Beyond Brexit: Lessons for the Middle East

Because Western elites want the world to be a certain way, they have deluded themselves into thinking that modern politics simply works like this

Dr. John C. Hulsman
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My political risk consulting firm, alone among its major competitors, called the stunning British decision to leave the European Union (EU) correctly. What did we know that our rivals did not?

There are many technical answers to that question: a real understanding of the ruling Conservative Party helped, as did a recognition of the hidden schisms dividing British political life, between London and the rest, old versus young, metropolitanism versus provincialism. All that is true, but at a philosophical level we were spurred on to be analytically correct by a further understanding.


The new multipolar world simply does not work as Western elites believe and hope that it will, precisely because their analysis has been distorted by their inability to intellectually separate belief from hope. Because they so want the world to be a certain way: post-national, transnational, and supranational, they have deluded themselves into thinking that modern politics simply works like this.

As the Brexit vote illustrates, and in these very poor analysts heated response to it, this world view is heading for the dust bin of history, whether Davos man likes it or not. There are invaluable lessons for the Arab world to learn from this collective western analytical failure, but it will take fundamentally looking at the world a very different way to benefit.

The Brexit vote is an intellectual watershed, precisely because what western elites have been telling themselves for many years about how the world works has been proven to be definitively wrong

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Lesson 1: One size does not fit all

One of the things that has always made me skeptical about the EU project is that it attempts to homogenize the most heterogeneous place on the planet. The reason so many of us love Europe is that you can travel – unlike in the US, Russia or China – one hundred miles in any direction and find yourself in a very different and very distinct thousand-year-old culture. The beauty of Europe is these differences, not the EU trying to regulate a common size for pint glasses, or anything else for that matter.

Europe is simply too big and its component parts are too different for the centralizing EU project to ever really succeed. Think of it this way. The US started with a common language, a common colonial experience with a common mother country, and a common economic system, and it still took a ghastly Civil War with 600,000 casualties to make it a nation eighty-plus years on from its founding.

Europe has a cacophony of languages, a common history only of killing each other and – as the euro crisis has plainly shown – very different sorts of economies within it. This one-size-fits-all approach is simply never going to work well.

For the Arab world the lesson must be clear. Just as Pan-Europeanism has failed, the Arab world must give up its flirtations with Pan-Arabism, Caliphates encompassing the whole variegated region, or indeed any political philosophy or movement that seeks to ignore the very different histories of the very different parts of the Middle East. Instead, smaller units of politics that actually reflect these difference are what could lead the region to more stable political outcomes.

Lesson 2: Organic units of politics will always win out

In the case of a post-Brexit Europe, it is clear to all but devoted cheerleaders that the supranational impulse of Europe’s elites has met its Waterloo. Instead, and despite analytically being ignored for decades, nationalism is alive and well and animating European politics, precisely because unlike the EU, it is grounded in the organic political realities of people’s lives and how they still see themselves. There are precious few Europeans, compared with people who identify themselves as British, French, and Germans.

Beyond Britain decisively spurning the EU, Germany, the dominant power in Brussels, precisely because it is the country (that is what ultimately matters) paying the bills to keep things going, also seems to have had enough of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s supranational delusions of grandeur.

The Brexit negotiations will be conducted by the European Council (that is, the countries) and not the Commission, the repository of Europe’s collective will. When push comes to shove, it is the nation-state that remains the organic unit of European politics.

For the Middle East, as is true in the case of Iraq, even the country level is often not where real organic legitimacy can be found. For Iraq it is a further ethno-religious level down: with the Sunnis, the Shiite, and the Kurds, that organic political legitimacy and true political power resides. Analytically recognizing this allows for some hope of political and policy success. Ignoring this reality means there can only be further hard years ahead of chaos and failure.

Lesson 3: Regional groups should do less and do it better

The EU, in constantly wanting to expand its dominion over ever more of the policy world, has ended up in a classic case of mission creep: It has failed at everything – from the euro to refugees to Brexit – because it has tried to do everything. An EU centred around making the Single Market work and one that negotiates global free trade deals would be a daunting enough task without creating a common foreign service, dreaming of a common army, and meddling in practically everything.

The lesson for the Arab world is that regional institutions that do less are likely to do it better. In my view, the Arab League, rather than ineffectively pronouncing on almost everything that happens in the world, can be made an effective multilateral tool for the region if it were to focus on specific policy problems that all the member states wish to solve, and to do no more than that, but do it better.

The Brexit vote is an intellectual watershed, precisely because what western elites have been telling themselves for many years about how the world works has been proven to be definitively wrong. It is up to the rest of us, including the Arab world, to live by political philosopher Edmund Burke’s adage, and see the world as it really is, and then make it better.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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