American reaction to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union was divided sharply along party lines on Friday.
Republicans mostly sympathised with the desire for greater sovereignty. Democrats struck a more exasperated tone.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stressed the endurance of a special relationship with the UK and their respect for its decision, but hinted at challenges ahead.
“Yesterday’s vote speaks to the ongoing changes and challenges that are raised by globalisation,” said Obama during a trip to Silicon Valley, revealing he had called David Cameron and Angela Merkel to discuss the referendum and Britain’s “orderly transition” out of the EU.
“Our first task has to be to make sure that the economic uncertainty created by these events does not hurt working families here in America,” said Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in a lukewarm statement.
In an apparent swipe at the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who welcomed Brexit during a visit to Scotland, Clinton added: “This time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership.
“It also underscores the need for us to pull together to solve our challenges as a country, not tear each other down.”
Later, a senior state department official told the Guardian: “This is obviously not the outcome that either of our governments wanted but it’s democracy and so we’re moving on. We have to. It’s just too important not to. The relationship’s too important, the issues that we’re working with the UK on are too vital.
“You name it: Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, the Asia-Pacific region. The Brits are such a key partner on so many issues that it’s just too important to allow this to derail a lot of that cooperation.”
Referring to the secretary of state, John Kerry, the official added: “The secretary’s demeanour this morning was focused and he made it very clear in the morning staff meeting that it’s over, the decision’s been made and we’re moving on. We’re going to approach this in a calm, deliberate, measured manner and that was his entire demeanour this morning.
“He was very clear that we have to stay calm on this and he also said we have to recognise that this will be a potentially lengthy process here. There’s no reason to get panicked about it or to get overly excited about it.”
Sate department spokesperson John Kirby said Kerry had spoken with British foreign secretary Philip Hammond.
“Nothing’s going to change about the deep and abiding relationship we have with the UK, which is a special relationship,” Kirby told reporters. “We’re going to continue to work hard with the UK and the EU as they work through what this decision means across an array of specific issues. We absolutely, fully respect the will of the British people here.”
Republicans in Congress largely greeted the news with more positive comment, saying they “understood” the desire for more independence.
“As an American, we value the principle of sovereignty, self-determination, government by consent and limited government,” said House speaker Paul Ryan.
Without mention of fresh Scottish and Irish calls for independence in the wake of the result, he added: “England is our indispensable ally. Our friends in the United Kingdom are our indispensable ally, and this is a very special relationship, and that relationship is going to continue no matter what. Period, end of story.”
“A free people should choose their own way,” said Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.
Both senior GOP figures have distanced themselves from Trump in recent days but are seen to reflect an establishment wing of the party that is warmer to British calls for separate bilateral trade agreements than the White House has been.
“Today’s referendum will not change our special relationship with the United Kingdom,” Corker added. “That close partnership will endure, and we will continue to work together to strengthen a robust trade relationship and to address our common security interests.”
The official White House response also stressed continuity, but pointedly referred to both the EU and the UK as indispensable “cornerstones” of US foreign policy.
“The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is enduring, and the United Kingdom’s membership in Nato remains a vital cornerstone of US foreign, security, and economic policy,” said Obama in a statement.
“So too is our relationship with the European Union, which has done so much to promote stability, stimulate economic growth and foster the spread of democratic values and ideals across the continent and beyond.”
Some Democrats expressed particular concern about the impact of the vote on the Northern Ireland peace process.
“I was profoundly disappointed to hear of the outcome of today’s national referendum where British voters decided to leave the European Union,” said Philadelphia congressman Brendan Boyle.
“I do want to make clear that the United States will strongly oppose the re-establishment of a hard border between the six counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“The United States is one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and, as such, our policy will be to fight against any backsliding into the bad old days of border checkpoints.”
The news surprised Wall Street and Washington pundits alike.
“I felt like I was waking up from a bad dream this morning,” the former US ambassador to the EU Richard Morningstar said in a conference call organised by the Atlantic Council. “The most important thing we can do right now is take a deep breath and think rationally about how we move forward from here.”
“It’s really important that Britain not withdraw into a shell because of this,” he added, amid concern over the UK’s influence on issues such as European sanctions against Russia.
Such comments contrasted with the effusive praise for the decision to leave the EU from Trump. “I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s a fantastic thing,” the businessman told reporters on a visit to a golf course in Scotland.
A break-up of the European Union “looks like it’s on its way”, he added later. “I think you’re going to have this happen more and more.”
“People want to take their country back, they want independence,” Trump said, adding that unhappiness with immigrants “flowing” across borders was the common cause for discontent in Britain and the US.
“There were great similarities with what happened here and my campaign,” he said.
Trump said Cameron, who plans to resign as British prime minister because of the vote, was “a good man” but was wrong on the Brexit issue.
Some observers were quick to draw parallels with Trump, who has been riding an anti-immigration wave. Frank Luntz, a leading political consultant and pollster, said: “I have seen the future. If a wave of voter populism can sweep Britain out of Europe, it can sweep Donald Trump to the presidency in America.
“The anger I heard in Britain is far wider and deeper in America. Just as leave exceeded every poll, so did Donald Trump in the primaries. And that may well continue into the fall.”
David Axelrod, former political strategist for Obama, tweeted: “Once again, polling and pundits in Britain got it wrong, albeit with less conviction than last year’s election.... @David_Cameron promised this Brexit vote to get through the last election. Will he survive the result?”
The outcome took many in Washington by surprise and contemplating the implications. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that a “Brexit” could knock up to half a percentage point off the combined output of all advanced economies by 2019, including the US. Traders on Wall Street were braced for volatility.
During his recent trip to London, Obama warned that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” in terms of trade deals with the US after a Brexit.
Asked on Friday about Obama’s warning, state spokesman Kirby said: “We’re currently evaluating the impact of the UK’s decision on TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership], for instance, and we have a close historical relationship with the UK economically and politically and we will consider how the UK, as it negotiates with the EU, fits into our strategy of pursuing broad trade partners.
“The special relationship remains a special relationship,” he said. “We’re confident that, no matter what the implications are of this vote, that the relationship between the United States and UK will remain as strong as ever. Also our partnership with the EU, across a range of security, political and economic issues, will remain very strong indeed.”
Obama will meet key European leaders at the Nato summit in Warsaw next month. National security experts have warned that a British exit would put at risk the postwar project of a free and peaceful Europe that the UK and US worked closely to create.
This article was written by Dan Roberts and David Smith in Washington, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th June 2016 20.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010