The Athenian inspiration can, however, be deceptive. Timothy Garton Ash, in Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West, an idiosyncratic exploration of where the world is going wrong and how to fix it, quotes the celebrated Melian dialogue from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Mighty Athens, scorning to issue any plausible justification for their assault on little Melia, says bluntly: You know, and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.
The Melians reply in tones that find their echo in the case against the Iraq War made at the U.N. Security Council by French and German diplomats. As you ignore justice and have made self-interest the basis of discussion, we must take the same ground, and we say that in our opinion it is in your interest to maintain a principle which is for the good of allthat anyone in danger should have just and equitable treatment and any advantage, even if not strictly his due, which he can secure by persuasion.
Garton Ash comes to this point, which questions the way the United States wants to relate to its friends and foes in this doubtless finite period of American ascendancy, at the end of a wide-ranging but essentially schizoid book. The first 170 pages analyze what he calls The Crisis of the West, the erosion of that free world alliance that prevailed in the Cold War and has spread peace, democracy, and prosperity throughout most of the rich white world. This is a tour de force. It contains a pungent although hardly original assessment of the potential and limits of American power, noting, How long can a country with a $500 billion budget deficit and a trade deficit of about the same size, sustain a $400 billion annual defense budget and meet a growing demand for social spending?
He also considers the constraints upon European ambition. The argument in Europe, he suggests, will be about how to respond to America, with a choice between a new form of Gaullism that seeks to build an independent European superpower and a renewed effort to restore a modified form of the traditional Cold War Atlanticism. The argument in the United States, he writes, will be about America’s own role in the world; to simplify, it is the debate between multilateralism and unilateralism.
That argument will unfold, Garton Ash maintains, in the light of [t]he American creed, which has two gods; one is called Freedom, the other is called God. In the scattershot of early 21st-century capitalist democracies, religion is more than ever at the heart of American exceptionalism. America’s muscular Christianity feeds into a moralistic rhetoric of freedom which many Europeans dismiss as humbug. Indeed, Garton Ash goes on to say that modern Germans believe that today’s imperial Americans say Democracy and mean Oil. Ash suggests that such European mockery is misplaced, that President Bush clearly saw the war on terror as part of a Christian’s good fight against evil and that Europeans are mistaken to assume that America’s rhetoric of freedom merely cloaks self-interest and greed.
Garton Ash also has limited respect for Europe’s delusion that it is finally fulfilling Immanuel Kant’s dream of a zone of perpetual peace, where reason and a sense of the common good hold sway among civilized nations who have grown out of war. He does not quite say, as this reviewer maintains, that Europe has known peace since 1945 only because with American troops at one end and Soviet troops at the other, the warlike tribes of the old continent finally had some adult supervision. And he understands that 50 years of NATO and American taxpayers bought Europe’s peace and much of its prosperity.
Garton Ash takes an even sharper look at British pretensions to be a pivotal power, the hinge on which the future of the Atlantic alliance may turn. Since he is on occasion consulted by Tony Blair, who talks of Britain as the bridge across the Atlantic, Garton Ash’s doubts are interesting. He suggests that the problem is not Blair’s personal diplomacy and the anguish over the Iraq war, but that a Britain still divided over its membership in the European Union does not have a minimal consensus about what it is and where it would like to be. He may be wrong here; in my view, Britain sensibly wants to go on having it both ways as long as it can, to be reasonably engaged in Europe while remaining America’s best friend, just in case. The trouble will really come if the trans-Atlantic divisions grow so wide that Britain is forced to choose between them, which is why any British prime minister (not just Blair and Thatcher) will strain every nerveand commit lots of available troopsto prevent the breach from becoming that serious. And Britain these days is not the enfeebled old has-been of the 1970s, but a very serious player.
Garton Ash does not cite, although it might have been useful to his argument, Goldman Sachs’ recent prediction that the G-7 summit of the major industrial nations in the year 2050 will include only Britain among the European powers. Having soared past Italy and France, Britain’s vigorous post-Thatcher economy is now closing in on sluggish Germany; British GDP per capita is already notably higher than Germany’s. For Garton Ash, Britain is torn four ways, between its European vocation and its American alliance, and between its traditional complacent insularity and its increasingly cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic character. Whereas Germany was the divided nation of the Cold War, Britain is now the divided country of this post-Cold War era of the Crisis of the West, the seismograph on whose trembling needle you measure the improvement or deterioration of relations between Europe and America.
On Europe, Garton Ash concludes that the great divisions over Iraq, between America’s supporters led by Britain and its critics led by France and Germany, are far more profound and important than any passing diplomatic spat. The whole of the new, enlarged Europe is engaged in a great argument between the forces of Euro-Gaullism and Euro-Atlanticism. This is the argument of the decade. On its outcome will depend the future of the West. It is little use mouthing the old platitudes about common democratic values, he says, arguing that Europeans and Americans diverge ever more sharply in their attitudes to religion, to the role of the state, to the environment, to the use of force, to gun ownership, and to capital punishment. He has a point, except that opinion polls in Britain and France make it clear that the public would bring back the rope and the guillotine overnight if the political elites would give them the chance to vote on the matter.
But Garton Ash rejects the arguments of Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas, two of the most eminent European philosophers, who saw in these divergent values the emergence of a specifically European identity, rooted in antipathy to America. This, for Garton Ash, would be self-deluding folly, not because the values are diverging, but because such a new Europe would be doomed to failure since so many European states would refuse to proceed on such a basis.
On America, Garton Ash cites an interview with President Bush, on the eve of his visit to Europe in June of 2001, in which Bush posed a question no previous incumbent of the White House would have asked: Do we want the European Union to succeed? Bush quickly pulled the punch, saying, That was a provocation. But his administration has acted both before and after 9/11 as if the question remains very much open, and understandably so, given the neo-Gaullist rhetoric from Paris on the need to build Europe as a counterweight to American hyperpower. Garton Ash, who believes firmly in European integration and in full British commitment to the venture, may not appreciate the degree to which members of the Bush team have already begun to dismiss the issue as a second-order question, if not altogether irrelevant.
Senior aides in the National Security Council know Europe’s gloomy demographic projections by heart. One recently pointed out to this reviewer that while Europe commanded 24 percent of global GDP in 1990, its share has now dropped to 18 percent. And unless Europeans start breeding again soon, they will be struggling to maintain 10 percent by 2050. The Bush team sees Europe playing no serious role in the big U.S. foreign policy of the 21st centurythe struggle for mastery in Asia (India and Japan are far more important in this context)and fears that Europe, with its fast-growing Muslim population, is likely to play a spoiling role in the other grand challenge of the Middle East.
Even if all that comes true, despite the reforms of the welfare state and job markets now under way in France and Germany, Europe will remain rich, technologically advanced, and able to use its economic weight for many years to come. E.U. regulators use their market power to tame American giants like Microsoft and GE, Airbus builds more popular passenger jets than Boeing, and Europeans still occupy key seats at all the global institutions that matter, from the U.N. Security Council and G-8 to NATO, from the IMF to the World Bank. The dollar is sinking steadily against the euro. Even the most contemptuous neocon has to recognize that Europeans still wield real assets and include some of the few allies that Washington can rely on. A thoughtful American administration would appreciate that potential support, at a time when America’s moment of undisputed mastery seems to have passed its peak. The world would appear to be heading, over the next few decades, into a globalized version of the 19th century European balance of power, in which China, Europe, Japan, and perhaps India and Russia all play the game of nations while the United States gauges if it can afford to reenact the British Empire’s role as the great oceanic power. In such a world, even if it overcomes the fiscal challenges of its deficits and pension obligations, America will need friends.
Garton Ash does not spend much time exploring possible future scenarios because he puts forward his own. The book’s final 55 pages convey his oddly disappointing recommendations for what we should do to resolve the current discontents. The disappointment lies in their very banality after the acute and pointed excellence of the long preceding analysis. It may be summed up in Garton Ash’s anguished phrase, Can Europe and America be more sensible? Can they realize that there is really very little in their interests that should divide them, and that they should strive to work together to reinvigorate the Cold War alliance of the free world? The role of the old Soviet Union as the glue to hold the West together should be replaced, Garton Ash argues, by common ventures to end poverty, to fight terrorism, to modernize the Arab world, to tackle global warming and so on. None of these challenges can be met if Europeans, Americans and other free people work against each other, he concludes. Quite right, but that is not how the world seems to work these days. The question is whether this is a temporary crisis that has been brought on by the Bush administration and its macho strutting, or whether there are vast impersonal forces driving Europeans and Americans apart against which the most well-meaning statesman will strive in vain.
Garton Ash does not quite say that all can be put right by the emollient diplomacy of a future Democratic president, or by an internationalist Republican like Bush the Elder. He thinks the issue is simply too important to be left to the politicians, and it is time for the people to take a hand. The trans-Atlantic crisis can be resolved, he argues in a final section of the book that reads like a call to arms, if a critical mass of thoughtful people work and campaign together and organize themselves. If we raise our voices, these walls will come down. We are many and we have not spoken yet. It is up to us.
Beyond this rather touching idealism, two important flaws are manifest in Garton Ash’s argument. The first is his claim that [i]t is impossible, on a sober analysis, to discern any major differences of long-term interest between Europe, America and the other rich and free countries of the West. There is one important way in which this may not be true: The United States represents a fundamental assault upon the European social contract, its socioeconomic and state system.
The European social model is a wonderful thing. It allows people to retire at the age of 60 (earlier for many public employees) on inflation-proof pensions linked to their final salary. It makes it very difficult for workers to be fired and gives them generous and long-lasting unemployment pay when they are out of work or sick. It guarantees good health care for all, education that is free or massively subsidized up to university level, and four to six weeks paid holiday a year. In return for these benefits, the public pays half or more of its income in taxes and social security contributions. Europeans accept, as a matter of course, that the state will take and spend something between 40 to 60 percent of a society’s GDP. This means that a government minister or senior official is part of an administrative class that governs the lion’s share of the national economy. The power of the purse rests with the state and its employeeswho thus enjoy the governance of vast bureaucratic empires, great patronage, and wide swathes of the lives of their fellow citizens.
By contrast, the United States federal government raises in taxes some 18 percent of American GDP (although thanks to the deficits, it spends rather more). So the American functionary has but a fraction of the power, patronage, and prestige available to his counterparts in Europe. There is, accordingly, no such thing as an American social model. There is, however, a new kind of globalized economic system marching through events. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the United States has pioneeredand countries like China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan have quickly adapted and started to developstate systems that are far more growth-oriented than the old European social model. This new economy is defined by a number of qualities, including intense global competition and a relentless drive for more productivity. Its champions, like the Bush administration, insist that the new reality requires high returns for shareholders and managers along with lower corporate and income taxes. They also demand ever less job security for the workforce and a steady erosion of labor-union membership and influence as the massive factory workforce of the industrial era gives way to the dispersed workplaces and smaller and more varied staffs of the service and information economy.
The new economy reflects a world in which the balance of power between labor and capital has shifted markedly in favor of management, employers, and indeed consumers. But power has certainly moved away from the traditional (and shrinking) industrial working class. And it is a world of few tariffs, and little protection against the competition from low-tax, low-wage, and high-productivity rivals. This new economic system is deeply unfriendly to the European social model, which may not be able to survive its coming. In short, this new economy that the United States has pioneered is a mortal threat to the comfortable and civilized ways of old Europe and to its protected and pampered workforce. More than that, this new economy is a direct threat to the European state system, to its giant civil- service structures spending such high proportions of GDP. Those bureaucratic empires, those vast swathes of Europe’s national economies that are subject to official pressure and regulations, are so many dinosaurs in this new age, only just becoming aware that the meteorite has already hit, and they are doomed.
So look deeper than the NATO splits over Iraq, the transatlantic rows over global warming, or the European opinion polls displaying a fastidious distaste for the Toxic Texan in the White House. Europeans have a more profound reason to dislike everything Bush stands for; he and the new economy America has pioneered is a direct threat to the European social model, to its way of life, and to the socio-economic structure of the European state. Doubtless they can survive for some time yet with modest reforms and judicious protection, so long as their voters are prepared to tolerate low growth and unemployment at 10 percent (and much higher for the young). But there is a limit to how long the welfare and pension systems can be afforded, even as the state’s share of GDP climbs over 50 and 60 percent. And that limit is coming fast; witness the recent statement by Volkswagen that it will have to either cut its German wage bill by 30 percent over the next seven years or lay off 30,000 German workers. The I G Metall labor union responded that it would never accept this importation of American turbo-capitalism.
The final flaw in Garton Ash’s argument takes us back to Thucydides and the Melian dialogue. Great powers have traditionally acted the way they do partly because they can, thanks to their military and economic might, and partly because they feel that they must or risk an erosion of their defining status. The world in which Garton Ash and the rest of us all grew up was based on an aberration, in which the American great power of 1945 acted in another way altogether, with far-sighted altruism and a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, to build the alliances and institutions that did not just defend the West, but also enriched and improved it. It may not be too much to ask that the United States, informed by that essentially decent American creed that Garton Ash identified, behave in that wise way yet again. But it was certainly too much to ask of ancient Athens, whose troops put Melia to the sword. The one ray of hope is that if any superpower can rise to the occasion, it will be this one. As Winston Churchill once noted, You can always rely on the United States to do the right thing. Once it has exhausted the alternatives.