Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West

Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West

by Timothy Garton Ash

“We, the free, face a daunting opportunity. Previous generations could only dream of a free world. Now we can begin to make it.” In his welcome alternative to the rampant pessimism about Euro-American relations, award-winning historian Timothy Garton Ash shares an inspiring vision for how the United States and Europe can collaborate to promote a free


“We, the free, face a daunting opportunity. Previous generations could only dream of a free world. Now we can begin to make it.” In his welcome alternative to the rampant pessimism about Euro-American relations, award-winning historian Timothy Garton Ash shares an inspiring vision for how the United States and Europe can collaborate to promote a free world.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the West has plunged into crisis. Europe tries to define itself in opposition to America, and America increasingly regards Europe as troublesome and irrelevant. What is to become of what we used to call “the free world”? Part history, part manifesto, Free World offers both a scintillating assessment of our current geopolitical quandary and a vitally important argument for the future of liberty and the shared values of the West.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

James Harding
Garton Ash, an intellectual gourmand with a magpie's eye for the shiny detail, peppers the book with delightful examples of the cross-cultural blur, such as John Major, the cricket-loving former Conservative prime minister of Britain, telling the BBC in 2002 that he has no time for "Monday morning quarterbacks," or having to listen to "All That Jazz" while on hold for former European Commission chief Jacques Delors's think tank, Notre Europe
— The Washington Post
Richard Bernstein
We owe it to Mr. Garton Ash for speaking what ought to be commonly accepted wisdom but has often gotten lost in the maelstrom. Free World is a model of common-sense reasoning based on strong empirical evidence. American readers might in places find this book to be a touch Britain-centric - it was published in the Britain a few months ago and certainly takes the British condition as its starting point.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A Great Britain caught between America and its Continental neighbors-on Iraq and much else-commences Ash's look at the 21st-century's strains on relations in the West. As the eminent British scholar and journalist (The File) moves on to the Continent, he echoes several recent critiques of the call for a unified Europe to act as an alternative superpower, citing the "uneven development" of the European Union. He suggests, however, that the European community still has a vital role to play in advocating the spread of freedom around the world, and looks forward to the day when America treats Europeans as "full partners in a common enterprise" in doing so. For Ash, that enterprise is largely economic. He calls for a global "war on want" and urges Western nations to open their borders to trade from developing neighbors; emigrants from undeveloped countries in the Arab world will turn to Europe, he argues, for homes and jobs. He also points to the imminent threat of global warming, which inspires his harshest criticisms of the current American government. The combination of sweeping historical insight with journalistic immediacy, related in Ash's own conversational style, should help this incisive commentary on world affairs stand apart from its competitors. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (On sale Nov. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The recent conflict between the United States and Europe over Iraq led some observers to diagnose a crisis within the West itself. In this stirring call for a renewed and reimagined Euro-Atlantic world, Garton Ash argues that the United States and Europe are not doomed to part company over their differences. What looks like an Atlantic divide is in fact a manifestation of a complex, cross-cutting struggle over post-Cold War identities and notions of community within and among the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe. Below the surface, Garton Ash argues, their long-term interests are "common, coincident or, at the very least, compatible"; the West has always been in turmoil, and internal struggles are, paradoxically, a sign of its deep vibrancy and fundamental unity. Moreover, the alternatives to a revived Western system-Jacques Chirac's Euro-Gaullism and George W. Bush's unilateralism-are ultimately unsustainable. Still, even if what divides the West is less significant than what unites it, Garton Ash concedes that the shared narratives and memories that have been its glue have begun to erode, replaced by the "mind-walls of prejudice and constructed difference." He thus ends by calling for a return to the West's founding mission: to advance the cause of freedom worldwide. Garton Ash's optimistic vision will inspire debate, and this extraordinarily astute and beautifully written book will take its place as a classic in the field.
Library Journal
The Free World is currently in disarray, argues noted journalist Garton Ash (In Europe's Name). Transatlantic relations are in a shambles, and internal security and domestic economic concerns have combined with war and new international alignments to produce a less stable present and an unclear future. The author marks the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by attacking the less obvious walls that have come to separate individuals and countries since 9/11. He states that Britain should join a united Continent, where it might exercise some influence, while hyperpower America must recognize and respect European ideas and sensitivities. Their combined power should be used to spread democratic ideals and economic progress in order to improve worldwide living conditions and reduce the violent idealism that leads to war and terrorism. The only way this can happen is for the people to get involved instead of allowing the elite total control. Although this work will be criticized by some as being unrealistic, it offers an accessible yet penetrating analysis of where world affairs stand today and how they got that way. Suitable for all public and academic libraries.-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus, so goes the current right-wing formulation. But, warns British journalist/historian Ash, beware the attendant bigotry: "If we hear a voice generalizing angrily about ‘the Americans' or ‘the Europeans,' the disease is close."Mars, of course, is the god of war, and one of the great sources of division between the eastern and western branches of the old Atlantic Alliance these days is war: whereas the Bush gang seems to view the world as Hobbesian, the likes of Chirac and Schroeder appear to hope that it's a Kantian place, amenable to peace and reason. In the middle stands England, that once-stolid insularity that was never quite as removed from the world as it thought, and that, Ash writes, has one day to choose between America and Europe: "A man standing astride two oil tankers that are moving apart, trying to hold them together with just the strength in his legs, is not a statesman-he's an idiot." In a time when Europeans are declaring the American Empire to be public enemy number one and American pundits are castigating the French and their western European allies (Germany, now Spain) as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," it seems that those tankers are steaming to quite different ports. But, Ash wonders, might it not be possible that a new alliance can be forged? "Can the West be put together again and, even if it can be, should it be?" Well, yes, he argues, but in a different project from containing communism or fighting terrorism ("Unless you are Don Quixote, you don't attack a chimera"-namely, extending the material benefits of the so-called free world to the poor world beyond it, giving a penny on the pound or a cent on the euro ordollar "toward providing clean water, basic sustenance, shelter and medical care for the poorest of the poor."That would be a surprising future indeed, and Ash (History of the Present, 2000, etc.) makes a good case for why it, too, should not be considered chimerical. Agent: Georges Borchardt
From the Publisher
“A powerful and morally compelling tract, not merely for our times but for the next half-century.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Unlike so much of the current rash of books seeking to make sense of the post-Communist world, Free World is totally engaging. . . . It will be of great use to anyone seeking to make sense of what is going on today.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Fascinating. . . . Eloquent. . . . A model of common-sense reasoning.” –The New York Times

“Stirring. . . . This extraordinarily astute and beautifully written book will take its place as a classic in the field.” –Foreign Affairs

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A Crisis of the West

When you say “we,” who do you mean?

Many of us would start the answer with our family and our friends. Widening the circle, we might think of our town or region, supporters of the same football team, our nation or state, a sexual orientation, a political affiliation (“we on the Left,” “we Republicans”), or those who profess the same religion—world-straddling fraternities these, with more than 1.3 billion Muslims and nearly 2 billion Christians, though fraternities scarred by deep internal divisions. Beyond this, most of us have a strong sense of “we” meaning all our fellow human beings. Some would add other living creatures.

Yet these largest senses of “we” are seldom what people really have in mind when they say “we must do this” or “we cannot allow that.” The moral “we” of all humankind is today more important than ever, but it’s not the same as our operational “we.” So let us pose the question more precisely: What’s the widest political community of which you spontaneously say “we” or “us”? In our answer to that question lies the key to our future.

For me, an Englishman born into the Cold War, that widest political community used to be something called “the West.” My friends and I didn’t spend much time worrying about its boundaries. If you had asked us, we could not have said exactly where it ended. Was Turkey part of the West? Japan? Mexico? But we had no doubt that it existed, as Europe existed, or communism. At its core, we felt, were the free countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in Western Europe and North America. This Cold War West faced a hostile power that we called “the East.” The East meant, in the first place, the Soviet Union, its Red Army, its nuclear missiles, and its satellite states in what was then labeled Eastern Europe.

Occasionally, Western politicians or propagandists tried to persuade us that noncommunist countries everywhere should be described as “the free world”—even if their governments were torturing critics at home, gagging the press, and rigging elections. My friends and I never accepted that claim. We did not think Chile under General Pinochet was a free country. Altogether, this tag “the free world,” with its strident definite article, implying that all inside are free, all outside unfree, has seldom been used in public without pathos or in private without irony. “We’re the most hated cops in the whole of the free world,” boasts a Los Angeles Police Department officer in the Jackie Chan film Rush Hour.

But the West—yes, that was real. Anyone who traveled regularly behind the Iron Curtain, to countries like Poland, was confirmed in this belief. My friends there talked all the time about the West. They believed more passionately than most Western Europeans did in its fundamental unity and its shared values; they feared it might be weak and decadent. “We,” they said, “are the West trapped in the East.” At the time, I felt these Polish, Czech, and Hungarian friends were, so to speak, individual members of the West far more than I felt Turkey or Japan were collectively part of it. Others, with varying personal experiences, saw things differently. Where you stand depends on where you sit. Everyone had his or her own West, just as everyone today has his or her own America,* France, or Islam. There are as many Italys as there are Italians. Nonetheless, Italy exists.

This political community of the West was, like all political communities, both real and imagined. At its military front line, it was as real as real can be. On a cold winter morning, Dutch, Belgian, British, German, Canadian, and American soldiers stood shivering all the way down the frontier between West and East Germany, ready to die together—“all for one and one for all”—in the event of an armed attack from the East. The community was imagined in the sense that behind these men and women prepared to die together in battle there stood another army of assumptions made by the people who put the soldiers there, but perhaps also by the soldiers themselves; assumptions about what united “us” and what made “us” different from the people on the other side of the barbed wire—a mental army of the West.

* I hope other inhabitants of the Americas will forgive me for using “America” throughout this book as shorthand for the United States of America. It’s what we usually say in Europe, and it is shorter.

Many believed, for example, in what they called “Western values.” The West stood for freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law. These good things, they thought, had grown mainly in the West and distinguished us from others. The (hi)stories we tell ourselves are also the history of our own times—and a sometimes unintentional account of our intentions. During the Cold War, generations of American school and university students were taught an inspiring story of Western Civilization, marching onward and generally upward from ancient Greece and Rome, through the spread of Christianity in Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the English, American, and French Revolutions, the development of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and universal suffrage, two World Wars and the Cold War, to the sunlit uplands of an American-led “Atlantic Community.” In the grand narrative of “Western Civ,” the West began in Europe and ended in the hands of America. It went from Plato to NATO.

On a dusty bottom shelf in the library of Stanford University in California I once found an example of this story told at its most confident and simplistic. Life’s Picture History of Western Man, published in 1951, began by asking: “Western Man—who is he and where did he come from?”1 The identity of this “most wonderfully dynamic creature ever to walk the earth” apparently became clear in Europe “about 800 ad (earlier in some places, later in others) and he was ready to set out on his bright-starred mission of creating a new civilization for the world.” In those good old days, Western Man—always capitalized—was “fair of skin, hardy of limb, brave of heart, and he believed in the eternal salvation of his soul.” Darker-skinned persons, not to mention women, hardly featured. Western Man “worked toward freedom, first for his own person, then for his own mind and spirit, and finally for others in equal measure.” Life’s handsomely illustrated picture history followed Western Man’s progress “from his first emergence in the Middle Ages to his contemporary position of world leadership in the United States of America. . . . A new vehicle called the Atlantic Community,” it concluded, “now carries Western Man on his way.”

At once fed by and feeding these assumptions about a shared future written in the past, there developed in the second half of the twentieth century an immense, intricate, close-knit web of special relationships between government and government, military and military, company and company, university and university, intelligence service and intelligence service, city and city, bank and bank, newspaper and newspaper, and above all, between millions of individual men and women, aided by the rapid growth in the speed and volume of air travel and telecommunications. On this teeming worldwide web, each kind of thread had a hundred bi- and multilateral variants, French-American, French-German, British-American, American- Polish, Portuguese-Spanish, Slovenian-Italian, New Zealand–Europe, Australia-America, the European Community, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and so on and on. Ever more people met, telephoned, wrote, or faxed each other ever more often for ever more purposes. And that was before e-mail. Start drawing these links in different colors on a map and it would soon disappear entirely beneath the inky tangle. There was a proliferation of such ties all around the world—people had begun to speak of “globalization”—but no strands were thicker than those between Western Europe and North America.

If I close my eyes and try to conjure a visual image of this West, I come up with something so mind-numbingly conventional that I immediately open them again. What I see are those endlessly familiar newspaper photographs of our leaders meeting each other, which they now do constantly, unlike leaders in most of recorded history, who met only on very rare occasions, if at all. Turning the pages of this mental album, I come first to the group portrait of a dozen or more heads of government on the steps of some palace or grand hotel, almost all of them middle-aged white men in dark suits (Western Man in his Native Dress). Next come those demonstratively bonhomous, back- patting, elbow-clutching bonding displays between French president and German chancellor. Here’s a grainy old snapshot of four men in tropical wear sitting under a beach umbrella in Guadeloupe, talking nuclear missiles; then a newer, digital image of an open-shirt and jeans encounter at some country retreat, with the American president and British prime minister serving as unpaid fashion models for Levi’s, Gap, or Banana Republic. And finally there’s the perennial buggy scene—in which, somewhere in America, two middle-aged men, grinning boyishly, snuggle close together in the front seat of a golf cart. The closeness is the message.

“Friendship” is the name diplomatically given to these relations between statesmen or stateswomen and, by two-way symbolic extension, to relations between the states they represent. If the states are friends, their leaders had better be; if the leaders become friends, that helps relations between their states. These instant, speed-glued political “friendships” are interesting to observe. You wonder how genuine they can possibly be. When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met aboard a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with their massed British and American crews, they made one of the great symbolic bondings of the twentieth-century West. In what sense were Churchill and Roosevelt ever really friends?

Yet in the modern world we’re not condemned to stand around like peasants at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, wondering how the Great Ones are getting along inside the marquee. We’re not swineherds nervously contemplating the quarrels of the gods on Mount Olympus. We make our own history. Whatever the truth about the “friendship” between, say, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, I know that, for me, Pierre in Paris, Helena in Warsaw, John in Washington, and Michael in Bonn were, and remain, friends. These friendships were born in the particular circumstances of a time and place. What friendship is not? We stood for the same things and against the same things: not all the same things, all the time, but quite enough to make common cause. We wanted to preserve freedom in the West and win it for people in the East. We had that essential fellow feeling. We felt that we were “we.” And so we were.

To be sure, I also had quite a few good acquaintances who thought of the West as “them.” The bloody Americans, the fucking Tories, the Scheissliberalen—imperialist, oppressive, exploitative, corrupt, responsible for toppling Salvador Allende in Chile and napalming children in Vietnam. Yet these critics were often measuring the Cold War West against its own proclaimed moral standards. Even as they savaged the hollow, hypocritical rhetoric of “the free world,” they were confirming the West’s existence. Unless you are Don Quixote, you don’t attack a chimera. So the Cold War West was a reality. If enough people think a political community is real, it’s real.

With the disappearance of the communist East at the end of the Cold War, this West slowly descended into crisis. There were omens of discord throughout the 1990s, like a gathering storm, as well as endless speculation about what the new world order, or disorder, might be. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the storm broke. When a group of Islamist terrorists flew two airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, it seemed that the most influential prediction for the shape of the post– Cold War world was coming true. Here, surely, was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” For those planes seemed to be aimed at the heart of the West, one of Huntington’s “civilizations,” in the name of another, Islam.

At first, the rest of the West rallied to America’s side, under a heroic motto proclaimed by the editor of Le Monde, “We Are All Americans.”2 But within a year this crisis for the West had become a crisis of the West. Faced with the problem of how to fight an abstract noun—Terror—the nations of the West did not pull together as they had in the late 1940s against Stalin’s Red Army; they fell apart in bitter disagreement. The administration of President George W. Bush decided that the “war on terror” required a war against Iraq; most Europeans disagreed. By the spring of 2003 we had the unprecedented spectacle of France actively canvassing for votes against the United States in the Security Council of the United Nations, on a question of war or peace that the United States considered vital to its own national security.

The American neoconservative Richard Perle concluded that France was “no longer the ally it once was” and therefore NATO “must develop a strategy to contain our erstwhile ally.”3 Many Europeans thought the United States was threatening world peace. “Is this a free world or Bush’s world?” demanded a banner at a million-strong demonstration against the Iraq War in London on February 15, 2003. This was just one of several massive demonstrations in European capitals that day. They seemed, for a moment, to unite the continent in a single European “no” to America’s proposed war.

So the West was divided between Europe and America. Or was it? Certainly, most Europeans opposed the war and most Americans supported it. Political writers on both sides of the Atlantic saw in this an expression of deep underlying differences. One liberal American writer averred that the coming “clash of civilizations” could be not the West versus the Rest, but Europe* versus America.4 “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” wrote the conservative American Robert Kagan in an influential one-liner, suggesting that Americans are at once Martian, martial, and the real men.5 The original book title to which his quip alluded was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Many on the European left hastened to agree: yes, Europeans and Americans are from different planets; yes, Europe, scarred by so many wars—lovely Europa, remembering her bad experience with bulls—proudly represents the female virtues of peace.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is the author of seven previous books of political writing and the “history of the present,” which have charted the transformation of Europe over the last quarter century. They include The Polish Revolution, The Uses of Adversity, The Magic Lantern, The File, and History of the Present. He is currently director of the European Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His essays appear regularly in The New York Review of Books and he writes a column in the Guardian that is syndicated across Europe and the Americas.

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