To the residents of the United Kingdom, the signs of the breakup of the old international order are no longer limited to the far-flung regions of their former empire, but are now evident on their own shores.
On March 29, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May triggered her nation’s exit from the E.U. by formally invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the latest in a series of treaties that established the European Union. The day before May’s action, the Scottish Parliament voted 69 to 59 to request a referendum on whether to withdraw from Great Britain and become an independent nation. It was a sequel to the Scots’ first independence referendum, which was defeated in 2014 by a margin of over 10 percent—about 383,000 votes.
The timing of Scotland’s request for a vote, which May’s government rejected, was meant to send a signal to England and the rest of the world that Scotland is committed to the project of European unity, possibly at the expense of its ties to England. It is one of the ironies of history that Scotland’s commitment to transnational unity may ultimately end what may be the longest standing example of it, the union of Scotland and England into a single kingdom in 1707, over three centuries ago. The motivation for the two nations’ union then was a desire to keep the two countries from selecting different monarchs. England wanted to prevent Scotland from meddling in overseas alliances, and Scotland wanted stability to recover from economic catastrophe. The motivations for both countries are largely unchanged in 2017. England seeks the preservation of the union to achieve its ends, while Scotland wants to recover from the economic shock of Brexit by engaging European markets on its own terms.
That Scotland’s vote and May’s invocation of Article 50 can only be understood as linked events, despite their ostensible purpose to put the two countries at odds, is symptomatic of a larger global trend. National elections in 2016 and 2017, even those influenced by fierce nationalist feeling, are now best understood through the lens of transnational cooperation and conflict.
The world perceived the results of the battle between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron for the presidency of France, which was decided in Macron’s favor on May 7, as a decision by France to embrace the values of the E.U.—freedom of movement across borders and a subordination of ethnic and religious differences in favor of economic cooperation—over Le Pen’s isolationism. The same tension has arguably fueled the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and the rise of populist, illiberal politics in Hungary and Poland.
What is increasingly clear is that to understand the future of national politics at this moment in history, it’s necessary to have a global frame. The issues everywhere are the same and slightly different at the same time. Yes, there are local dialects, and their nuances are important. But for the moment, the language of international politics is a universal one.