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QUESTIONS FOR TIMOTHY GARTON ASH

Transatlantic divides

"Yes, it is a manifesto," Timothy Garton Ash said last Monday as he sat in the bar of his hotel in Kenmore Square. The Oxford historian and transatlantic commentator was referring to his new book, "Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West" (Random House). "It is an attempt," he said, "to wake people up, and to say, `The world is not safe in this lot's hands. And you can make a difference."'

The genre is a notable departure for Garton Ash, 49, whose previous books have documented the upheavals in central and eastern Europe with a combination of eyewitness reportage and keen historical analysis -- what the diplomat George Kennan, reviewing Garton Ash's "The Uses of Adversity" (1989), called "history of the present." And yet this manifesto isn't likely to spur people into the streets. It's far too nicely reasoned, and reasonable, for that.

His purpose, Garton Ash writes in the new book, is "to chip away at the mind-walls of prejudice and constructed difference between Europe and America." He argues forcefully, though always politely, against both the Bush administration's unilateralism and against those who would have Europe become a superpower to rival the United States. ("The Chiracian version of Euro-Gaullism leads nowhere," he writes.)

Our present situation, says Garton Ash, is simply far too dangerous to allow divisions between and within Western democracies to distract us from urgent crises in the Middle East, from global warming, and from crippling poverty and disease in the developing world. If we don't get these things right, he warns -- and we can only do so together -- the epitaph on the West's gravestone may read: "They squabbled as the Earth burned."

IDEAS: Colin Powell has announced his resignation as secretary of state. How did he play in Europe?

GARTON ASH: Well, he played extremely well -- literally played. If you have seen David Hare's play, "Stuff Happens," about the diplomacy surrounding the Iraq crisis -- which was a terrific hit in London -- the absolute hero of that play is none other than Colin Powell. He is the only unambiguously sympathetic character. . .. So if he's gone and Rumsfeld stays, that would be read, rightly or wrongly, as a signal of the Bush administration's intentions.

IDEAS: What is the European reaction to Condoleezza Rice as Powell's successor?

GARTON ASH: The reaction is, "Let's wait and see." She's been interpreted as not unambiguously for or against the administration's approach to Europe. . .. So I think it's good news. She does have a very sophisticated understanding of international affairs, and a very good understanding of the British position, not least because of her connections to the British government. It's remarkable that she recently celebrated her 50th birthday at the residence of the British ambassador in Washington, with the president in attendance.

IDEAS: You met with President Bush at the White House in May 2001. How did that come about?

GARTON ASH: It was the most extraordinary thing. I was sitting in my office in Oxford, and I get a telephone call, and someone says, "It's the White House here, could you come and tell President Bush about Europe, uh, next Thursday at 1:45?" So, I said, "Well, I do have a lunch, but if I can move it. . .."

IDEAS: What was the meeting like?

GARTON ASH: We were a group of specialists on Europe -- three Americans, two Brits, no French, no Germans -- and the president was clearly feeling his way, very much sure of himself on some issues like missile defense and the environment -- "Kyoto is mush," he said -- and not on others. . .. But I'll never forget one thing he said, very emphatically, "Do we want the European Union to succeed?" And my British colleague and I said that we certainly did, and we thought the United States should, too. And then he sort of stepped back and said, "That was just a provocation." But actually, I thought that probably not a single president since 1945 would have asked the question in that form.

IDEAS: You write that when you see how foreign policy decisions are made, "you are left with a sense of mild incredulity that this is how the world is run."

GARTON ASH: It's an almighty mess. . .. It's amazing on what little knowledge, and what prejudices, our leaders make their decisions. . .. The diplomacy of the Iraq crisis was a case study of how not to run a world, with terrible mistakes made on all sides, in Washington, Paris and London, Berlin, Beijing.

IDEAS: Would a different generation of leaders have done better?

GARTON ASH: Yes, I actually do think that. An earlier generation -- Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, Adenauer, De Gaulle -- had gone through certain very formative experiences. Our leaders, who are 40-something to early 50s, are professional politicians who haven't done much else in their lives and often don't have much international experience. And it shows.

IDEAS: You write of the US-Europe divide over Iraq as a "crisis of the West." Yet is it possible that Europeans have this sense of a crisis and Americans don't?

GARTON ASH: Perhaps many Americans are less inclined than Europeans to think that it matters so much. You know, I can have a crisis with my cleaning lady, but I don't think that matters as much as the crisis with my wife. So is Europe the wife or the cleaning lady?

IDEAS: There's another analogy -- Europe as the jilted lover.

GARTON ASH: Yes. America spends its time talking about America. Europe spends its time talking about -- America.

IDEAS: It's not good, they should really get over us.

GARTON ASH: Well, that's part of American soft power -- and it's part of American hyperpower, too. Everyone is fascinated by what's going on here. . .. A very important example is Germany. We talk so much about France, but the one that matters more is Germany. And Germany, which was of course liberated, occupied by America, and became extremely Americanized, feels that its love has not been requited, that it's been spurned.

IDEAS: Is Turkey going to be invited into the EU?

GARTON ASH: I hope so, because it will send a very important signal to the whole Islamic world, that a country with a secular state but an Islamist government has a place in one of the main clubs of the West.

IDEAS: Does this create divisions in Europe over what is "European"?

GARTON ASH: People often say what's at issue here is, "Is Europe a Christian club?" But you could equally well say that what's at issue here is, "Is Europe a secular club?" Because a strong part of the ideology of most people who support the European project is the notion of secularism . . . indeed, they are secularist to the core. In other words, their objection to Turkey is the same as their objection to America.

IDEAS: One wonders if Europeans really understand the debate over religion and politics in America.

GARTON ASH: There are aspects of American religiosity that are baffling. Sitting in a cab the other day, I listened to Family Radio, and the announcer is seriously discussing a book, "Did God Have a Plan for America?" And the answer is "Yes, He did."

IDEAS: Of course, it was an Englishman who gave us that idea.

GARTON ASH: Oh? Which one?

IDEAS: Well, you go back to the Puritans and John Winthrop.

GARTON ASH: The Puritans, oh, yes, the City on a Hill! But that was the 17th century, and we're now in the 21st.

IDEAS: How far apart, really, are the US and Europe?

GARTON ASH: In some respects, the Atlantic is narrower than the English Channel. I think the divide is much more in mutual perceptions than it is in reality. But perceptions can become reality. And if we go on thinking of each other as the "other" for a few more years, then that can become so.

IDEAS: And what's at stake in that?

GARTON ASH: I would say what's at stake is genuinely the future of freedom. If we duck these big challenges because we're involved in these absurd squabbles, what Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences," then the world will be a much more dangerous and nasty place for our children in 20 years.

Wen Stephenson is the deputy editor of Ideas 

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