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Britain's Brexit And Trump America: Allies' Influence Threatened On World Stage


Two political earthquakes shook the Western world last year - Brexit and the U.S. election of Donald Trump. Many in Europe now see those votes as a one-two punch to the post-World War II structure, decisions that weaken the influence of America and its closest ally, Britain. NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled to Brussels, home of the European Union, and filed this report.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In the years after World War II, the U.K. and the U.S. helped design the world as we know it. Last year, they seemed to turn their backs on the liberal global order. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and the United States elected an America-first populist in Donald Trump.

ROSA BALFOUR: From June 2016 to the early months of 2017, it was really quite a shock.

LANGFITT: Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., based in Brussels. The United Kingdom has traditionally been seen as politically stable at home and abroad. But after the Brexit vote, the ruling Tory Party descended into civil war.

BALFOUR: If you look at domestic politics, it's turmoil. I mean, every other day, there are reports that the government is going to fall. So there's a very strong sense of weakness coming from London.

LANGFITT: When was the last time that Britain looked like this from the perspective of the rest of continental Europe?

BALFOUR: I mean, there's no precedent to this.

LANGFITT: To most Europeans, the U.S. under Donald Trump seems no better.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: Terrible - he looks terrible.

LANGFITT: I caught up with Roland Freudenstein at a Brussels Pub. He's policy director of the Martens Centre, a think tank. Trump has angered many Europeans by walking away from the Paris climate accord and by deciding to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Freudenstein and others here hope traditionalists like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will continue to rein in the president. But some talk of moving on. Freudenstein describes their thinking like this.

FREUDENSTEIN: We've got to cut loose from the U.S. because - simply because a nation that elects that guy for president cannot be sane and cannot be our strategic ally.

LANGFITT: The result is division, which Rosa Balfour of the German Marshall Fund says weakens Western democracies and the transatlantic alliance that has largely supported peace and prosperity since the end of World War II.

BALFOUR: I don't want to be apocalyptic, but I mean, the world is changing. The world is changing in a way - at a pace that we're not used to and in a way that will make the West a much smaller part of the global map.

LANGFITT: Roland Freudenstein says some in Brussels pray Trump only serves one term. But he adds there's no guarantee whoever comes next would mend relations with Europe.

FREUDENSTEIN: I hope we can go back to a much deeper mutual appreciation and friendship and alliance, but this will not necessarily happen. Trump's successor may be a populist from the left, or we may get a Trump two.

LANGFITT: Guntram Wolff runs Bruegel, a leading think tank here in Brussels. When we spoke in his office, I asked him this.

When the history books are written 20, 30, 40 years from now, what do you think this era will be called?

GUNTRAM WOLFF: I think it will be called an era in which the West is searching for, you know, its place in the world. And I think a lot of what we are seeing is really a result also of the diminishing giant phenomenon.

LANGFITT: The United Kingdom and the United States dominated the 20th century, but power now is moving east.

WOLFF: We see the rise of China, and we see the rise of other emerging economies that increasingly play a role in global affairs. And part of I think the resentment that is being felt against globalization and so on in Europe and also in the United States is a result of this shift in power.

LANGFITT: Which Wolff says presents a troubling question to Europeans and Americans. What future role will the West play in the world? Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.