Timothy Garton Ash on Europe, Obama and the ignorance of George W Bush

By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

The rise of China, not Islamist terrorism, is the story of our time, declared Timothy Garton Ash at the Frontline Club last night.

If you missed the event, you can watch the whole thing here…


“The story of the next 20 years is about China, South Africa, India and Brazil,” said Garton Ash. But what bothers him more, however, is the lack of coherence and coordination in the Europe Union, which has so far responded “feebly” to this new world order.
Talking to Channel 4 anchor Jon Snow and a packed audience of fans (many of whom queued to buy his latest book, Facts are Subversive, Political Writing from a Decade without a Name, after the talk), Garton Ash was in his element. He covered the biggest questions of the moment, from the potential of the Chinese middle class to Russian influence to Polish journalist Kapuscinski, with ease and elegance.
Often referred to as a “historian of the present”, Garton Ash’s work crosses the boundaries set by academia and journalism. In his introduction, Snow described him as “a rare thing among academics and journalists: an idealist.” But Snow still gave Garton Ash what he called a proper “grilling”.
Snow particularly disagreed with him about the expansion of the EU. “Greece should never have been allowed in to the European Union,” he said. “I would argue if we had had deepening [of the EU] Britain would have had to make the choice between the other side of the Atlantic and the heart of the European Union.”
But Garton Ash was more concerned with Europe doing more to impress its presence on the world stage and Britain’s continuous “dithering” over its role on the continent.
“It is groundhog day… One wakes up and it is the same old ding dong on the Today programme, the same old arguments being wheeled out. I feel I could hibernate for 10 years and I would come back and the British would still be having the same ludicrous European argument.”
“I can’t believe we are so stupid … we have got a British Europe, the only people who don’t realise are the British.”
Garton Ash was as frank on spending two and half hours briefing the former US president George Bush. “He sure as hell was ignorant,” he admits. 
“It was an extraordinary conversation … Cheney was there, Condi was there. He had made his mind up about only two things; one was missile defence and the other was climate change.
“He said Kyoto was mush … and ‘I think the Europeans are trying to screw us’. Islamist terrorists did not get a mention. Here was a man… groping for a narrative. 9/11 gave him that narrative.”
While Garton Ash admits to being more enamoured with Barack Obama, he is critical about the new president’s difficult first year. “I have to say the hope of him transforming the world has been hugely disappointed. I can’t point to a single unambiguous success in foreign policy,” he said. The problem is, he said, that Obama is not a master of the “dark art” of arm twisting, as was FDR, which is how you get things done.
But Snow argued that Obama was a victim of his constraints. “He has defined the limits of power. He says I want to close Guantanamo. I don’t doubt that he wants to close Guantanamo, but he can’t because he has been structured by a whole system.”