Sunday, January 02, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: Timothy Garton Ash, Free World

Never judge a book by its cover, still less the author's mugshot on the inside cover. But in this case it's hard not to. I've never trusted a man who wears cuff-links. Add these to a pink shirt and a well-trimmed beard and Mr. Ash. . . . .or is it, I wonder, Mr. Garton Ash. Is Ash, in other words, the man's surname and Garton the second of his two forenames, or what? That's the trouble with Brits, you can never figure out their customs. Take tipping. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Mr. Ash (pink shirt, cuff-links, beard) starts out with one suspicious reader.

Mr. Ash wants to enlist his readers ("To the Reader," he begins) in constructing " a free world." He is quite chipper about the prospects--"the surprising future of the west" is the book's subtitle-- because he thinks that we only have to rid ourselves of "the walls of ignorance, selfishness, and prejudice that divide free men and women from each other (xiii)." And there Mr. Ash loses me. I don't think that free men and women are separated just by "ignorance, selfishness, and prejudice," I think they are separated by fundamental disagreements about the importance of such things as religion, nationalism, free market capitalism and even freedom itself. We disagree not just out of "ignorance, selfishness and prejudice," but because we are free people and that's what free people do. It's comforting to believe that that those who don't agree with us are ignorant, selfish, and prejudiced, but they probably think the same way about us. I think that Mr. Ash would really like to see people who agree with him--liberal internationalists--have more power and people who disagree with him have less. Since I tend to share most of Mr. Ash's liberal prejudices myself, I'm all ready to sign up--there's a spiffy website, I see--to his agenda, which includes more foreign aid and the spread of democracy. There remains, however, one particular fly in our liberal internationalist ointment. We don't have much political power.

Mr. Ash notices (in a more recent article) that we have just lost an historic election to a bunch of right-wing yahoos. Indeed, one way of reading his book is to see it as an extended answer to the question: "how ought Britain/Europe respond to a unilateralist and right wing US administration?" While I think that this is the right question for a liberal internationalist to pose. Mr. Ash's answer is remarkably weak and spectacularly impractical, as Mr. Fukuyama in a recent review (Commentary Dec 2004--unfortunately behind a subscriber wall) has commented. I think the answer is for Britain/Europe to come together--on the model of a United States of Europe--and throw their collective weight onto the scales that balance global power. Mr Ash is horrified at this proposal. "Euro-gaullism," he calls it. But whats wrong with "Euro-gaullism" as a means to a liberal internationalist end? A strong united Europe would be in a better position to shape the future, than a weak, divided and dependent Europe. Mr. Ash's own proposals appear--as Mrs. Thatcher would say--decidedly "wet". No exhortations from a pink-shirted man in cuff-links will turn the Bush administration into liberal internationalists. To pretend otherwise is silly. We liberal internationalists would do better to rally under the banner of a United States of Europe.

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