When there is a major crisis in the international system, it is often followed by a host of small crises that pop up in its wake and start escalating out of control. The 2008 financial crisis set the stage for the current rash of conflicts and confrontations in the Arab world, Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union could have a similar effect.
The 2008 recession emboldened China and Russia to challenge the U.S., contributed to economic fragility in the Arab world, and discouraged Western policymakers from investing heavily in international conflict management. Relatively light-footprint options, such as NATO’s air campaign over Libya, were the order of the day. These often did as much harm as good, and rarely resulted in stable political peace deals.
Britain’s vote may not have quite such dramatic results, but it has stirred up doubts about the solidity of international organizations. While the EU is, of course, the primary institutional victim of the vote, the outcome of the referendum “is also generating uncertainty about an even bigger issue,” in the words of The New York Times: “Is the post-1945 order imposed on the world by the United States and its allies unraveling, too?” In the coming months and years, the best diplomatic minds in Brussels and Washington are likely to focus on shoring up this system—unless Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidency this fall, and follows through on his threat to take apart the global system altogether.