Timothy Garton Ash has written an ambitious book about the future of the west. But he is too sanguine about EU-US relations and will not accept that Britain does, sometimes, have to choose between themby Charles Grant / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
At his best, Timothy Garton Ash is the closest we have to a George Orwell in today’s Britain. Like Orwell, he shuns jargon, dressing up common sense in elegant prose. And like Orwell, he is unabashed about taking the kind of moral stance that the cynical will smirk at – in his new book, he urges readers to donate 1 per cent of their income to poverty reduction in poor countries.
Unlike Garton Ash, Orwell was a waspish member of the awkward squad and inclined to pessimism. Garton Ash – at least in his bold and ambitious new book – is an optimist. Free World: What the Crisis of the West Reveals about the Opportunity of our Time is about the spread of freedom. No neoliberal, Garton Ash defines “freedom” as freedom from want as well as freedom from oppression. He reckons that about 1bn people out of 6bn in the world are free, and wants the current free world to work for the creation of a completely free world. Given the rise of China, India and other places, he believes that Europe and the US have about 20 years in which to shape history. He says we should call the free world the “post-west,” given that its reach extends far beyond Europe and the US.
Garton Ash is known for his expertise on Europe, especially its eastern half, but this book impresses through its breadth. He finds pertinent things to say about global warming, poverty in developing countries and the risks of war in Asia. The book’s weakness may be excessive optimism about the prospect of the EU and the US being able to work together to tackle these problems.
Garton Ash believes, like Tony Blair – whom he admires, though not uncritically – that Britain has a special role to play in forging transatlantic co-operation. He makes much of the confused identity of what he calls “Janus-Britain.” He argues convincingly that, in contrast to comparable countries, Britain has no national consensus on what kind of country it is, and where it would like to be. He thinks that Britain presents four faces to the world (the classical god Janus had a mere two), and that behind each of them lies a competing national story.