Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West
by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House. 286 pp. $24.95
On February 15, 2003, a month prior to the American intervention in Iraq, massive antiwar demonstrations took place all over Western Europe. They were held not just in Berlin and Paris but also in London, Madrid, and Rome, capitals of nations whose leaders supported Washington in its effort to topple Saddam Hussein.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former Socialist finance minister of France, saw in this day of anti-American protest the birth date of a new European nation. Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, the continent’s two most prominent philosophers, issued a joint statement concurring in Strauss-Kahn’s judgment and outlining six elements that in their view set the new European identity apart from America’s. These included a strict adherence to secularism, state intervention to “correct” the market and buffer society from capitalism, the overcoming of national sovereignty, and the replacement of this now-outmoded arrangement by an international legal order.
What are we to make of these and other, similar disputes—over the death penalty, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay? Are they just temporary spats among countries sharing substantial values and interests, like disagreements during the cold war over Suez in the 1950’s or over the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the 1980’s? Or do the current splits herald a disintegration of the cold-war West and a return to a 19th-century-type balance of power, with the U.S., the world’s superpower, maneuvering indifferently among the European Union, China, Russia, and others?
The trans-Atlantic chasm has by now generated its own substantial literature. The best known example is Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power (2003), which famously argues that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus—i.e., that the differences between them are both deep and of the essence. One of Kagan’s earliest critics was Timothy Garton Ash, a fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and during the 1990’s a perceptive writer on Eastern Europe and its transition out of Communism.
In Free World, Ash continues his critique of Kagan by laying out a systematic account of why he believes the trans-Atlantic rift is not permanent or necessary, and how the “free world” that we used to celebrate in the days of the cold war might be restored. While I would very much like to be persuaded that Ash is right, I think that in the end he underestimates not only the depth of existing differences but the difficulty of coming to an agreement on a common agenda.
Ash’s account of the differences themselves should be familiar to readers of works like Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism. Americans, he writes, are more religious than Europeans; they are more distrustful of the state; they tolerate greater economic inequality in return for greater individual freedom; they place more emphasis on economic growth than on protection of the environment; they are more jealous of national sovereignty; and they have their own, non-European views on matters like gun ownership and the death penalty.
Ash’s rendition of these differences is honest and for the most part thorough, although he would have done well to pay closer attention to Kagan’s insight concerning the uses of military power. In the American national story, force has been employed repeatedly to achieve ends that are ultimately interpreted as morally redemptive. This is especially true in the case of the Civil War, World War II, and the cold war. By contrast, much of present-day European consciousness is still shaped by the senseless slaughter of World War I and, in Germany, by the Nazi debacle. Thus, in the decades after 1945, the Germans sought to reclaim their moral standing by, as it were, unloading their sovereignty onto a host of international institutions and by turning their children into pacifists. Since this was a transformation we applauded, it should not surprise us that Germans now denounce the American strategy of preemptive war.
But Ash has a somewhat different point to make about this litany of divisions. To him, it simplifies and falsifies reality by suggesting that a uniform point of view holds sway on each side of the Atlantic. In actuality, he writes, Europeans are themselves divided into Euro-Atlanticists and Euro-Gaullists; the former want political ties with the U.S. and worry about the statist tendencies of the European Union, while the latter see the EU as a competitive counterweight to the U.S. and champion the Brussels version of the welfare state. (“Janus Britain” is schizophrenically suspended somewhere between the two.)
Americans, for their part, are divided between what have come to be called red and blue voters. The Left (or blue) side of the American political spectrum corresponds to the Right, or Atlanticist, side in Europe, while such quintessentially American characteristics as antistatism, gun ownership, and pugnacious hostility to international institutions are typically to be found only on the red side, the side that tends to vote Republican.
The resulting political Venn diagram thus half-overlaps. Although Europe is largely devoid of anyone resembling a Republican, and America has no socialists, both Europe and America have the equivalent of American Democrats. It is in that intersecting space that Ash sees the “surprising future” he proclaims in the subtitle of this book—the space where John Kerry’s America makes common cause with Euro-Atlanticists. These two forces can, he believes, nudge the U.S. toward greater multilateralism and Europe toward closer trans-Atlantic cooperation.
To help bring this future closer, Ash proposes a set of common projects. They include bringing about political reform in the Middle East—where, he argues, Americans and Europeans differ not on ends but only on means; addressing environmental threats like global warming; and, most importantly, dealing with global poverty and underdevelopment. Even the Bush administration, Ash argues, has seen these last conditions as an underlying cause of terrorism, and they offer especially fruitful occasions for trans-Atlantic cooperation and joint planning.
Let us leave aside the question of the desirability of re-uniting the free world around Ash’s agenda, and speak only of its practicality. One can believe, as I do, that the Bush administration’s disdain for multilateralism unnecessarily alienated potential friends while also finding Ash seriously askew in his estimate of the current rift. Not only is it inconceivable that any foreseeable Republican administration would place the environment or global poverty front and center in its foreign policy, there are good reasons for thinking that even a Democratic administration, even one led by John Kerry, would find it extremely difficult to arrive at a meeting of minds with Euro-Atlanticists.
The first reason has to do with threat perception. Prosecuting the war on terrorism does not even appear as an item on Ash’s common agenda, and yet it is, and will necessarily remain, a preoccupation for any future occupant of the White House. Americans tend to believe that September 11 represents only the beginning of a new age of nihilistic, mass-casualty terrorism, while Europeans tend to think of it as a single lucky shot, of a kind familiar to them through their experience with the IRA or the Baader-Meinhoff gang.
In campaigning for the presidency, John Kerry said he looked forward to the day when terrorism would be a nuisance rather than a mortal threat. Many Europeans believe it is nothing more than a nuisance now—even though, given the large Muslim populations in countries like France and Holland, they are more threatened by Islamist radicalism than are Americans. Nor are we particularly well positioned to help them with their problem; our advice to them on taking Turkey into the EU has been seen not as friendly but as meddling.
Second, persistent differences concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will greatly inhibit cooperation on broader political reform in the Middle East. Democrats and Republicans are united in believing that the Camp David negotiations at the end of the Clinton term offered a good deal for Palestinians, and that the fault for the breakdown of those talks lay with Yasir Arafat. Europeans believe otherwise, but they are fooling themselves if they think a Democratic administration would simply turn the clock back to something like the failed Oslo process.
The final reason concerns American credibility. In the past, the United States has played a critical role in solving the Europeans’ nearinability to take collective action. This was nowhere truer than in the Balkans, where a decade ago it required American airpower and diplomacy to bring about settlements in Bosnia and Kosovo—as Ash, who has written about these matters, well knows. Indeed, the Europeans’ failure to put their own house in order is one of the reasons that American officials treated them so brusquely in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
But the perceived legitimacy of the American role depends entirely on its being successful. You will be regarded as a leader if you break Serbian power without suffering a single casualty; you will be regarded as an arrogant unilateralist if you fail to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or get bogged down in a guerrilla insurgency. For Tony Blair, the cost of being associated with George W. Bush has been so high as to put into question the ability of any future British prime minister to be so protective of the “special relationship” with the United States.
Ash is correct in stating that if frictions between American officials and the Euro-Gaullists escalate further, a permanent rift could indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the same token, however, one cannot simply will into existence a set of common interests on a scale sufficient to replace the once-overwhelming Soviet threat. Americans are increasingly involved in parts of the world where their interests are not shared by Europeans, and they have very different attitudes toward sovereignty and the legitimacy of international institutions. It would probably take the pressure of unforeseen future events, like a major terrorist attack in “old” Europe, or a wholesale domestic realignment that moves American politics sharply leftward, to put the Western Humpty-Dumpty back together again. In the meantime, Europeans who lay the blame for the current rift on the personality of George W. Bush have been looking in the wrong place.