office of European Regional Affairs, which essentially meant post-war Europe. U.S. policy was largely set by Americans who had taken part in the war and the immediate post-war occupation of Germany, and who knew Europe's post-World War I history. It therefore was to encourage and enhance European economic and political integration. That had been bipartisan American policy at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire where U.S. and European leaders designed a new postwar economic order even as the war still raged. It was also reflected in the ambitious Marshall Plan for reconstruction, as well as in such U.S.-supported multilateral bodies as the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Payments Union, the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), and the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD).
By the 1960s, President Kennedy was encouraging the U.K. to join the European Economic Community (EEC), also called the Common Market or "the Six," the core of what has become today's 28-country European Union. British membership had its opponents in both the U.S. and Europe. Some Americans argued that a common European tariff regime would be more closed to American exporters than one in which each European country would have its own customs arrangements. France was far more protectionist than the U.K., and U.S. farmers were particularly concerned about French and German agricultural protectionism spreading to those countries like The Netherlands that were more open to U.S. farm products.
Within Europe, France's Charles De Gaulle did not want the British to join the Common Market for fear they would be a stalking horse for the Americans. Plenty of the British themselves, including Winston Churchill, wanted a united continental Europe but with the U.K. outside and linked more closely with the U.S. and Canada -- not De Gaulle's vision at all.
American policy largely went against these domestic and overseas opponents of broader European integration. The U.S. had favored the formation of the EEC in 1957 and favored the U.K. joining all through the 1960s, hoping it would encourage the Europeans to adopt liberal trade policies, i.e. lower tariffs on U.S. and other third-country exports. It was thought that the U.K. could be counted on to re-enforce the Dutch and other liberal traders among the Six to keep the door open for U.S. exporters.
There obviously were political reasons for the U.S. position as well. American policy makers believed that if each European country tried to recover from the war and develop economically on its own, intra-European conflicts would erupt. Countries would develop - and subsidize -- "national champions," rather than companies that could compete on world markets. European economic recovery would not be as fast, resources would be wasted and the strong communist parties that had emerged in several of the struggling countries would be only too ready to make deals with the Soviet Union. Hence the U.S. used post-war aid to encourage joint efforts like the European Coal and Steel Community.
Meanwhile, the Dutch, Italians, and Belgians, unlike De Gaulle, liked the idea of Britain inside the EEC because it could operate as a check on German power. They saw the U.K.'s special relationship with the U.S. as a positive factor that would dilute German dominance and face the Community more toward the Atlantic than toward Eastern Europe, Germany's traditional aspirational sphere.
America's post-war support for European economic integration is a glorious success that now could be unraveling. Few reports about the Brexit vote even mention the enormous post-war role the U.S. played in creating the better Europe that is now in danger. The success of Western Europe, due in no small measure to American policy, is stunningly obvious. In the 1970s and '80s, thousands of Eastern Europeans fled to the West because you had to be blind not to see the fruits of American policy. The collapse of the communist bloc in 1989 and '90 had less to do with the difficulties the Soviet Union was having keeping up with the U.S. militarily than with the prosperity and freedom the U.S. had made possible in Western Europe by supporting economic integration and competitive markets.
American leaders --Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and the many visionaries from the World War II generation I met at the State Department, Pentagon, and in Europe in the 1960s -- did the far-sighted thing despite short-sighted opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. They defeated tribal nationalism, and the World is better for it. Long-live their insights. The Brexiters --- midgets compared to these earlier leaders --- have no idea what they are putting at risk.