Preposterous Universe

Thursday, December 16, 2004
How not to run a world

Found this a while ago on Arts & Letters Daily, but it's still worth mentioning. An interview with Timothy Garton Ash on the relationship between the Bush administration and Europe.
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.
I'm always skeptical about comparing different generations, as nobody has an unbiased view. But from Roosevelt and Churchill to Bush and Blair one does detect a certain diminution of sophistication.

By the way, I can strongly recommend The Magic Lantern, a compelling and highly personal account of the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe. Garton Ash was friends with leaders of the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, and spent 1989 traveling from capital to capital and reporting back on the historic events as they occurred.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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