European Affairs

To others, the answer was always perfectly clear. Of course the West still exists. No matter how hot tempers have grown in recent years, and no matter how sharp the disagreements, Europeans and Americans do share values, political systems and traditions, and centuries of common history - in other words, a civilization. Not only that, but Europeans and Americans are also tied by millions of individual bonds that crisscross the Atlantic, forged through centuries of migration and trade.

Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash belongs to those who continue to believe fervently in the existence of West. In his latest book, the author sets out to record and put in context the divisions between the United States and Europe, and within Europe, that are still fresh in the memories of those who follow international affairs. He writes more like a reporter and a commentator than a traditional historian, and the result is a quick read, rather than a groundbreaking study. Garton Ash’s conclusion is an ultimately optimistic vision for the Transatlantic community, which challenges Americans and Europeans to work together for a better world.

Garton Ash’s passion for the values of “the West” derives in large measure from the body of his work that preceded Free World, pioneering writings about the fall of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe. No armchair historian, Garton Ash traveled extensively throughout the region before, during and after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. His writings gathered a large following in the New York and London Reviews of Books, as did his books, The Polish Revolution, The Uses of Adversity, The Magic Lantern and The History of the Present.

“Anyone who traveled regularly behind the Iron Curtain,” Garton Ash writes, “to countries like Poland, was confirmed in his belief [in Western values]. My friends there talked all the time about the West. They believed more passionately than most West Europeans did in its fundamental unity and its shared values; [West Europeans] feared it might be weak and decadent.”

As Garton Ash has frequently demonstrated, when you viewed the West from the perspective of the East, behind the Iron Curtain, its contours came into focus much more clearly. Back then, those who opposed communist dictatorship had no doubt that there was a West.Western values represented freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

None of those Western values have changed, of course. But the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, weakened the cohesion of the West. The early 1990s also saw a significant evolution in the European Union, which, with the Maastricht Treaty, started down the road toward a single currency and deeper integration. In May 2004, the European Union expanded to include ten more countries, mainly from the former East bloc, placing its economic output, at least temporarily, on a par with that of the United States. The enlarged European Union’s population, at 470 million, is now more than 170 million higher than America’s.Militarily, however, the United States remains vastly predominant - a major irritant for many Europeans, who fear an America whose power they cannot constrain, and whose motives they increasingly do not trust.

Garton Ash perceptively ascribes a good deal of recent European anti- Americanism to the search for a common European identity. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Europeans have become obsessed with the United States, with everything from popular culture to elections. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has become the “other” against which Europeans try to throw their common identity into relief.

The reverse, however, is not true. Ask most Americans how frequently they think about Europe and it is probably not that often, writes Garton Ash. “Well, I guess they don’t have much huntin’ down there,” offers a carpenter from McLouth, Kansas. “Well, it’s quite a ways across the pond,” says an elderly farmer of German descent. As Garton Ash comments, “If you said ‘America’ to a farmer or carpenter in Europe, even in the remotest mountain village in transcarpathian Ruritania, he would, you may be sure, have a whole lot more to say on the subject.”

Stereotypes, however, can be destructive. A refreshing part of this book is Garton Ash’s plea for an understanding of the diversity of Europe and the United States alike. It is an appeal both sides would do well to take to heart, if and when we head into another major policy disagreement. Understanding diversity means that you eschew stereotypes and over-simplification: American “cowboys” on one side and Europeans “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” on the other.

For instance: “‘The U.S.,’ writes British Euro-Gaullist Will Hutton, ‘is hostile to all forms of international cooperation and multilateralist endeavor.’ “ ‘The U.S.?’ Which U.S.?” asks Garton Ash. East Coast,West Coast, Mid-West, Deep South, red state, blue state? Not all Americans are the same.

In the same way, Europeans need to be differentiated, even in the age of European integration. Sea-faring British, Danes and Dutch have histories and views of the world very different from those of traditional land-based rivals France and Germany, which again have different perceptions from the relatively newly free Poles, Czechs or Lithuanians.

Underlying all our diversity, however, is a dedication to the common values of the “free world,” of “the West.” Today, this free world faces the challenges of globalization, international terrorism and the rise of radical Islam. The common project Garton Ash has in mind is for Europe and the United States to work together to promote the values of freedom, good governance and the rule of law - without doing so by military means, except in extraordinary circumstances. “A crisis of the West has revealed a great chance. Shall we seize it?” he asks.

No doubt, this is easier said than done, for in some inevitable regards, the United States and Europe are traveling along different paths at this point in history. Nevertheless, good work has begun to heal the Transatlantic rift of recent years, and there is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that the rest of the world - and the West itself - will be much better off if we are able to rise above our disagreements.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2005.