“Ideological competition is actually good for us.” Interview with Timothy Garton Ash
Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Garton Ash: That’s quite a claim, isn’t it! I put it out there as a challenge and I haven’t yet had anyone come back and say: “What about 1783?” So why do I make that bold claim? Because an extraordinary set of things happened or started to happen then. The peaceful, almost entirely peaceful dissolution of an enormous nuclear-armed, post-totalitarian empire. Empires don’t normally collapse peacefully; this one did. The invention by the states and societies of Eastern Europe of a new model of revolution, non-violent, negotiated revolution, the model of 1989 replacing the violent revolution model of 1789 and 1917, freedom and life chances for more than a million people, transitions – difficult, imperfect transitions – but nonetheless transitions to liberal democracy all over Central and Eastern Europe. And in a way the most remarkable bit, the peaceful extension of the Western transatlantic order, which we had built only between Western Europe and North America, post-1945, to virtually the whole of Europe, not entirely, but most of Europe. We got pretty damn close to a Europe whole and free in President George H. W. Bush’s great formulation. That’s quite a lot to happen in one year.
RT: If we got pretty close to a Europe whole and free soon after 1989, when do you think was the closest we got? When did the decline start, if you had to pinpoint a year?
Garton Ash: So, I’m told that in California one can now be cryogenically frozen. And if I had been cryogenically frozen in 2004 I would have gone to my temporary rest a happy liberal European. That was the high point. Most essentially Eastern Europe coming into NATO, and either into the EU or just about to come into the EU. The euro seemed to be going well, and Europe was going to get a constitution, remember that? What is more, I witnessed this first hand, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. I will never forget standing on the Maidan, freezing cold, in a sea of Ukrainian and European flags. So successful did the liberal European model look that the people around it still wanted to join.
That’s also in my view the start of what I call the anti-liberal counterrevolution. A the Russian journalist Konstantin Von Eggert once said, the most important event in Russian politics in the last 20 years happened outside Russia, and he meant the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. That’s when Putin woke up and found the West coming to his door, in his backyard, as he sees it. That is when you get the anti-liberal pushback. And then of course we, the West, in our hubris and liberal overreach, crash our own financial system. The reverberations of the financial and economic crisis still linger, the damage it’s done to the soft power of the West, we are still paying for that in 2019.
RT: There are two currents in the story so far. On the one hand, the anti-liberal counterrevolution you mentioned, which started in earnest around 2004. And then, on the other, the financial crisis and the problems with the eurozone, all of the crises that begin to make Europe lose its luster and look less like a positive model. Do you think these are separate streams, the external and the internal, that were both running along and just collided? Or do you think one fed the other?
Garton Ash: Hegel says somewhere, “the true is the whole.” I don’t quite buy that. There’s a great temptation to see all of this as being some vast interconnected system. But there are some interesting connections. For example, one might think the euro crisis and the situation today in Poland and Hungary are quite separate, but actually the euro was effectively born in the month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The project was already there but in response to the prospect of Germany’s unification, François Mitterrand of France and Giulio Andreotti of Italy pinned Helmut Kohl down to a timetable for a European Monetary Union, and that’s why, because it was an eminently political project, we get the deeply flawed and much too large eurozone that we have today. So, there are interesting connections back to 1989. But on the other hand, some of the phenomenon we loosely call populism, which after all you see in the United States, as in France, as in Poland, as in the United Kingdom, has to do with larger developments of globalized, financialized capitalism.
RT: Populism is a slippery term with many different working definitions, but at its core it involves a revolt against “the elite” and the idea that there is a division between the people and the elite. In a poll of transatlantic opinion leaders that we did ahead of the 2019 Brussels Forum, we asked respondents what they thought the biggest threat to the future of democracy was, if it was populism, inequality, societal division, external foes, or the failure of governing elites to solve problems. Failure of the elites was the top choice, and this from respondents who could be considered elite or elite-adjacent. I wonder if the rise of populism we’ve seen in recent years is partly justified because elites really didn’t do the job they should have done, didn’t do right by their societies.
What we liberal internationalists got wrong in the last thirty years is that we spent a lot of time on the other half of the world and not enough time on the other half of our own society.
Garton Ash: To adapt Tony Blair: tough on populism, tough on the causes of populism. We have to be both. We have to understand there are a bunch of legitimate grievances in the other halves of our society. To put it at its absolute simplest, you can say what we liberal internationalists got wrong in the last thirty years is that we spent a lot of time on the other half of the world and not enough time on the other half of our own society. And if you are white working class, poorly educated in a postindustrial town of northern England, or in the rust belt in the United States, or in rural southeast Poland, you can feel you’ve got a raw deal from what could be called the liberal golden age.
And it’s not just economic inequality, employment, and so on; it’s also cultural. It’s what I call the inequality of attention and respect, the fact that people in small towns, in villages, in old Rust Belt places, felt that not only were they getting a raw deal in life, but they were being completely ignored and disrespected by liberal metropolitan elites that turned their backs on them. And I think that’s a justified concern. So we have to make the analysis, understand the legitimate causes of populism, and address these in our efforts to renew liberalism, which is what we need to do.
We have to address economic inequality, above all the inequality of wealth, as opposed to income inequality. There are two kinds of young people in the United Kingdom today: those who can afford to buy their first house and those who cannot. And what makes the difference is the bank of mommy and daddy. That’s not a good place for a modern liberal democratic society to be. And then we have to look at the inequality of attention and respect; we have to pay more attention to those who are left behind in our own societies.
RT: To jump to Hungary because I know this is a country that you’ve been watching closely, and it’s an interesting case. In 2009, people would have considered it a pretty consolidated democracy. And now, it’s the biggest “problem” for Europe, seen as the leader of this challenge to the European model. Victor Orban has said, as you quoted in a recent article, “Thirty years ago, we thought Europe was our future. Today, we believe we are Europe’s future.” What does he mean and is he right?
Garton Ash: Hungary is very close to my heart, I spent a lot of time there in the 1980s. It was one of the leaders in the emancipation of East-Central Europe from communism; it was a pioneer. I wrote about it at length in my book The Magic Lantern on the revolutions of 1989. And for a time it seemed to be this great success story. In 2009, Alfred Stepan, the political scientist, said Hungary is a model of consolidated democracy. Amazingly, in the decade since 2010, this democracy has been so far eroded and dismantled that I would now argue Hungary is no longer a democracy. A member state of the European Union is no longer a democracy. Take a moment to think about that. And what’s more, the dismantling has been done with the help of European tax payers’ money, EU funds being used to build the system of control. It’s a real shocker. And Orban can have his cake and eat it – by the way also using Russian money and Chinese money – cashing in from all sides, giving him the self-confidence to proclaim that this is the new model of what he calls illiberal democracy.
However, first of all, illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. Either a democracy is liberal, or it isn’t a democracy. Second, I don’t actually think that’s the way history is going, though it may look that way. Hungary is in many ways an exception; it’s the only country inside the European Union which Freedom House classifies as partly free, a rare dismantled democracy. In Poland, in Slovakia, in the Czech Republic, they have very worrying populist illiberal tendencies, but still elections are there to be won. I think there’s going to be a very significant pushback by a more liberal Europe and, now, by a greener Europe. I think we’ve seen that in the European Parliament elections as well as in individual countries.
RT: So, you’re an optimist.
Garton Ash: I am a cautious optimist, I would say. I think analytically things look pretty bleak but, I just saw a mass pro-democracy, pro-European demonstration in Prague last Sunday, the very place where I witnessed the largest demonstration of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In Poland there’s a big pushback, and Slovakia has got a wonderful new liberal pro-European president, so there’re a lot of indices. In other words, it’s there for the winning, but we have to get the winning formula right.
We haven’t found the formula, or the party structures, or the leadership to translate a new liberal agenda into election-winning politics.
This means, first of all renewing liberalism, working out how we do that, and secondly, winning the odd election. In the United States, or for liberals in the United Kingdom, or almost wherever you look, we’re not there yet, we haven’t found the formula, or the party structures, or the leadership to translate a new liberal agenda into election-winning politics.
RT: Have you seen any recent elections, perhaps the European Parliament elections, were you would point to what might be the best “germ” of a winning liberal platform?
Garton Ash: Yes. The Greens are doing incredibly well in Germany, stunningly well coming out in polls ahead of the Christian Democratic Union, way ahead of the Social Democrats. They are a very remarkable and very interesting mix. The new grouping in the European Parliament, which is called Renew, and puts the liberals together with Macron’s En Marche and a couple of other groupings, that’s exactly the space we need to be in. Renew is the right label. We haven’t yet got it completely together, in the way that say post-1945 social democracy got it together and proposed a package which was appealing to a majority in our societies. But I would say we are working on it.
RT: Yes, that sounds like cautious optimism.
Garton Ash: Cautious optimism in relation to the particular question we’re talking about, anti-liberalism in Europe. If I look wider, if I think of the fact that we are not meeting the challenge of climate change, the digital revolution and AI, if I look at the relationship between China and the United States, it’s much more difficult to be analytically optimistic about global developments.
RT: Right, as the West struggles to adapt and make the right political choices internally, it is not in a bubble, and there are forces working against the liberal model.
Garton Ash: There is an interesting connection to 1989 in that. Today’s China with its peculiar mixture, which we might simplistically call Leninist capitalism, a dynamic economy but still a very Leninist leadership, is as much a product of 1989 as are the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. On June 4, 1989, the first semi-free elections in Eastern Europe for 40 years take place, which leads to the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe in Poland. The same day, the massacre on Tiananmen Square. I will never forget it. I was in Warsaw, coming back to a newspaper office and seeing on television screens the first pictures of the students being carted off the street around Tiananmen Square.
Out of that, learning lessons from the collapse of communist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party has built a system that is a real ideological competitor to the West. Wherever I go in the world, you can’t go twenty minutes without China being mentioned. In that sense, it’s more like the Cold War, a global multidimensional competition. And that’s very challenging, and, I think, very dangerous.
RT: On the multidimensional challenge. The main thesis of “The End of History” was that with the collapse of Soviet communism, there was no longer a worthy challenger to the system of liberal capitalist democracy. But now we have Putin and Orban or Xi Jinping who seem to want to present an alternative. But can any of these models be considered a worthy systemic challenge?
Garton Ash: So, here’s the connection between the internal and the external challenge. Victor Orban in describing illiberal democracies says you want dynamic growing economies, you want healthy nation states, look at Russia, look at China. So, there’s a model out there.
Now I think Leninist capitalism has internal contradictions, which are quite acute and will become more acute with time because we know that Leninist regimes are not good at managing the problems of complex modern societies. Nonetheless, seen from Africa, or seen from Latin America, authoritarian capitalism looks pretty good by comparison with the West that is in crisis. That said, I think that an ideological competition is actually good for us. The reason we became complacent and hubristic at the end of the Cold War is that we thought we didn’t have a competitor anymore. And so, in that sense, there’s a silver lining to that cloud.
RT: Which is supposed to be the advantage of capitalism, that competition makes everyone fitter and stronger, and creates a healthier system.
Garton Ash: Let’s hope.
Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian, author and commentator. He is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and focuses on the late modern and contemporary history of Central and Eastern Europe.
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