It is a window and a mirror. Through it, we observe the growth of the European Union from its humble beginnings in 1952 as the six-member European Coal and Steel Community to the sprawling twenty-seven-member EU with its own currency and virtually without internal borders. Despite significant setbacks and challenges—autocratic Hungary, marginally democratic Poland, and Brexit—the EU is nevertheless an astounding, if fragile, success story. Both in terms of population and GDP, and despite the loss of Britain, it rivals the size and scope of the economies of both the United States and China. That is the panorama provided by Timothy Garton Ash’s beautiful new book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. But when the light changes just a bit, the book becomes a mirror, reflecting an increasingly unflattering image of the United States.
Garton Ash is fully aware of the key role played by the United States in promoting the EU’s success. He tells that story particularly well with respect to German unification in 1989–90, where he is remarkably gracious both to Margaret Thatcher (who, after leaving office, became a pronounced Euroskeptic) and to Ronald Reagan. “Do we want the European Union to succeed?” he recalls George W. Bush asking as they stood together on the Truman balcony of the White House. The president insists he was kidding, but Garton Ash takes him quite seriously and earnestly affirms the importance of Europe to the United States.
But when the United States shows up in this narrative, it is more often as an antagonist—at best an erratic actor—than as a benefactor. While this is a bit of a distortion when one takes a longer view of the postwar period—the roughly seventy-five years since World War Two that Garton Ash treats here—it constitutes a bracing European critique that Americans should take seriously. The great divide in the post-Wall period is traceable to the disagreement over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the war that not only drove a wedge between Europe and the United States, but one that divided Europe against itself. This led Donald Rumsfeld, famously, to dismiss “old Europe,” by which he meant the European countries that refused to join the “coalition of the willing” against Iraq. Garton Ash doesn’t seem to know—or doesn’t register the fact—that most Americans appeared not to grasp Rumsfeld’s distinction. For them—for us?—Europe itself was just “old,” less relevant, which frankly was not far from the Bush administration’s fundamental view.
In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, the break with the United States went deeper. In campaign speeches of the time, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (now infamous for cozying up to Putin and serving on the board of the Russian Gazprom) painted the divide not in terms of a policy disagreement with a cherished ally, but rather as a fundamental rejection of the “American way of life” that leaves so many destitute, marginalized, and without health care. This is not a view that one hears at state dinners or in official pronouncements, but it is a deep and indelible vein that exists cheek by jowl with Europeans’ equally authentic fascination with American culture and politics.
The real divide, one that appears intermittently throughout this study, is traceable to Donald Trump. For some reason not fully articulated (perhaps Garton Ash thought that would necessitate another book), it shows up in the oddest of places. In explaining the five wars of Yugoslav succession during the 1990s, which he does with great economy and virtuosity, Garton Ash writes, “West Europeans and North Americans would often say ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ But after the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 by Americans who were convinced that Donald Trump had won the presidential election, are we so absolutely sure?” Later, in the context of Brexit (also an admirably sovereign, even-handed account), Garton Ash summarizes the danger to democracy in this way: “But the threat was less severe than in Hungary, Poland or the United States. There was no British equivalent of the 6 January 2021 mob invasion of the Capitol in Washington.” What great company to be part of—grouped with the two least democratic countries in the EU, one actually fully autocratic. American readers should understand this as serious analysis, not polemic or hyperbole.
Though he follows European politics up to the present, with special attention to the last several years of war in Ukraine, there is no mention of Joe Biden’s repair work with NATO and the EU during the same period. This, I surmise, is due to a broader European anxiety about America’s future. Trump sowed lasting distrust, which may account for Garton Ash’s final, melancholic musings: “Europeans must hope that the United States recovers as it did after Watergate and Vietnam, but we will not be able to rely on it as much as we could, for the most part, in the post-war and post-Wall periods.” We should take a moment to drink this in, to digest the enduring wariness about the U.S. commitment to Europe and to democracy.