3 March 2016

Symbols without substance


A few weeks ago, I met a group of Europeans who were touring the US on the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. When the conversation turned to the proposed US-EU trade deal, most of the European delegation seemed to agree (sensibly) that its economic impact would be minor. But they supported it none the less, on the argument that it would be a valuable symbol.

That meeting came back to me when I read Rob Halfon MP’s explanation of why he will be voting for Britain to remain in the EU. As he put it, repeatedly, “I am frightened”. For Halfon, the value of the EU is symbolic: it’s supposedly an “alliance of democracies.” The EU’s not doing anything to improve the West’s position. It’s not the kind of alliance that actually fights. It’s just a symbol.

What isn’t a symbol today? The United Nations is a symbol. We mustn’t, we are told, take military action in Syria without UN approval, because that would damage this terribly valuable symbol. NATO is a symbol. None of us are buying the defense we believe we need. We are buying the defense we want to afford, and relying on NATO’s symbolic power to do the job of deterring the Russians.

Angela Merkel is a symbol. What good can possibly come from allowing unlimited numbers of Syrians and others from the wider Middle East – many of whom are economic migrants – to Europe? Apparently, she who must be obeyed believes that, Europe (or maybe it’s Germany: I get them confused sometimes) has to do this because otherwise it wouldn’t be a symbol of all that is right in the world.

But no one can explain how these symbols they are holding up before the altar will have any effect on reality. They prattle about ‘sending signals’ and ‘taking the right position,’ and ‘not discrediting valuable institutions’. They praise the symbols not because of what the symbols do, but because they hope the symbols will relieve them from having to do anything at all. The  symbols have no substance.

Take the US-EU trade deal, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The visiting Europeans liked it because they believed it would be a symbol of transatlantic unity in these dark times. But we are already riddled with institutions that show that unity, from NATO on down.

Yet none of these institutions has stopped the Russians, or revived the Euro, or ended radical Islamist terrorism. Why will a trade deal that will at best produce modest economic gains, and take years to negotiate and many more years to implement, do the job? How will the symbol actually work?

NAFTA – which I support whole-heartedly – hasn’t created political unity between the US, Canada, and Mexico. So why will TTIP unite both sides of the Atlantic Ocean? Even the much deeper European Union hasn’t convinced anyone that Europe stands united against Russia, because it obviously doesn’t.

And then there’s the EU. It’s sad that a self-professed interventionist neo-con like Halfon rests his case for the EU on fear. If you call yourself an interventionist, show some guts. Winston Churchill didn’t want an alliance of democracies because he was afraid. He wanted it because he wasn’t afraid.

And it’s remarkable that Halfon believes that the EU shares his desire (which is also my own) to oppose radical Islam and defend Israel. I suppose Halfon might be running a false flag operation: if the Guardian ever comes to believe that the EU is good for Israel, it’ll back Brexit immediately.

But in the real world, the EU has a history of contempt for Israel, and Germany’s de facto open borders policy for the EU isn’t going to stop Islamist terrorism. The blood is hardly dry in Paris, and Halfon tells us the EU is vital to ending “the return of major terrorist atrocities in Western Europe.” How, exactly?

Here’s an agenda for the West: Stop supporting symbols because they’re symbols. Support them only if they genuinely embody our values, and actually advance them in the real world.

The US-EU deal isn’t about freeing trade: it’s about regulating trade. So if you believe in free trade, don’t back it. The EU isn’t about democracy. It’s a federalist, supranational bureaucracy. So if you believe in democracy, don’t support the EU. If you want to deter Russia, don’t praise NATO: vote for higher defense spending. There is a word for symbols without substance: irrelevant.

And please, stop talking about how frightened you are. It’s embarrassing.

Ted R. Bromund, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in Anglo–American Relations in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.