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Beyond the barbarians at the gate: Timothy Garton Ash interviewed

About the author
Dominic Hilton was a commissioning editor, columnist and diarist for openDemocracy from 2001-05.

Timothy Garton Ash is a scholar-journalist whose eight big-selling books – on Germany, Poland, the revolutions of 1989, and relations between the United States and Europe – fall into a self-invented category: the “history of the present”. His impressive CV includes a professorship of European Studies at the University of Oxford, directorship of the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and senior fellowship at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Timothy Garton Ash’s writing is steeped in the later history of the cold war and the eventual liberation of central and eastern Europe. But his latest book, Free World argues that “we must set a course from the free world of the cold war, which no longer exists, towards a free world”.

“Never in the history of grammar”, Ash says, “has a shift from the definite to the indefinite article been more important.”

I met him in Oxford on a damp, drizzly Monday afternoon.



Dominic Hilton: In his State of the Union address on 2 February 2005, President Bush used the word “liberty” seven times and the word “freedom” twenty-one times. Free World has been described by former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, as “a manifesto for the enlargement of freedom”. Are you promoting the Bush doctrine?

Timothy Garton Ash: I hope that I’m some way ahead of George W Bush, who is still described as the leader of “the” free world, and who would still feel that the notion of “the” free world has some validity. European liberals like myself should not deny our own goals just because President Bush embraces them. I quote in the book an Arab scholar saying, “We should improve our education system, even though the Americans encourage us to.” We should be for these goals because they are the right goals, even though President Bush embraces them.

Dominic Hilton: What do you mean “even though”? Bush is adamant that, in your words, “we must not be indifferent to the freedom of others”. Aren’t you assuming Europeans somehow hold the moral high ground?

Timothy Garton Ash: When the word “freedom” is used too much by a leader of a country that is responsible for, among other things, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, then you risk giving freedom a bad name. One of my greatest fears, as a genuine liberal internationalist, is that the project I passionately believe in – namely, the enlargement of liberty – will actually be discredited by such a close association with the policy of the Bush administration. In my ideal world, the American president would talk a little less about freedom, and the French president would talk a little more about liberty.

Dominic Hilton: That’s very quotable, but isn’t Europe too preoccupied with reacting to America to say anything of its own?

Timothy Garton Ash: We Europeans spend most of our time talking about America, a little time talking about Europe, and almost none of our time talking about the rest of the world. We must start with our own analysis of the world we’re in, articulate our own interests and values, and only then ask: “How does this relate to American policy?” We always start with what Washington says.

Václav Havel once said: “The question is not “who applauds whom?” The question is “who is right?” That remains absolutely true. The language of international politics should talk less in terms of emotions, attitudes or even values, and more of realities and interests. It is a reality that never since worldwide polling began has America been so distrusted in the world.

Even if Bush starts to sound like Kant, as he did in his post-election press conference with Tony Blair, who believes him? There’s something about the negative image of the man that goes very, very deep, not just in Europe, but worldwide.

Ronald Reagan had the same problem in 1985, but then Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the scene. Reagan was able to use the opportunity presented by Gorbachev to show that actually there was another side to his whole project. Bush’s problem is that terrorists, Islamic extremists, rogue states, are not going to produce another Gorbachev. With no prospect of a Gorbachev, America has somehow to mark the moment, and try to win back a large part of the world.

We will see in 2005 whether America can do so. There has been an evolution in American policy – they are embracing universal goals, saying that they don’t propose to invade Iran, acknowledging that military force is not the only way to spread democracy. What I welcome about the new approach of the Bush administration is that there’s some openness to a conversation with the Europeans not about what is to be done, but about how it’s to be done.


The making of “Muslim Europeans”

Dominic Hilton: The central thesis of Free World is that the United States and Europe share what Condoleezza Rice has called “wonderful common values that unite us.” And yet, in your passionate opposition to the Bush administration, you also seem to be saying that the US and Europe have nothing in common so long as the incumbent administration is in power in the US. Which is it? Are we united or divided?

Timothy Garton Ash: George W Bush is not America. The divide is very deep between blue [Democrat] America and red [Republican] America. Blue America has values, attitudes, analyses, in many respects much closer to Europe. Mine is not a plea for a global policy based on “wonderful common values”, it is a warning against a definition of Europe as not-America or America as not-Europe. The new common strategy that we need should be based on an analysis of common interests. What is promising in Condi Rice’s approach, and as you know I talk to her from time to time, is that she is working on the basis of our common interests – for example, in the modernisation, liberalisation and eventual democratisation of the wider middle east. This is of vital European interest. Anyone who can’t see that is simply blind.

Dominic Hilton: You are one of the fifty-five foreign-policy experts who signed the recent “Compact between the United States and Europe” which seeks to re-establish the transatlantic alliance. If Europe and America have such clear common interests, who’s to blame for this rift?

Timothy Garton Ash: Well, both sides are to blame. But “blame” is probably the wrong word. What has happened is simply that both sides are no longer held together by a single, clear, common enemy.

I recently heard a former British foreign secretary sigh, “If only we had Brezhnev back.” It was marvellous! The Red Army was so obvious, so monolithic, so there. A million troops in the middle of Europe! This pulled us together, despite our major differences. Problems like the wider “near east”, the rise of China, climate change, the north-south divide – none are common enemies in the same way the Red Army was. They don’t have the unifying simplicity of the barbarians at the gate.

Dominic Hilton: How about the terrorists?

Timothy Garton Ash: Europeans have an even more direct interest than Americans in the amelioration of the near east, because the immigrants come to us, and so does the terror. Madrid, Amsterdam, it’s already happening. And we ain’t seen nothing yet. Young Muslims, particularly from the Maghreb but also from other parts of the world, are more alienated by the sort of relentless secularism of the European consumer societies, than they are by the more religious society of the United States.

Dominic Hilton: But you have said that we should welcome more Muslims in Europe.

Timothy Garton Ash: Absolutely.

Dominic Hilton: Yet your book seems to present a series of alarming threats. You speak of European prosperity being built on a “labour of darker-skinned immigrants” and say we’re “storing up future trouble”; you say it would be “suicidal” to define Europe against Islam; you speak of “a massive inflow of Muslim immigration” and question how we’re going to cope with this; you reference violent attacks on Jews by Muslims across Europe; you suggest that to some degree European nations are forced into a position of having to “appease their large Muslim populations”; you write of being in Trafalgar Square with young Muslim men shouting Alluha Akhbar! and ask “What would Nelson have made of it?”; you say an al-Qaida attack on London is inevitable; you talk of “ugly native reactions to immigration” and “bloody culture wars” and “nationalist gangs fighting immigrants”; you describe how Islamic families expunge education through after-school madrassa; and you conclude that “we may already be too late.” These are warnings. It’s a bleak picture. Given these threats, why should Europe welcome more Islamic integration? And are you somehow blaming the existing culture in Western Europe for this nightmare scenario?

Timothy Garton Ash: Yes. The United States, which was the first European Union, was built on the labour of slaves, thus storing up generations of shame and trouble for itself. Today’s European Union is in part being built on the labour of darker-skinned immigrant workers who are poorly treated by the higher standards of our time, thus storing up future trouble for itself. We have been building up a whole keg of trouble for ourselves by the way we have treated the Gastarbeiter, as they’re called in Germany, the immigrant workforce – whether its from Turkey in Germany, Algiers or Tunisia in France, from Morocco in Spain, or from Pakistan and India in the UK. We have asked them to be tolerated guests in our countries, in many places not even given citizenship, certainly not given the full entitlements of citizenship, but asked to do the dirty work. We have been very, very bad at making them feel at home.

It should be possible for someone to say of themselves, “I’m a Muslim European”, where being European would be the overarching civic liberal non-ethnic identity, in the way that it is possible for someone to say, “I’m a Muslim American”. But this simply doesn’t happen.

I do want to issue a very loud wake-up call to our own societies. It shouldn’t take me to do it. The Madrid bombings should hae done it. The murder of Theo van Gogh should have done it. What we have to do is not just to change the way we see them, but to change the way we see ourselves. Our own definitions of Britishness and of Europeanness have to change fundamentally to adapt to the inevitable reality of Muslim integration.

Dominic Hilton: Why “inevitable”?

Timothy Garton Ash: Because our own populations are aging fast. We need this immigration to pay our pensions in the long term, unless we start massive continent-wide fornication. I’m serious – even the Italians are not at it enough! So immigrants will come, mostly from the Muslim world. You cannot secure ten thousand kilometres of frontiers of an enlarged Europe. And we should not, because our future security depends on our having a civilised and open interaction with the Arab world, which is just next door, and which on current projections will have a population as large as that of the whole of the European Union by 2020.

I stress, this is going to happen. Our job is to make it happen well.

This requires an effort not just by governments, but by individual citizens. I regard this really as a social task, not a political task. It’s all about everyday interactions with the grocer, the accountant, the shopkeeper, the schoolmate, the fellow student, or whatever it may be. Huge challenge, that’s a fact. Yes, our own fault. But no, not a clash of civilisations.

Dominic Hilton: Do you not see any tension between Islam or Islamism and liberal democracy?

Timothy Garton Ash: Liberal democracy requires a division of church and state and to some extent a neutral public sphere in which all faiths and ideologies can compete and intermingle. It doesn’t require secularism to be the dominant principle of society. The problem for many Muslims is not that they’re confronted with a secular state, or even a largely secular public sphere, but that they’re confronted with a deeply secularised society. This is in contrast to the United States.

I absolutely do not believe that there is a necessary conflict between Islam and liberal democracy – although obviously there are some difficult areas, like the rights of women. But there is an ideology of political Islam, which we call Islamism, which is by its own admission radically hostile to western secular democracy.

Dominic Hilton: And that threat is in Europe now, as you warn. Surely therefore it’s understandable if people are sceptical of the notion that we should further welcome Islam in order to avoid another attack made in its name?

Timothy Garton Ash: Look at the way Catholics were treated in British politics for much of the 19th century. The rhetoric is very much like that which you hear about Muslims today: fifth column for foreign powers, subversive, conspiratorial, incompatible with British values. And now look at the position of Catholics in British society. Accommodations were made and understandings were reached. Admittedly, these were only two competing denominations within Christendom, but they had been responsible for the thirty years’ war and many other wars across Europe. They were deeply, deeply felt differences. They produced bombers too. So accommodations can be found.


The world is getting larger

Dominic Hilton: You reported from the World Economic Forum in Davos on how the European and American delegates squabbled while there was this sort of silent self-assured observance from the Chinese and Indian delegations. “If the West goes on playing Hamlet”, you said, “then Asia, like Fortinbras, will inherit the kingdom.”

Timothy Garton Ash: What I saw in Davos was unforgettable. We’re sitting at this luncheon table. On one side, top American executives. On the other side, top European executives. Incredible needle between them, you could feel the electricity. Sitting opposite me, at the other end of the table, two Indians, top industrialists, watching calmly. When they finally spoke, they said:

“Take a look at us. If you want to solve the kind of extraordinary ethnic and religious differences that you have in the wider middle east, take a look at India, which does it in the framework of a functioning democracy.”

Dominic Hilton: openDemocracy has published a different engagement with your book by Tom Nairn. He questions whether a more free and democratic world can be as Anglo-US-centred as he believes you suggest. He seems to welcome the rise of India and China as part of a more democratic and globalised world. Is that not right?

Timothy Garton Ash: Tom Nairn has multiple misreadings of Free World. One is to say it’s a hugely Britannocentric book which basically endorses what I call the Blair Bridge Project, concerned only with the hidebound Atlantic seaboard world. Yet the whole book – which is very critical of Blair – is arguing that the west is no longer enough, that we have to move beyond the west to the post-west. The absolute key is those liberal democracies that are taking root in countries that are not part of the classical west. And the classical west in most of the history books, and according to Oswald Spengler, was only western Europe and north America. It didn’t include eastern Europe. So actually, with the expansion of freedom to eastern and central Europe, we’ve already gone beyond the classical west.

Genuinely liberal – not neo-liberal – globalisation has to see how the core institutions and values of liberal democracy can take root in other cultures. India is a huge beacon of hope, and the huge historical challenge of the next twenty years is the rise of China – these are larger even than the relationship between Islam and democracy.

Dominic Hilton: What worries me is the danger of a Chinese model that proves you can have capitalism without democracy. If democracy doesn’t come to China, democracy is under threat everywhere, because if the world is faced with a choice – democracy or free markets? – powerful people are not going to choose democracy. Democracy is popular with those who vote, not those who get chosen by the voters.

Timothy Garton Ash: This is where Karl Marx was right!

Dominic Hilton: It is?

Timothy Garton Ash: Yes. In his analysis of bourgeois democracy, Marx said that, sooner or later, capitalism creates a bourgeoisie. It starts with robber barons – Russian-style, Ukranian-style oligarchs, the privatisation of the nomenklaturain China. But the sons of robber barons settle here in Britain, in America, and all over. My children were at school with the children of Chinese millionaires from Shanghai. The emerging Chinese bourgeoisie want to secure their own prosperity in a rule of law, as Marx insisted, and they want to secure their interests and have those interests represented. I’m not saying the end of communism was predicted by Karl Marx, but I do not believe that Leninist-Capitalism, which is what we have in China at the moment, is a durable model. In time, the growth of a large middle class will create pressures, at least for constitutionalisation and limiting government, for pluralism, and eventually for some version of democracy. A modernised China can gradually become a version of pluralist democracy, rather different from ours, but still having the fundamental element that at some point you can “kick the bastards out”, change your government by the vote. Taiwan is already a Chinese democracy.

Dominic Hilton: One of the other things that Tom Nairn says is that the kind of globalisation we should want is one that fosters the emergence of nations minus the nationalism. He argues that the United States should become a nation, and not the nation. The US has let loose globalisation, and its mistake is that is now wants to control it.

Timothy Garton Ash: As Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev used to say, life itself will prove them wrong. The reality of globalisation is that the Indian IT entrepreneurs beat the Americans hands down at their own game – the result of “Americanisation” is the “Indianisation” of American jobs. Globalisation is a great leveller and a great intercultural mixer among those who get plugged in. The biggest problem is the estimated 2 billion people in countries which haven’t got plugged into globalisation at all. If you look at countries like India and China, then the notion that globalisation is a euphemism for Americanisation is simply wrong. It’s a 1990s prejudice.

Dominic Hilton: Nevertheless, your book acknowledges the power and reach of the United States. You argue that we need to build this massive bridge between Europe and America –”the biggest bridge in the world: 3,000 miles long and as many lanes wide”. Presumably you don’t mean this literally?

Timothy Garton Ash: No, it’s a metaphor.

Dominic Hilton: Good. It’d be a nightmare to drive. I’m not agreeing with this, but Nairn, and others he cites like Fred Halliday, argue that in its response to 9/11, the US has shown itself to be a failed state. He insists you are asking the world to build a bridge to failure.

Timothy Garton Ash: Well I really don’t understand that argument. There’s a level down – closer to the earth – where his critique merges with that of others, which is that I conjecture too much goodwill among the Americans, that I don’t allow enough for American nationalism. This is a more reasonable version of the argument. But we must not forget the other America. This other America got very nearly 50% of the vote. The election did not reflect some sort of ineluctable, irreversible tide of American history. We will have a different president in 2008-09. Meanwhile, we have a profound strategic interest in working with the United States. We have to get on with what I admit is sometimes a very difficult conversation with a certain kind of messianic, religious nationalism.


The next opportunity

Dominic Hilton: Let’s agree that our shared future does rely on some sort of political transformation in the near east. You write that,

“in principle and in practice, it is better that people find their own path to freedom, in their own countries, in their own time, wherever possible peacefully.”
What does this mean?

Timothy Garton Ash: It means that in the absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea. It’s not a good idea to try and build liberal democracy from the barrel of a gun. The analogy is always made with post-1945 Germany and Japan. Mistaken from beginning to end. These were countries that had launched a war of aggression against their neighbours, had been defeated in a legitimate war of self-defence and had then been occupied. At the same time, they were functioning, largely modern, nation-states, with effective bureaucracies and state institutions. None of that applies in the places we’re talking about. The neo-Trotskyist notion of using force to impose democratic revolution from above is deeply mistaken.

Contrast Ukraine and Iraq. In Ukraine you had domestic forces, civil society, independent media, opposition parties, students, which we encouraged from outside. We helped to ferment it, but the yeast was there. Change came about from inside. As a result, the prospects for Ukrainian democracy are much better than those for Iraqi democracy. We should be doing for the middle east what we did for much of central and eastern Europe and more recently Ukraine.

The huge missed opportunity over the last ten years was Iran. If we’d had a détente policy of constructive engagement with Iran, which was designed to achieve peaceful political change and democratisation, Iran could look very different today, and it really would be the model for the “greater middle east” that the neo-conservatives hope Iraq will be.

Dominic Hilton: But surely the democrats in Ukraine were not facing a tyranny equivalent to Saddam’s Iraq, Islamist Iran or however you’d describe the beheaders of Saudi Arabia?

Timothy Garton Ash: Not true. You know the Latin American phrase democradura – a mixture of dictatorship and democracy? That’s exactly what Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran in the last decade have been.

Dominic Hilton: Though more dura than democra.

Timothy Garton Ash: Iran, remember, has had six democratic elections in which democrats have actually had a majority, they’ve had a reformist president and parliament, local government. In Egypt, there are many elements of a sort of emancipated civil society. It’s an authoritarian regime, but not a totalitarian regime. So, no, I disagree, I think that in key societies in the wider Near East, there are possibilities of peaceful change from within and from below. And our job is to encourage them.

Dominic Hilton: You write of offering “a toolbox of experiences” to emerging democratic nations. Isn’t this just an excuse for inaction?

Timothy Garton Ash: I was in favour of dropping bombs on Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo. I’m in favour of dropping bombs on the ethnic cleansers in Darfur. And, if I thought that a dictator was on the verge of acquiring WMD, I might favour a pre-emptive strike. There are two clear conditions – genocide and acquiring weapons of genocide – in which military force is needed, when you don’t wait for a United Nations Security Council resolution that may not be forthcoming – as with Kosovo. I would love to see the Burmese and the Belarusian regimes deposed – the Burmese regime is worse in some ways than that of Saddam Hussein. But the goal of replacing dictatorship with democracy does not in itself ever justify the use of military force.

Dominic Hilton: Why not?

Timothy Garton Ash: Because there are very good reasons why international order was built since the Treaty of Westphalia on the principal of non-intervention. Otherwise, if I feel I’m justified in interfering in your internal affairs, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t feel you’re justified in intervening in mine. And international order – that’s to say, peace – is a very important public good.

The model for the way forward is the Velvet Revolutions and the processes that we’ve encouraged in half the European continent over the past twenty years. One can look at the Philippines too, and at Taiwan. There is a hunger for democracy in the middle east. The World Values Survey shows that the belief that “democracy is the best form of government” is higher in Arab countries than in western Europe and the United States. Those that have freedom least want it most.

But to say that anyone who thinks another country is an unacceptable dictatorship is entitled to go and invade that country to remove that dictator would lead to international anarchy. I’m all in favour of regime change, but, absent genocide or WMD, it must be regime change by peaceful means.


Free World: Why a crisis of the West reveals the opportunity of our time by Timothy Garton Ash is available in March 2005 in paperback – with a new afterword charting progress over the last six months, up to and including the “orange revolution” in Ukraine


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