Tom Nairn vs Timothy Garton Ash

Anthony Barnett
2 December 2004

To read Tom Nairn's essay, "The Free World's end?", click here

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What future is there for democracy, freedom and human rights? The future of these universal values will be fought out by nations, institutions and religions – in other words by the particular, the different, the non–universal.

Foremost among the “non–universals” is the United States. Its current leadership has laid claim to democracy and freedom. Is it also possible to advocate and defend these principles against America?

This is a deceptively simple question. In this edition of openDemocracy Tom Nairn explores it in a sympathetic but far–reaching assessment of Free World by Timothy Garton Ash.

Nairn’s essay is hard reading, and one of the longest articles we have published. Its difficulty is rooted in the nature of that question. To encourage and share its discussion, we are inviting all readers to access the handsome print (PDF) version, usually available only to subscribers.

Timothy Garton Ash’s book provides an energetic, optimistic survey of the opportunity that has opened up for a post–9/11 world, one able to meet the challenge posed by another openDemocracy author, Fred Halliday, in his latest essay: “what comes after the end of the cold war?”

In response, Nairn suggests that Garton Ash is arguing for a form of “self–colonisation”, an internal acceptance and embrace of American domination. His offer may seem to be an alliance with America in favour of a democratic globalisation, in which the US finds its own place amongst others. The reality that Nairn diagnoses is a self–subordination to an American definition of globalisation in its own special image.

Nairn explores and reveals this underlying tension in Garton Ash’s work (and the experience of “self–colonisation”) through a characteristically rich pattern of association (much of it featuring work openDemocracy has published in recent months): Robert Musil’s classic novel of imperial decay, The Man Without Qualities, the feebleness of Australian identity, Francis Fukuyama and endless history, Anatol Lieven and American nationalism, Paul Celan’s Deathfugue, Stephen Howe and the colossal Niall Ferguson, the Ottoman sultanate, China and Taiwan.

And this professor of globalisation in Melbourne focuses too on the revealing experience of his home country, Scotland (where he is a legendary figure – two years older than the Loch Ness Monster, but unquestionably real).

In a pioneering set of essays he wrote for openDemocracy in early 2003, “America vs Globalisation”, Nairn was the first to argue at length for the nationalist character of the Bush response to 9/11. He saw the invasion of Iraq as about neither oil, Halliburton, nor Israel (whatever additional influences these may have had), but rather as being centrally about demonstrating that the United States had not been fundamentally altered by the 9/11 attacks – that it could “get” a target of choice at will, and by so doing prove itself to itself.

This thesis had a positive edge. Because, Nairn argued, while America led the new wave of globalisation which characterises our period, it is also unleashing something which by its nature cannot be owned or controlled by any one country. The nationalist impulse behind the Iraq adventure had to fail – not least because it was led by an illegitimate presidency which had stolen high office.

Nairn now returns to his argument of two years ago in more sober mood. The Republicans’ election victory of November 2004 seems set to fuse Bush–style US nationalism with the form and nature of the American state; the result is likely to reshape its lived constitution. Any opposition to this must necessarily be “anti–American” even when recognising that the most passionate and influential of such voices are themselves American.

Nairn implies that hard but important distinctions are needed. Saying horrible things about the greatest power of earth has a comforting ability to inflate the self–importance of the speaker. All too often anti–Americanism is an excuse for turning off the brain and indulging in narcissistic self–congratulation. Nairn, by contrast, wants to keep the nerve of opposition and engage with realities.

The sweep and audacity of Tom Nairn’s critique is linked to an underlying worldview that seeks a fresh, progressive politics. It isn’t going to be easy. I asked Tom Nairn to respond to Timothy Garton Ash as one optimist to another; but it is not sufficient just to look on the bright side.

We at openDemocracy draw inspiration from the words of Tom Nairn’s compatriot, the artist and writer Alasdair Gray, who once offered this injunction to his fellow–Scots: “work as if you were in the early days of a better nation”. We might add (not replace): “and a better world”.

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