A former US diplomat and NAFTA negotiator tells us the 3 biggest risks Brexit poses to the United States

  • Brexit poses significant risks to US interests around the world.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, former US diplomat Ambassador Charles Ries discussed Brexit’s impact on the “serious” threat of Russia, how it could weaken the NATO alliance, and how losing Britain’s “economically liberal” voice in Brussels could spell bad news.

LONDON – Donald Trump intends to visit the UK later this year, when all focus will be on a much-hyped Brexit trade deal between the UK and US.

The truth is that a deal is much more important to the UK than it is to the US, which is a bigger market and counts UK trade as a much smaller fraction of its total.

Analysts do, however, believe that Brexit poses significant risks to US interests, and they are generally under-explored. A recent report from the RAND Corporation, which specialises in public policy research, said these threats are wide-ranging and serious, ranging from foreign policy to economics.

Business Insider spoke to Ambassador Charles Ries, vice president of the RAND Corporation and a former US diplomat whose career included posts overseeing the US-European Union relationship and working as a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiating team, which created the world’s largest free trade arrangement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

He discussed three ways in which Brexit could negatively affect US political and economic interests.

1. The “serious threat” of Russia

Russia’s attempts to divide and weaken Europe are well-documented, and an investigation into whether Russia meddled in the EU referendum is ongoing. Some say Brexit represents a fragmentation which serves Russia’s interests at the expense of the transatlantic alliance.

“The highest concern [for the US] is the potential impact of Brexit on European cohesion,” said Ries.

“Thus far the impact of the Brexit process has actually been to [weaken] Euroscepticism and increase support for the European Union.

“But the Russians and other adversaries have welcomed signs of Euroscepticism and perhaps encouraged it. Our interests are the opposite to that. Our interests are to keep Europe strong, because Europe together with the United States and the transatlantic alliance are an important element in our security.”

“I think [Russia] is a serious threat … it has supported nationalist movements in central and eastern Europe designed to pull those countries away from Brussels and from the European Union, and supported parties that have taken such views.”

2. Losing Britain’s “economically liberal voice” in Brussels

In economic terms, Ries said the biggest impact of Brexit on the United States could be the loss of Britain’s “pragmatic and economically liberal voice” at the European Council.

“For those of us who worked on US-EU affairs, the British were more likely than not to suggest that the EU be open to international trade and investment. That was a voice we thought made a difference in terms of outcomes,” he said.

There was a rare and notable exception when the British adopted a protectionist stance: the Great US-EU Banana Fight of the 1990s. The UK, along with 10 other countries, tried to slap a 20% import tariff on bananas imported from the Americas, which the US baulked at.

“In that case, the British were not the liberals, the Germans and the Dutch and Swedes were the liberals,” Ries said.

On balance, however, Ries said it’s “not very controversial to say that the British favoured an open trading regime and relationship and tended to resist more protectionist approaches in areas like data protection and other regulatory issues.”

3. A weaker foreign policy

North American and European countries are bound together by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a powerful military alliance whereby member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack.

Since the EU was created, it has developed its own security and defence policy, leading to fears in Washington that Nato would be sidelined. As a member of the EU, Ries says the UK was key in ensuring that didn’t happen.

“The British … have been leaders of those who felt that European [defence policy] should not sideline Nato and should be collaborative with the alliance.”

“Speaking from Washington, the concern has always been that somehow the development of a stronger European Union defence structures – either headquarters or brigades or other kinds of initiatives – might weaken the commitment of key European member states to the alliance and to competing structures.

“When you get down to it it has to do with, where do the leading admirals and generals spend their time? Are they spending their time at EU structures, are they spending their time at [Nato] structures?”

“Given the challenges the alliance faces, particularly after [Russia’s annexation of] Crimea, and the conflict in Ukraine, Washington’s attitude is that it’s all the more important that there be transatlantic co-operation or political security issues and adequate resources for that.”

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