DUBLIN -- International politics offers many case studies for believers in chaos theory. Just as the flapping of a butterfly's wings in a Brazilian rainforest may trigger a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly minor political developments in one nation can have unexpectedly large knock-on effects elsewhere.
Just think how different things might have been if a chauffeur in Sarajevo in June 1914 had not turned into the wrong street. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand would have dodged a bullet, World War I would never have happened, Russia would have been saved from Communism, and without the Treaty of Versailles to rail against, Hitler would probably never have come to power.
In our own time, a few hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election have had a lot to answer for. If the Florida count had gone slightly differently, George W. Bush would never have been president, the "Vulcans" would never have had their shot at Saddam Hussein, the U.S. Treasury would be $2 trillion richer, and nearly a million Iraqis would still be alive.
The chaos-theory case study of the moment is the European Union's horsemeat scandal and what it means for the UK's future. The episode started on an apparently small scale when hamburgers sold in Irish supermarkets were found to contain horse DNA. Further discoveries were made in the UK, and suddenly much of the European food industry was engulfed in obloquy. Horsemeat sourced from places like Romania and Poland had been used in products sold across Europe by everybody from Nestle in Switzerland to Findus in Sweden. A key role seems to have been played by a company called Draap Trading--an interesting choice of name, given that draap spelt backward is paard, the Dutch word for horse. Nominally Cyprus-based and owned by a holding company in the British Virgin Islands, Draap does much of its business in the Netherlands. In the view of many Europeans, the company's byzantine ownership structure and apparent contempt for the public interest illustrate much of what is wrong with globalism.
For British voters in particular, the horsemeat shenanigans may prove to be the last straw in their relationship with globalism. They have long voiced exasperation with the European Union and in many polls have indicated that they want out. Thus, in mid-January, even before the horsemeat saga had become a Europe-wide cause celebre, the UK's pro-EU prime minister, David Cameron, felt obliged to promise the British electorate a straight in-out referendum on EU membership. Cameron probably didn't realize it, but he may have touched of a geopolitical avalanche. Certainly the horsemeat revelations have strengthened the hand of those in the UK who revile the EU and all its works.
If the British turn their backs on the EU, the knock-on effect in fanning anti-globalist feeling in the United States may prove far from negligible. In the face of East Asia's relentless pursuit of one-way free trade, Washington's vaunted strategy of "global leadership" has amounted to borrowing from China to save the world from China. British withdrawal from the EU--the likely result of any honestly structured referendum--may well jolt policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic into rejoining the reality-based community.
The mother country has often been a harbinger of change in the tides of U.S. politics. In the busy parliamentary year of 1967, for instance, the British legalized both abortion and homosexual behavior--six years ahead of Roe v. Wade and more than three decades before remaining anti-gay laws in the United States were struck from the statute book. Similarly, the British were earlier to embrace the fashion for financial and economic deregulation. The ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman had struck root among the British media and political establishment as early as 1976, and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister 18 months ahead of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory. …