As a young university student of international relations, I was force fed Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which depicted a post-Cold War landscape dominated by cultural and religious identities. Huntington argued that near homogenous cultural blocks would fight the wars of the future, the next evolution of the nation state. The notion of cultural warfare isn’t particularly novel, tracing its intellectual development through thinkers like Albert Camus and Basil Mathews. One could even argue the ‘great civilizing mission’ of European colonization was the ultimate form of cultural warfare – exploiting the parochial ‘us versus them’ mentality. In the same class, I was taught that the European Union (EU) was the golden standard of supranational governance, proof that international cooperation could overcome narrow national interests. If Huntington painted a future of towering walls and bloody cultural skirmishes, to me the EU held the hope of a future filled with open borders, a world where people exchanged ideas instead of bullets.
Call it naïveté or optimistic idealism, but after serving in the Iraq War, I desperately wanted to believe there was a better way. However, in the wake of Brexit, the vote for Great Britain to leave the EU, I fear the world is tumbling headlong into reckless cultural warfare and bitter isolationism.
Undoubtedly, some will argue Brexit was simply a decision on national sovereignty, an economic and political backlash against the ineffective and overbearing nature of the EU. Admittedly, the EU is a chaotic, bureaucratic institution with a litany of shortcomings from excessive regulations and glacier-like speed. At its core, however, the EU represents the dream of a Pan-European identity and a collective future for the continent. Brexit fundamentally undermines that vision – a twisted blade in the heart of the European Project.
Established in 1992, the EU sought to create a political, social, and economic order that transcended individual countries. Within the European Project, one could be born in London, educated in France, and a residential worker in Germany. And now, that nascent vision faces perilous times. Brexit ultimately decided that being British was defined by “not being European,” reflecting a toxic cocktail of middle class economic discontent, nationalism, and xenophobia. This movement, however, is not limited to the UK, but spans the globe.
The argument is the same everywhere. The “barbarians,” often people of a different race and religion, are at the walls. The seemingly endless horde threatens to undermine and destroy the nation and its sacred values, invoking images of the fall of imperial Rome. Therefore, walls must be erected and traitors weeded out and oppressed, all in the name of patriotism and security. This drama is being played out globally to varying degrees from anti-Western sentiment in Russia to tortuous treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. Similarly, the bigotry and racism of Trump’s presidential bid in the United States and the growing illiberalism of the ruling Polish government all stem from the same poisonous brew.
The tragic irony is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State have been utilizing the same myopic argument to justify the violence engulfing the Middle East. But in the narrative of radical Islam, Western multiculturalism and capitalism represent the barbarians at the wall. Just as Brexit reflects an ugly desire to categorize who is British and who is not, the Islamic State is distinguishing between true believers and infidels.
It is a race to the bottom to see who can draw the cultural fault lines deepest.
I fear that Brexit heralds an era where walls dominate Europe, both physically and metaphorically, destroying the powerful belief in the freedom of movement – where we are left to hide scared and alone in the looming shadows of our self-erected walls – rather than face the unruly mess of living together, strengths and faults alike. I say this as a citizen of the world who sees the same divisive rhetoric fueling so much of the world’s chaos and violence. Ultimately, Brexit is not about jobs or regulations, but a battle for a grander social vision.
We are at a moral crossroads as a species, and I hope we find our way back to each other.
Sebastian J. Bae, a star contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his masters at Georgetown University’s security studies program, specializing in violent non-state actors and counterinsurgency. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianBae.