Free World by Timothy Garton Ash

With friends like these
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We are blessed in this country to have intellectuals like Timothy Garton Ash, Anthony Grayling, John Gray, Lisa Jardine and others, who can communicate complex ideas in beautifully clear language. They are keenly engaged with current debates and modern national dilemmas and seem (thankfully) to avoid the grandiose over-statements of populist American intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama, who predicted the end of history when Communism ended.

Which is why it was a big mistake to call this book Free World, a title that sounds big and brash, suspiciously akin to the bogus rhetoric of the megalomaniac neo-cons now running the US.

It would be a crying shame if the title discourages potential readers from picking it up, as it is a remarkable response to the British and European identity crises that have emerged so sharply recently.

A shallow, unabashed populist with a fake tan is elected to the European parliament on an anti-EU ticket, together with many other nationalists. If a referendum was held now, UK citizens would probably vote to distance this country from the maturing and growing European Union. An unworthy Republican gets to become US president through dodgy manipulations expected only in banana republics. He is immediately endorsed by Tony Blair, who moves on from his buddy Bill Clinton with indecent haste and transfers unwavering loyalty to the Bushman. A divisive war is launched by these two "special" friends . Most Europeans were against the war; most Americans were for it. Our government was aggressively against its EU partners and with the US on Iraq.

So who are we today and, more importantly, where are we going? Anti-American sentiments have grown in Britain and millions are now wary of this "special" relationship. But this is not making the nation turn more European. Quite the contrary. And yet the world now needs a viable EU. For global stability, the West cannot solely be determined by American might and values. Garton Ash wants the development of a "Euroatlanticist partner of the US... which would be an honourable compromise between the ghosts of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle", who he thinks are still quarrelling in heaven. This is for him an imperative. I believe the EU needs to be a cooperative competitor to the US, not an obliging partner. Blair, with one foot placed firmly in the US and one in Europe, is being stretched abominably; his manhood may be irreversibly damaged. The status quo is not an option.

Garton Ash is rightly incensed that, with so much at stake, there are no serious political debates on these issues. Politicians are cowards for allowing themselves to be led by unruly tabloid newspapers, who are rabidly anti-European Union and superficially pro-American.

After Communism, Western Europe and the US were liberated from mutual dependency, but now there is the new hidden enemy of "terror" and confusion on how to respond. Neither side can do much without the other. Meanwhile, Europeans are struggling to find definition, meanings which give them a sense that beyond their individual states and ethnicities and various histories, there is a European sensibility. This book usefully lists its features: the secular state, belief in the "formative power of the state", the understandings born out of an unspeakably cruel history, social democratic values that temper the markets and so on. There is an acknowledgement, too, that Europeans have been morally incompetent when it comes to embracing the "other" - the non-Christian, dark-skinned European citizens and settlers.

Instead of this endless soul-searching about which side we must face, says Garton Ash, the UK, the EU and the US must become better at working together and dream about changing this volatile world. Americans are not from Mars; and Europeans are not from Venus. And his interviews with so many key Western players illustrate this point. The enormous challenges of Third World poverty, environmental deterioration, Middle East politics and military interventions can only be tackled through the new Western alliance. Freedom cannot be imposed; it can only be enabled by this new coalition.

The manifesto is good, but I have reservations. It is questionable whether freedom means the same thing to all people or that it is in itself wholly positive. The social revolution of the Sixties produced much good and much that is regrettable. There are assumptions here I cannot share as a Third World European citizen. If the centre of gravity shifts over the next decades to China and India, I don't feel the same dread as native Westerners. To work to keep power and wealth forever in the West is a corrupt ambition, and it disappointingly underpins this otherwise illuminating and stimulating book.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's selected journalism, 'Some of My Best Friends...', is published this month by Politico's