As Joseph Nye of Harvard has taught the world, success in contemporary diplomacy depends on the quality of reputation he dubbed “soft power.” This has been one of Britain’s great strengths. The country has been riding high after successful exercises in paying rent on its reputation such as hosting the London Olympics of 2012. Britain’s national brand has long included an understanding of the country as being a good friend, dependable ally and trusted partner, underneath its claims to spectacular and even idiosyncratic distinctiveness. But this virtue of partnership has been largely unspoken in public roll calls of national strengths. Since the election of Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative government in 2010, the U.K. has presented itself to the world under the banner of the “Great” campaign. A tenacious unit at Downing Street has coordinated the country’s international self-presentation under a small number of categories: “Heritage is Great Britain,” “Creativity is Great Britain,” “Culture is Great Britain” and so forth. Sadly, there was no “Cooperation is Great Britain,” although the British role in multilateral organizations—be it the United Nations, the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth, the International Criminal Court or the Council of Europe—is one of its great strengths. More than this, the country itself was a cooperative project, and the dramatic split between England/Wales and Scotland/Northern Ireland over the issue of Europe plainly threatens the “united” part of the United Kingdom. The man behind the Great campaign, David Cameron’s former communications tsar Steve Hilton, was one of the Brexiteers crowing in front of BBC News cameras as word of the vote results broke on June 24. Maybe his successors will be able to claim: “Democracy is Great Britain,” even though the reality seems to be “Xenophobia is Great Britain.” The truth is, Britain has always had impulses to cooperate and to isolate. The tragedy is that the Brexit referendum took a snapshot of opinion at an extreme moment of the pendulum swing. Now we have to live with the result. It is a convention of that great American art form the animated cartoon that gravity can be momentarily suspended. Characters who run off a cliff or saw through the branch on which they are sitting are allowed a moment in space to contemplate their situation before their plunge into the canyon below begins. Britain is living such a moment. Minds are racing. Will Scotland sidestep to safety? Will the European Union’s reaction allow a reassessment of some kind? It takes a 60 percent majority vote on a clear set of proposals to join the EU. Perhaps an argument will be made by whoever succeeds David Cameron, who resigned in the wake of the Brexit results, that a similar standard should be applied to the terms of excession. In the meantime, Britain hangs in midair, eyes darting back to a lost point of safety and down into the abyss. Cheer up, mate. It may never ’appen. Nicholas J. Cull is professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. The British expatriate is author of “The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy 1989-2001” (Palgrave, 2012) and other works. Your support matters…

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