Portland Bill lighthouse, Dorset, UK - warning fog signal. Flickr/ Elliott Brown. Some rights reserved.It is said that in the 1930s an English newspaper once published the following headline: “Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off”. Ever since, this has been taken as a snapshot of British national character, evidence of a longstanding British attitude vis-à-vis the continent. And no wonder, for the island has been coveted by a succession of Roman, Saxon, Viking, Norman, Frank and German invaders alike. So, it was only natural that the British would now want to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length, as evidenced by the recent ‘Brexit’majority vote to leave the European Union (one of the greatest setbacks faced by the organization since the rejection of a European Constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005.)
So much for Britain on their own soil. What about the British presence in the rest of the world? For centuries the British Empire extended its power all over the globe, its pervasive influence being evident till today in legacies such as the universal lingua franca – English – and the most popular sport on the planet – football.
Supporters of Brexit argue that the United Kingdom needs to retrieve its sovereignty from the encroachments of the EU’s courts, tax regulations and, above all, migration mandatory quotas. Arguably, the ancient specter of invasion – though this time not by fierce warriors but by impoverished immigrants – prompted the majority of British citizens to opt-out from the EU.
This shows a lack of historical perspective among the British public, not only concerning the unique project of the EU, but also regarding their historic responsibility as heirs of one of the more recent empires in the history of humankind.
Empires by definition are meant to rule over other peoples, which more often than not has led to waging war on them. As with every war, imperial wars can be assessed under normative frame provided by the Just War tradition. According to Gary Bass, the latest criteria proposed by this tradition is the idea of a jus post bellum dimension accompanying those of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. A just war is not only that which is fought for the right reasons and in a civilized fashion; the victors must also make every endeavor to rebuild institutional structures for the vanquished to have a chance to thrive after defeat. This is what has been also labeled the ‘responsibility to rebuild’ stage of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, after the ‘responsibility to prevent’ and the ‘responsibility to react’ echelons have been exhausted.
To be sure, there is much blame to assign to the United States in terms of jus post bellum for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria. Without a US invasion against Iraq in 2003 and poor jus post bellum policies therefrom, there would be no Islamic State, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and seek refuge in Europe. But the historic responsibility to rebuild and to nurture political systems in the region also falls on the former British Empire and the rest of the deceased European empires, previous rulers in many of the countries where the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ violently arose, leading to another chapter in the migration crisis.
An important part of rebuilding is policing or maintaining security. By abandoning their historical role as military superpowers – only under the blanket of security provided by the United States during the last seven decades, as Barack Obama bluntly reminded Europeans last April in Hanover – European countries have neglected their duty to help local governments in providing minimum conditions for security in the countries formerly colonized by them.
If the US is to blame for Islamic State, Europeans share their part of the blame for poverty and instability in their former colonies and for the massive waves of migrants currently knocking at their doors. As John Rawls pointed out in his book The Law of Peoples: “The way a war is fought and the deeds done in ending it live on in the historical memory of societies and may or may not set the stage for future war. It is always the duty of statesmanship to take this longer view”. And we may add: it is the duty of responsible twenty-first century citizenship as well.
Until this year’s June 23, history walked toward regional integration in the world, with Europe spearheading the effort. Now the United Kingdom will abandon that path. Rather than honoring their praiseworthy humanitarian tradition of sober just post bellum arrangements such as those deployed after the 1860 crisis in Syria and Lebanon, the British have decided to follow literally the figurative advice of their countryman Sir Isaiah Berlin, and fall back on their ‘inner citadel’, to endure the calamities sent out by destiny.
Only there is no such thing as an inner citadel for any country in the twenty-first century, as Cuba and North Korea have begun to learn, let alone for a former empire that spread its legacy all over the world. Its historic duty lies in helping out other nations formerly under its yoke.
But Europeans long ago started to stray from their historic responsibility to rebuild the worlds they once carved out and destroyed at will. It is a cruel irony of fate, which would make the goddess Nemesis herself laugh, that they now complain against the waves of migrants that their historic irresponsibility has contributed to creating.
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