While Americans were glued to their television sets and devices yesterday, listening to a man talk about the executive who fired him, real change was occurring in the United Kingdom. British voters selected members of the House of Commons, changing the balance of their government in a way that was unexpected. The Conservative Party hoped to maintain their hold on Parliament, perhaps even increase their margin of leadership. Instead, they lost seats—sufficient losses that the party needs now to form a coalition government with another party. Many people speculate that Prime Minister Theresa May will resign as a result of the election.
Bring together a group of leaders—business leaders, political leaders, shapers of public opinion—from Europe and North America. Ask each of them what the voters in their country really want. Watch them scratch their heads and listen to them mumble. Over the past few years, voters have made it plain that they want change, but the same voters have been unclear about the kind of change they want.
In Europe and in North America, dissatisfaction with the status quo is running rampart. Liberals promise change, saying that things can be better, and many voters believe them, agree with them, and vote for them. Conservatives say that the government is already doing too much and that change for the better will only happen when the government scales back and stops trying to do so much. Many voters believe them, agree with them, and vote for them.
In this swirling uncertainty, political leaders would ordinarily pull together and support each other. Instead, within governments polarization increases and anger boils over in heated exchanges of rhetoric. Between governments distrust grows, and cooperative ties are stretched to the breaking point.
From its beginning as an economic agreement among three small countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, who formed a free-trade zone they called Benelux) to the European Common Market and the eventual European Union, the governments of Europe have tried to remain competitive with large countries such as the United States, Russia, and China by working together on a set of common goals. The United Kingdom made big news in the early 1970s when they joined the Common Market. They made big news again last year when British voters chose to withdraw from the European Union. When countries open borders and share resources, they find that they also share the problems of their partners. Governments in Spain and Greece are struggling to keep promises made to their citizens—free education, free health care, and the like. Citizens protest with fervor whenever these governments try to trim the national budget to stay solvent. As Margaret Thatcher quipped, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other peoples’ money.” Fear that their taxes would be spent propping up struggling governments—and fear that the European Union’s open borders was allowing dangerous people to enter their country—caused British voters to reject continued membership in the European Union.
Meanwhile President Donald Trump, during the campaign and also since his inauguration, declared that part of his program to make America great again involves reducing American commitments to European allies. European intellectuals tend to view conservative American presidents—Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump—as reckless, misguided cowboys, whooping and hollering and firing guns into the air, endangering the stability of the rest of the world. They would prefer to ignore such a leader, but at the same time they are more certain than are many Americans that President Trump means what he says.
Isolationism will not make America great again. The nations of the world are too interdependent to ignore one another. However, renegotiating agreements that are not in the best interest of the United States is good for America. Even withdrawing from agreements that weaken the United States is good for America. As new leaders emerge in Europe, they will need to deal with President Trump as an existing reality. They will need to ignore the ongoing dramas—the smoke and the mirrors—and communicate with the real President Trump. Most of all, they will need to understand that President Trump will do what is best for the United States while expecting leaders of other nations to do what is best for their citizens. This is the way leaders are supposed to lead. J.