Jackson Doughart
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Defining "the West"

Prince Arthur Herald, 20 May 2014

If you lived before the collapse of the Soviet Union, as I did not, it must be strange for you to so frequently read and hear “the West”—a phrase with definite Cold War roots. Our bloc was then easily recognized through its oppositional other: namely, the East, consisting of countries aligned with communism. In contrast, the West represented economic liberalism, democracy, and individual liberty. Geographically, the Western bloc consisted of both formally allied states as well as neutral ones which aligned nevertheless to the U.S. sphere.

Communism has died, yet most cannot purge “the West” from their vocabulary. Even young people with no personal memory of the USSR exhibit no hesitation in using it, meaning that its continued use cannot be a mere force of Cold War habit. Given the unipolar international order that has remained since 1991, whereby the world is not divided into West and East poles, why do we keep speaking as if it is?

While there is no generational distinction here, there is certainly an ideological one. Many of the old anti-communists and their intellectual descendants maintain that the West is constituted by classical-liberal values. Some also think that its military power, concentrated in the United States, should be used to “export” liberal-democracy to foreign countries. Many people reasonably disagree with these propositions, indicated by their reliable writing of “the West” within reprobative inverted commas.

Given this debate, it would help to know where the putative West’s borders lie and how they are justified. Getting the semantics right is not a mere intellectual abstraction; the rhetoric promoting intervention in present international “hot spots” such as Ukraine and Syria depends very much on an understanding of common Western purpose and identity.

Mere geography would not suffice, for Europe and North America—two inarguably-Western areas—are as distinct in terms of spatial separation, local characteristics, and near-abroad interests as any two major regions. Economic ideology would also reveal the West to be more divided than united, as the proverbial lid on democratic socialism—once sharply suspected for its egalitarian overlap with communism—was blown off after 1991. Today, democratic socialism thrives throughout continental Europe and criticism of neoliberal capitalism, free trade, and free markets is more prevalent here than anywhere else.

Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could be a possibility, suggesting continuity with the Cold War Western Bloc. There are two problems, however: First, NATO has expanded since 1991—partly because of interested new member states and partly on account of the U.S. strategy to prevent a Russian power resurgence—thus making the comparison imprecise. Second, the NATO membership of the troubling Turkish state throws a figurative wrench into this possibility. Would it be so difficult to imagine calls for Western action toward Turkey, should the Erdogan government or a like-minded successor further advance the project of authoritarian Islamization, notwithstanding its formal alliance? If not, it follows that membership in NATO cannot be a reliable indicator of “West-ness”.

What, then, of liberal-democratic values? India, Japan, Israel, and South Korea would pass most tests as liberal-democracies but few would call them Western. The problem is that we can easily identify the values without necessarily appreciating their meaningful and relevant origins, quite apart from the Cold War context. Liberal-democracy, in the form that we recognize as our own, does not exist by the mere application of liberal philosophy to practice; rather, its existence and success here are borne of a historical pedigree that has as much to do with civil society and civic culture as it does with how governments are elected and legitimated.

What matters most here is the gradually-evolved foundation for democracy’s success—a figurative ladder which has been forgotten in the popular consciousness but survives as the smorgasbord of politics, culture, and history called civilization—a grandiose concept, perhaps, but one which says more about the workings of the political order than may be expected. I would submit that notwithstanding the phenomenon of secularization, the lingering influence of our civilizational religions—Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—centrally qualifies membership in “the West”, even as the phrase is employed by the media on a daily basis.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted that absent a global ideological division, major conflicts would be fought on civilizational lines, reflecting the desire of peoples to protect and project their own civil-religious culture. He identified nine grand cultural groupings: Western Christian, Latin American, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, Japanese, and African. While the nation-state would still be the source of power, he argued, “the clash of civilizations” would be the source of conflict.

Huntington was criticized, perhaps correctly, for his sweeping categorizations. But his underlying hypothesis about civilizational attachment might be proved in part by our conversational inability to jettison a common Western identity, rooted in civil religion. One doubts that today’s politically-correct commentators and politicians would allow “the Christian world”, “Christian countries”, or “Christendom” to escape their lips as synonyms for “the West”. But on Huntingtonian grounds they could well do so, meaning that this term might not be such a mystery after all.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com