Free World

A British historian of the present ponders America, Europe and the future of the West.


It’s not too much to say that the West is in crisis. “Iraq has dramatically surfaced differences between Europe and America and Britain’s role in both alliances,” said Tony Blair in a recent speech. “The relationship is under question as never before.”

The rift certainly looks deep: Europe often — and increasingly — defines itself against the United States, as not-America. Washington — at least George W. Bush’s Washington — wonders aloud if it “needs” Europe anymore. (Tony Blair’s Britain, meanwhile, is stretched out on the transatlantic rack, forced, against its interests, to choose sides.) And yet, as Timothy Garton Ash explains in his new book, Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West, the gulf is not as vast as the Mars-and-Venus theorists and their ilk would have us believe. Europe and America share common values, and common interests, that far outweigh any divisions. Nor can we afford to indulge and amplify such minor differences as we have: the 21st Century presents challenges — global warming, world poverty, the modernization of the Arab world, the rise of Asia, terrorism in all its varying forms — that positively demand a common Euro-American front. “Europe alone is not enough,” Garton Ash writes. “American alone is not enough. The West alone is not enough.”

But we don’t have much time. By Garton Ash’s reckoning, the U.S. and Europe have about twenty years to shape the course of world history. The prize, if we get this right, is the enlargement of human freedom beyond the boundaries of the West — a shift from the free world, narrowly defined, to a free, democratic world in which many more people have a share and a voice and an opportunity to live full lives. The price of failure is a bloodier, nastier, less free world than the one we now live in. Nor can we leave this work to our political leaders; it’s too important. Thus the second part of Free World is a stirring manifesto, exhorting citizens of the free world to play their indispensable role. (There’s also a web site,, where readers can discuss themes raised in the book.)

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s the author of seven previous books, including The Magic Lantern, an eyewitness account of the velvet revolutions of 1989. Last week he stopped by to discuss the crisis and opportunity of the West, and the prospects for a free world. As you see it, the West is undergoing a crisis unlike any in recent history. How so?

Timothy Garton Ash: This is a crisis of the West that’s quite different from all the crises we had during the Cold War, because then we were always brought together again by the common enemy, the Soviet threat, and now we’re not. We see “the enemy” in different ways. I think the Iraq crisis brought to the surface something that was latent, and not just since 9/11, but from what I call “the first 9/11,” Nov. 11, 1989 [9/11/89 in European notation], not the fall of the Twin Towers but the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the common enemy disappears and Europe ceases to be the center of world politics. If you’re sitting in Washington, you say to yourself, “Well, what do I need Europe for? It’s irrelevant.” And I think somebody like Dick Cheney does say that to himself. I think that’s the deepest root of the crisis. Of course, it was exacerbated by a) 9/11 and b) the Bush administration reacting as it did. So Bush’s reelection doesn’t help matters?

TGA: You can say that again. My book is arguing for a strong relationship between Europe and America to meet all the common challenges that we face. There’s no question that it would have been much easier to make case with a President Kerry. You don’t think we’ll see a kinder, gentler Bush administration, chastened by its experience in Iraq?

TGA: Well, I think they feel vindicated by the American people, but they also feel — at least some of them — that they’re in a mess in Iraq. Also, Bush is looking to his place in the history books, and I think that’s very important. So, I think they will make a new opening to Europe and other allies, they’ll start with a more conciliatory tone. But the question is, will it survive another crisis? And I’m very skeptical about that. Iran could be the next crisis. If it looks like Iran has renewed uranium enrichment, for example, I think the Bush administration would get very tough, and they’ll say to hell with the consequences and to hell with the allies, and you’ll have another crisis.

The word that keeps pounding through my head as I’ve been travelling around — and I spent about a week in Washington — is hubris. This feels to me like hubris. And hubris is followed by nemesis, but the nemesis won’t just take the Bush administration; it’ll take us all. Some of the blame for the state of U.S.-Europe relations lies with the Europeans, doesn’t it?

TGA: Well, as I argue in the book, a significant part of the European leadership, led by [French President Jacques] Chirac, want to define Europe against the United States, want to make it a rival superpower. And you can imagine what the Bush administration’s reaction to that will be. You can easily imagine another downward spiral into crisis.

The bit Chirac has right is this: this is the world of power politics, this is an administration that’s very power conscious. Power listens to power, so you have to speak for a European power in order to be listened to. But he’s got a whole lot wrong. Europe will not unite around an anti-American position. There are so many divisions within Europe; there are so many pro-Americans in Europe, not just in places like Poland and Italy but all across Europe, that that approach would split Europe, not unite it. Certainly we’re not going to be a military superpower. Twenty-five plus different nations with very different histories are not going to get into a position where one head of a European government can, within the space of a week or two, send an army somewhere, which is what you need. Or have a finger on the nuclear button; it’s not going to happen. Tony Blair likes to think of Britain as a “bridge” between Europe and America. Is that realistic?

TGA: Britain is where Europe and America meet. We’re a very odd country, because we’re so Europeanized and so Americanized — we have such strong ties with both, and yet we have a left which tells us, “Choose Europe and reject America” — i.e. cut off our right leg; and a right which tells us, “Choose America, reject Europe” — i.e. cut off our left leg. It’s a very strange political context.

Blair grasps that you need to have both legs — that given the very nature of what Britain has become, you really have to do both. But two things went wrong. One, he had this hubristic idea that Britain would be the bridge between Europe and America. Why should a German chancellor have to walk over London Bridge to get to Washington? Why should an American president walk over London Bridge to talk to Poland? They don’t. Two, having refused to choose [between Europe and the U.S.], he ended up choosing — against Europe, and certainly against much of European public opinion, and much of British opinion. And that has so much destroyed his credibility in continental Europe that, as much as he had good intentions, as much as he had the right idea — it’s going to be very difficult for him to play that role now. So what should Britain be doing?

TGA: Britain needs to be fully engaged in Europe, and to be working for the bridge between the whole of Europe and the United States. As I say, the largest bridge in the world, three thousand miles long and as many lanes wide. The right position is what I call the Euro-Atlanticist position, which says, “We want a strong, united Europe, definitely, but as a partner for the United States.” And that way, Europe, with an economy the size of the United States, is listened to in Washington. Given the common challenges Europe and the United States face, and given that our values and interests are more in harmony than not, why can’t we seem to get along?

TGA: In the book I quote the wonderful phrase of Freud’s, the “narcissism of minor differences.” And that’s what it is. But Freud also says that often the bitterest quarrels are between the people who are the closest — as, for example in the Balkans: Serbs and Croatians were fighting although their language is virtually indistinguishable. And something like that is happening here, absent the perceived common threat. What I’m saying, though, is that there are huge common threats; we just don’t see them as such. Let’s talk about these common threats.

TGA: In a way, the crucial chapter in the book is the one I call “The New Red Armies,” which looks at the big challenges: terrorisms, weapons of mass destruction, rogue states — but that’s only one. And you’re careful to say terrorisms — plural.

TGA: Yes, very deliberately, because Irish terrorism is not like Basque terrorism, is not like Al Qaeda; each one is different. The War on Terror is a desperate caricature, simplification. But a deliberate one with an obvious motive …

TGA: Yes, it’s a deliberate simplification, but I’m afraid that this president believes it, because he does simplify. As I write in the book, I was invited to go and speak to him in May, 2001 about Europe — a very strange experience. He didn’t really know where he was, he was quite confused and uncertain, he was looking for a direction. He had about two solid convictions at that time — National Missile Defense, and China as the new enemy. After 9/11, that changed. Now he knew where he was: at war. And that simplifies things. And by the way I think to a lesser extent that’s true of Blair, too. So what are some of the other “Red Armies”?

TGA: Well, there’s the undoubted fact of global warming, and the fact that we’re pumping out these greenhouse gases. Whatever Europe does — and Europe has done a lot, actually, and Blair has too, to cut greenhouse gases — is completely irrelevant so long as the U.S. doesn’t do anything. We know that the Congress won’t allow the president to sign Kyoto, but there’s a hell of a lot you can do short of that. The real name of the game is persuading China and India to cut their emissions — because that’s where the growth in greenhouse gases is going to come from. If America, the richest country in the world, isn’t exercising self-restraint, how on earth do you persuade an emerging economy to do the same?

Then there’s the fact that half of humankind lives on less than 2 dollars a day — partly because of our own trade policies. And again, the U.S. is not going to cut its agricultural tariffs and subsidies unless the E.U. does, so it’s impossible unless you have the two acting together. People in the development community understandably make the argument that if we don’t do more for sub-Saharan Africa there will be instability. The awful truth is that through most of history we’ve let people die in sub-Saharan Africa in large numbers, and probably could continue to do so — politically. Morally, that seems to me unacceptable in, to use a cliche, “the global village” — when we can see people dying, when we see how we can help them. But I understand that more as a moral challenge than as a directly political one. Another challenge — one that arguably is both moral and political — is the modernization and emancipation of the wider Middle East.

TGA: That’s right. The idea that somehow the United States can work this on its own, just by invading a country or two, is for the birds. Europe is right next door, Europe is where their goods and their people come. The whole GDP of the 22 members of the Arab League is less than that of Spain. By 2020 they’ll probably have 460 million people. If we don’t bring some hope and prosperity to these people, they’ll come to us — to Europe.

Europe has soft power — civil society, opposition groups, bringing students to study in Europe and then going back to their own societies; all the stuff we did for Eastern Europe in the 70s and 80s, only Europe can do. To that end, you’re a great believer in Turkish membership in E.U., aren’t you?

TGA: If you’re trying to remove the causes of Islamist terror, bringing Turkey into the E.U. is a much bigger contribution than Iraq. Iraq at the moment is moving things in the opposite direction: it’s becoming a recruiting ground for Islamist terrorism. Turkey shows that an Islamist government is now reconciling the Islamist movement to a secular state and saying, “We want to come into the E.U., with all its standards of human rights and the democratic process and the rule of law and so on.” That’s a fantastic plus. It says to the rest of the Islamic world that the West is not a Christian club, and that if you go that route you’re likely to become a whole lot richer and a whole lot freer. If you’re a young Arab living under a nasty authoritarian regime and your prospects are grim or none, at the moment what you do is you get in a small boat and sail across the Mediterannean and work illegally in Europe. But if you see there’s a possibility that you’re going to have a job, and a voice, you decide to stay. That’s the big prize: the moment at which you decide to stay. So that’s the near East; then there’s the far East.

TGA: This is the biggest challenge of the lot in a way — the rise of China. We’re so used to being the richest and most powerful part of the world that we’ve forgotten that once upon a time it wasn’t, and once upon a time it won’t be. China, which was a totalitarian communist system, now has this extraordinary system of Leninist capitalism. Free market economy, growing middle class. If Karl Marx was right, when you have those conditions, that material base, eventually you get bourgeois democracy. Now, maybe he wasn’t right, but there’s a possibility there — something to be built on and encouraged. It’s a huge challenge, and at the moment what is happening is that China is quite skillfully playing Europe off against the United States and vice versa. So, if we don’t have a type of alliance which is based on values, then that will go on happening. If, over the next 20 years — it’s not going to happen tomorrow — China gradually moves towards a version of liberal democracy, it would be the biggest payout in the history of freedom, and that’s what we should be working towards. And what are the consequences of failure?

TGA: There are many, many negative scenarios. One is this: China, some sort of European block, and the United States, start behaving like, say, Germany, France, and Russia in 19th Century Europe. In other words, you get power politics, up to and including wars, recreated on a global scale, between great blocs. Remember 1984? Eurasia, Oceana — that. That’s one pretty nasty prospect. You argue that the challenges ahead are too important to be left in the hands of our political leaders, and that citizens need to get involved.

TGA: Right. This is the first time I’ve done this in a book. All my previous books — I’ve done seven — have mostly been written as a spectateur engagé, a committed observer, telling the history of the present. There was no doubt where my sympathies lay; they were with the dissidents, they were with Solidarnosc, they were with the Velvet Revolutionaries, they were the opposition in Serbia. But I was telling the story as it was, and not asking the reader to do something — at least not explicily.

The first part of Free World is history of the present, it’s that kind of writing I do; the second part is a manifesto for the next 20 years, and it’s addressed not primarily to governments but to citizens. It says the world is not safe in our leaders’ hands; they are making a mess of it. If we don’t get involved, the world in which our children live will be a very bloody place — which I think is a sober statement of fact. My kids are 18 and 20; I’m going on 50. This is a book written very much with my children and their children in mind. And in a way it’s an appeal to them and their generation to get involved. They think a) politicians are a bunch of crooks in the pockets of Bechtel or Halliburton or Enron, and we can’t influence them and b) it doesn’t matter that much to me anyway, because my life is about music or film or theater or friends. Politics are not impinging in the way they do in a dictatorship.

What I say is both views are wrong. Politics bloody well will impinge, if we go on like this; in five, ten, fifteen years, we’ll be living in much nastier societies, particularly in Europe. And you can make a difference; you really can. There was, here, a fantastic mobilization —, the civil society mobilization. OK, I can understand that people are depressed, because it only made 48 percent, but frankly, with a better candidate, they could have made 51 percent. It wasn’t irrelevant, and even this government does look very closely at opinion polls and focus groups. We can make a difference. Point two: direct action. There is now a worldwide international ban on landmines. It started as a small NGO initiative, started by Jody Williams, spread by email, which is this fantastic instrument — it’s a superpower. I have a web site for the book,, and it’s getting very, very interesting discussions going. There are all these weapons at our disposal. Use them. So, as you argue in the book, the crisis is also an unprecedented opportunity.

TGA: Yes. Twenty years ago, in 1984 — Orwell’s year — you had roughly half the world under totalitarian dictatorships, nuclear armed. It looked completely impossible to change things, but the dissidents set out to do precisely that, and they brought down the walls. That’s a message that runs through the book. If they could take on the Red Armies, we can take on a few prejudices; if they can take on the Berlin Wall, we can take on what I call the “mind walls.” We live in a world where we don’t face these great, nuclear-armed totalitarian blocs. More people are more free than ever before. Eighty-eight free countries in the world by one count; that makes it 2.8 billion people. So in that sense, what’s stopping us having our own agenda for the enlargement of freedom? We can make a difference.


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