Timothy Garton Ash's latest book on foreign affairs

This book review appeared in The Independent
Facts Are Subversive, By Timothy Garton Ash

24 July 2009

Most pundits on foreign affairs who clog up our comment pages have three things in common. They do not speak or read foreign languages. They dislike Europe or, if on the left, the United States. They tend to be former editors of national newspapers or magazines.
As a result the reader seeking enlightenment on the evolution of geopolitics has to read Timothy Garton Ash. He is fluent in German, Polish and French. That may explain why he is the only British writer on foreign affairs who is translated and taken seriously in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland as well as the US.
Garton Ash likes America and has always been a writer, not a media executive. He is not afraid to declare that "I love Europe. Not in the sense that I love England, although on a rainy day Europe runs it close. But there is a meaningful sense in which I can say I love Europe – in other words, that I am a European patriot."
This will win him few friends in a new Eurosceptic British establishment as David Cameron and Andy Coulson, two devout Europhobes, prepare their bid for power. But pro-European politics needs writers on its side, and Garton Ash is there. He also likes America, which gives him visiting professorships and the chance to study, study, study.
I first met Tim Garton Ash in 1980 in the heady days of Gdansk, Warsaw and Katowice, as Polish workers formed their independent trade union Solidarity. He seemed an incongruous figure: neat, a trim beard, a very Oxford way of speaking, a press card from the Spectator, formally dressed in tie and cuff-links - which appealed to the Poles who, even in the drabbest days of communism, dressed as if setting out for a stroll down the Rue de Rivoli.
But underneath the Spectator dress code was a profoundly committed intellectual whose North Oxford manner could not disguise a burning political engagement: not simply to support those shoving left-over Stalinism into history's dustbin, but as someone who would use his writing power over the next three decades to support all the freedoms that the Poles were fighting for in 1980. The right to speak, to write, to meet without a state, a religion, a party, the police, an economic system saying you cannot or must not is still denied to billions. Those denied liberty, like Poles after 1980, have a champion in Garton Ash. As others proclaim the future is China or denounce parliamentary democracy as washed up, here is one clear voice speaking for fundamental freedoms.
In Facts are Subversive, Garton Ash has brought together some of his essays, which combine reportage and analysis in equal measure. Sometimes the writing is too adorned as it strives for effect. He is not a George Orwell, who was born on the right side but lived his life on the wrong side of the tracks.
Garton Ash enjoys his professorships, his decorations, and his access to power. There is nothing wrong in that. Politics, and especially foreign policy, is made by people in high places. I used to watch Garton Ash and Tony Blair chatting, and it was clear that each was learning from the other.
After the shabby 1990s, when John Major and his ministers appeased Milosevic and allowed 8,000 European Muslims to be massacred at Srebrenica in the Balkans, the change to a more robust politics of protection and intervention was required. Iraq has changed all this, though Garton Ash has the honesty to reprint one piece on the issue of whether or not to use military force in Iraq, in which he confesses: "I remain unconvinced by the case for – and doubtful of the case against." Dubito ergo sum might be his life's motto.
Clear on communism and, of course, contemptuous of the rising ugly xenophobic nationalism of today's hard right in Europe, Garton Ash has yet to come to terms with Islamism. Not with the religion of Islam, still less Muslims, but the unyielding ideology of Islamism, with its contempt for free speech, women and gays, and for the separation of faith from state. After a visit to Egypt, he blithely writes: "The process may take decades, but one day Islamism, too, will join the gods that failed." Oui, Ja, Tak, Yes - but for how many decades do people's lives have to be destroyed or limited in the name of Islamism because the liberal intelligentsia, of which Garton Ash is Britain's chief adornment, do not want to get their hands dirty by telling the truth about the world's most powerful reactionary, democracy-denying ideology?
It was easy to fight communism in the 1980s. It was harder to be Koestler, or Camus, or Michael Foot in the 1940s and 1950s - and very hard to be Orwell in the 1930s. But to tackle Islamism means asking hard questions about the sources of finance for Garton Ash's beloved Oxford University, or about American appeasement of the Saudi theocracy. In his next collection of essays, what will be the themes - and will he take on Islamism?