We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's 'Free World'

Ivan Krastev
6 September 2004

The world of a London bookstore can seem to the visitor as mysterious and rivalrous as the world of global politics. The shelves seem torn between passion and fashion, between classics and (university) classes, between the order of the alphabet and the order of demand. The arrangement of the “current affairs” section, for example, reveals more about the ideological temptations of rank–and–file intellectuals and other readers of last resort than a dozen opinion polls. To guess what the politics of the day is, it is enough to spy on whether the books on the American war in Vietnam are assigned to the history section or exposed in the current politics area.

But the most especially revealing display is the politics of the shelf arrangement of “global books”. For sure, the usual suspects dominate the scene in apparent mutual contentment: Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents faces Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations neighbours Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Choice: global domination or global leadership, and the new edition of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations conceals from sight an older copy of Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

But this peaceful coexistence is deceptive. As in a real civil war, new arrivals are forced to take sides and join the battle. A new title can be regarded as either an anti–American or anti–European “warrior”; a “therapeutic” expert in trivialising or triangulating current crises; a “prophet” or a “bridge–builder”.

Also in openDemocracy, Stephen Howe’s incisive overview of the intellectual career of Niall Ferguson, partisan historian of British and American empire; see “An Oxford Scot at King Dubya’s court: Niall Ferguson’s Colossus” (July 2004)

Who is winning the bibliographic war? At present, the media is flooded with quotes by the warriors; political leaders are busy agreeing with the therapists; the general public is in love with the prophets; and everybody is angry with the bridge–builders. In the eyes of the public, the bridge–building literature is a strange mixture of old–fashioned utopianism, newborn nostalgia for the cold war west and remnants of political common sense.

So, when bridges are either being burnt or regarded as boring, when readers are in search of warriors and prophets, it is a controversial strategy to write such a book. But this is exactly what Timothy Garton Ash has done with Free World: why a crisis of the West reveals an opportunity of our time.

In his case the risk turned out to be well–calculated because this celebrated historian of the present has two enormous advantages in comparison with most of the other bridge–building authors: his writing is clear and powerful and he has a project. The outcome is a book that reads like a history of the future, a future that might not necessarily come.

Timothy Garton Ash’s ability to write a readable and influential book is no surprise. If history decided to summon a single witness to testify to what happened in Europe in 1989 this Oxford historian would be our ultimate choice. He is the one who could walk in the ruins of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 and modestly confess that “we were all Berliners”.

Timothy Garton Ash was born in England, educated by reading Orwell and talking to the dissidents of east–central Europe, became a friend of Václav Havel and historian of the German Ostpolitik indeed justified the claim in his own subsequent stance. On 12 September 2001 he was among the few who did not need to declare that “we are all Americans” – for it was obvious that he was already among the most authoritative voices of Atlanticism, an ardent advocate for the enlargement of Nato and the European Union alike.

Now, in his new book, he convincingly argues that today “we are all Brits”. In his words:

“America is divided by a great argument about itself, Europe is divided by a great argument about America…Both meet in Janus Britain, an especially clear case of the modern world”.

The claim that “we are all Brits” is not a revelation for those of us living in central and eastern Europe. The crisis over Iraq made it painfully clear to all of us that, torn between Europe and America, the post–communist societies face a choice that they did not want to make. This is the reason why Free World should be treated as one more of Garton Ash’s east–central European books despite the fact that it barely mentions the region. What matters is that the liberal elites of the region can see both their arguments and their doubts well represented in the book.

In the view of the author, one that finds many echoes in the European countries of the former Soviet bloc, the biggest danger in the current transatlantic drama is not in what happened but in widespread perceptions of what is happening. Both anti–Europeans and anti–Americans start from the wrong point of departure and move in a dangerous direction. They assume that America and Europe represent two distinctive models of democratic capitalism and that the strategic interests of Europe and America are diverging.

In most cases, these critical assumptions derive not from detached analysis but from confused emotions. This politics of imagined differences is what Garton Ash refuses to accept as a base for understanding the state of the world: “If we hear a voice generalising about ‘the Americans’ or ‘the Europeans’, the disease is close”; and, he continues, if that voice turns out to be our own, then “we should stop, and examine our assumptions.”

But this examination of assumptions calls into question the very basis of current transatlantic divisions. Neither Europe nor America represents discrete, clearly defined models, and the strategic interests of the European Union and the United States in relation to the rest of the world do not diverge. In reality, Europe and America have both values and interests in common.

Yet this does not mean that the transatlantic division is unreal. If enough people think a political division is real, it’s real. So the big challenge is not to conserve the west as we know it, neither is it to surrender the idea of the west; it is to reinvent the west. And here lies the force of Timothy Garton Ash’s project:

“I propose that we should set a course from ‘the free world’ of the Cold War, which no longer exists, towards a free world. Never in the history of grammar has a shift from the definite to the indefinite article been more important”.

Reading the book I could not escape the feeling that you need a lot of intellectual courage to repeat today what was a common wisdom yesterday, when yesterday and today are separated by the shadow of the collapsing Twin Towers.

What distinguishes Garton Ash’s book from both his opponents and allies in the current debate on the crisis of the west is his unwillingness to betray the hopes and promises that were born in the time that we could name as the Clinton–Blair decade – one that started with the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November, 1989 (“9/11” European–style) and ended with the fall of the Twin Towers (“9/11” American–style).

At present the intellectual legacy of that decade looks as ancient and irrelevant as the promise of 19th century socialism. The promise of the liberal interventionism embodied by the Kosovo war is discredited by the invasion in Iraq; the potential of globalisation as a public good is rejected by the anti–globalisation movement; and the idea of democratic caucuses in the United Nations looks ridiculous against the experience of the American–French war in the Security Council.

How did Europe and America grow so far apart in the approach to the Iraq war? American and European writers disagree on openDemocracy: see John Hulsman, “Cherry-picking as the future of the transatlantic alliance” (February 2003) and Kirsty Hughes, “Transatlantic meltdown over Iraq” (February 2003)

In these circumstances, it is an act of courage to claim today that Idealpolitik is the only Realpolitik for the global world, but Garton Ash has a record of being courageous. Is it more insane today to believe in a success of a free world project than to believe in 1981 that Poland will be a western democracy in a decade or to argue in 1991 that the EU should open itself to central Europe?

Now when Free World is in the London bookstores the bridge–builders have their chance to be heard and eastern and central Europeans have another project to endorse. Their task is not to choose between Europe and America, but to invent a project that will force Europe to choose America and America to choose Europe.

In present circumstances, you do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to smell a whiff of utopia in Timothy Garton Ash’s new book – but is there anything wrong with that?

Indeed, his imaginative argument inspires a further reflection. If the experience he describes, that the national interest entails an alliance with more than just one major partner, is true for all European countries and not just Britain, isn’t this also the case for countries in other continents – and even the United States itself?

The United Kingdom’s experience of being caught in–between may stem from its particular history and geopolitical position, and it can thus appear as an anachronism rooted in its past. But the argument of Free World – which opens with Timothy Garton Ash’s vivid description of present–day Putney, a suburb of south London whose local church hosted the first modern debate on freedom and democracy in 1647 – suggests a different and surprising message. Could it be that the British experience lies in front of all countries and nations, as people across the world internalise a new kind of global experience?

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