Europe's Reverse Domino Effect

Pierpaolo Barbieri

Following France’s 1954 humiliation at the hands of the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower divined the phrase “domino effect” to suggest that the victory of communist guerrillas would lead to a cascade of parallel events elsewhere: “You have a row of dominos set up,” Eisenhower said. “You knock over the first one. … What will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” Ike’s idea caught on; the “domino” concept was applied to everything from the Cuban Revolution to the Prague Spring.

Most recently, the prospect of a domino effect was a staple of discussions of the British referendum on EU membership. In this case, a first-mover (the United Kingdom) would trigger the implosion of the EU by daring to exit first. It would be swiftly followed by others eager to free themselves from the shackles of transnational regulators and their world-leading single market.

Domino distress served both sides. As the Leave campaign heated up in October 2015, British entrepreneur Jim Mellon warned that “the EU is heading for a cataclysmic implosion and Britain must get out to avoid (the) grim repercussions.” It implied a chaotic unravelling. The following February, Daily Mail columnist Dominic Sanbrook gave it a historical spin: “If [EU leaders] fail to learn the lessons of the past, then one day, I fear, the EU will go the way of the Soviet Union—a discredited vision of utopian internationalism, unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of history.”


This piece appeared in Foreign Affairs.