Timothy Garton Ash's latest book is characteristically erudite, intelligent, imaginative, stimulating and engaging. It starts at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Putney, Surrey, where in 1647 Colonel Thomas Rainsborough of Cromwell's New Model Army delivered a definition of democracy that - apart from the slight problem with gender - makes as much sense today as it did then: ". . . every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government . . . the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under". Garton Ash's thesis is that this principle - this English principle - lies at the core of an increasingly free world. The new free world is not confined to what used to be called "the west": by a fairly generous definition, two-thirds of the nearly 200 sovereign states now in existence can be called "free" - or at least "partly free". Nor has it much to do with the "free world" of the cold war, a mere courtesy title for a gathering of genuine democracies and unappetising tyrannies thrown together on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Now that the risk of disastrous wars between mighty nations no longer hovers over us, the free world faces different, less tangible enemies. In a phrase that doesn't entirely work, Garton Ash defines these new threats (or, more accurately, challenges) as the four "Red Armies" of the 21st century: bettering the Middle East, containing the rise of the Far East, reducing the disparity between the world's rich and poor, and tackling the world's growing environmental crisis. Surprisingly, he seems less worried by international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He may well be right to believe that these are passing phenomena, fed by the evils of poverty, disease and political disorder which plague the poor and unfree parts of the globe. But a few more catastrophes on the scale of 11 September 2001 would ensure that not many people in the free world would agree with him.
Garton Ash concentrates on the relationship between Europe and the US, and the perception - fuelled by the disgraceful trading of insults provoked by the war in Iraq - that the two continents are drifting ever more rapidly apart. The political, economic, cultural and ideological differences between them are, he rightly argues, far narrower than is claimed by extremists on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no justification either for the bilious affectation of European cultural superiority, or for the belief that only the American model of democracy is fully worthy of the name. Neither conceit serves the best interests of its adherents. Both Europeans and Americans draw their political inspiration from the same well: the European Enlightenment. Europeans are not alone in believing that force should be used only with great reluctance, that multilateral co-operation is preferable to splendid isolation, and that the economic system should take account of social need rather than allow the profit motive to rage untrammelled.
Nor is the disparity of strength between the two continents impossibly great. Europe negotiates as an equal with the United States in trade affairs. It will never match the military might of the US, but it could, if it had the will, put together quite enough power to deal with another Balkan crisis. And the Iraq war has shown yet again that military power in itself is of little benefit if it is not wielded as an adjunct to a sophisticated political strategy.
If the Europeans, the Americans and those who share their aspirations in other parts of the world will only get their act together, if they can raise their sights from the here and now to a realistic strategic horizon of 20 years, then, Garton Ash believes, they can begin to secure a victory over the four Red Armies of the 21st century, as they did over the Red Army of the 20th century.
It is impossible not to agree with much of this. For many British readers, however, the most arresting part of the book will be that which deals with Janus-faced Britain. Britain may be an island, but it is a world island, decisively shaped by its imperial past and its multicultural present. It is bound to the US by close ties of history, political philosophy and, above all, language. Yet its historical, geographical and economic ties to Europe are just as strong. It is not surprising that the British are split three ways - between those who would like to retreat to an unattainable Shakespearean Eden, those who would go only with America, and those who believe that Britain has no other choice but Europe.
The object of all sensible policy is to have your cake and eat it. That is what most British prime ministers have attempted to do over the past half-century or more. They have a special relationship with America for the British military, the British intelligence agencies, and for themselves. They have tried, with less enthusiasm, to "exercise leadership" in Europe, to "place Britain at the centre" of European affairs. But all of them - Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major - have failed to get the balance right. Their attempts have been torpedoed, time and again, by the sullen insularity of the British people, and the fear of British politicians, soldiers and spymasters that they would lose their privileges in Washington, DC if they stepped out of line.
Tony Blair came to power proclaiming that in this, as in many other things, all would now be different. Britain would not have to choose. It would preserve the full range of its relationships with America, but would also now co-operate fully in Europe, where British pragmatism would at last be able to compete in the policy debate on equal terms with the Napoleonic Cartesianism of the Founding Six. The British would bury the hatchet with the French, and end a millennium of destructive rivalry and suspicion. They would press ahead with European defence co-operation, and use their unique access in Washington to persuade the Americans that this was not against their interests. And in the fullness of time, Britain would join the eurozone. Many of us hoped and believed that Blair might succeed where his predecessors had failed. Yet his admirable goals have been laid waste by the disasters of the war on Iraq. Our welcome for Blair has turned into the fury of disappointed love.
Analysis is always easier than action. Garton Ash believes that in his new free world, there are perhaps a billion people sufficiently well-off, well-educated and well-informed to make a difference if they care to make their presence felt. Political action requires organisation, however, and he does not suggest how this mass of the well-meaning is to be brought to bear on real events. We in Britain have a more immediate task: to reassert our freedom of action towards Washington and to construct a sensible relationship with our European partners. We can no longer hope for effective leadership from the Prime Minister. Garton Ash and those of us who think like him should concentrate for the immediate future on getting the domestic argument about Europe back on a reasonable track. We would then all be in better shape to confront the Red Armies that threaten the wider world.
Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Russia, was head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1992-93)