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Nov 10, 2004 6:08 pm

Review of Timothy Garton Ash's Free World

Richard Bernstein, in the NYT (Nov. 10, 2004):

"Free World" is a sort of citizens' manifesto aimed at persuading governments and the people who elect them that the battered trans-Atlantic alliance needs to stop its petty bickering and work together, or the world might burn while we fiddle.

The West, Timothy Garton Ash says, repeating here what is commonly known, is afflicted by a strange crisis, sparked by the Iraq War but marinated in the sense that Europe and America have become distinct and incompatible zones of culture, values and behavior. Robert Kagan, writing along these lines, coined the phrase, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Charles A. Kupchan foresees Europe and America becoming separate, rival zones of interest.

Mr. Garton Ash, the Oxford historian who has gained a solid reputation as a wise and erudite commentator on European affairs over the years, takes a different approach from these other analysts. His view is that things are more complicated than the commonplace notion that the West has become "divided between Europe and America." The West, he says, "did not split neatly into a European and an American half, like a well-cracked walnut." We are not, he writes, two separate civilizations but two variants of the same set of values, most of whose "long-term interests are common, coincident or, at the very least, compatible.'' And most important, only by working together can the two zones of the old cold war West capitalize on what Mr. Garton Ash describes as a "historic chance," namely working in concert "to go beyond the 'free world' of the old West and lay the foundations of a free world."

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. There is a certain amount of thematic wandering and some repetitiveness in a book that has an occasional pep-talk, stump-speech quality to it ("What can we do? The answer is: a lot."). More important perhaps, Mr. Garton Ash is not always clear when a difference is deep and abiding - the American belief in force; the European in the efficacy of diplomacy and international organizations, for example - and when these represent only what he calls, quoting Freud, a narcissism of minor differences. Still, Mr. Garton Ash has given us a readable and worthy argument, rooted in a sense of what is important and what is not and based on as informed and accessible a tour of the global situation as we're likely to have.

In this regard, what is important to Mr. Garton Ash is the commonality of the interests, values and even ways of life of both sides of the Atlantic. He devotes some fascinating passages to demonstrating the error of the view that American and European social systems are opposites of each other. "America was the first European Union," Mr. Garton Ash reminds us. The divide is not mainly between Europe and America - though there are clearly some divisions - but within both Europe and the United States. And this is as true of the supposed difference about the use of armed force as it is of the social variant: European statism versus supposed American savage capitalism. "America's Medicaid program alone spends more on caring for 40 million poor Americans than Britain's cherished National Health Service does on looking after all the country's 60 million people," he writes in his effort to nibble away the stereotypes that each side of the Atlantic has about the other.

Mr. Garton Ash goes on to explicate the background of post-cold-war Euro-American alienation and lays out the alternatives for the future. He makes an eloquent case in rejecting both American go-it-alone-ism and Europe's dream, pushed most ardently by France, of becoming a counterbalancing superpower, arguing that every European country should have as special a relationship with the United States as Britain has....

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