The term “the West” is widely used in the media and discussions on contemporary political issues: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Eastern Europe or Syria, for instance, are seen as challenging “the West” as well as inviting some form of “western” political or strategic response. The term has a long history and, in the context of post 1945 international politics, has often been seen as a euphemism for the United States, or perhaps its closest allies within NATO. However, given the large and disparate nature of NATO, and the difficulty it has had in recent years to forge a clear and decisive policy response in regions such as Eastern Europe, it is by no means clear who exactly speaks and leads the “west” or the “western alliance.” Indeed, the question in some ways begins to resemble the classic question once asked by Henry Kissinger in the case of the EU: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
Part of the problem relates to the issue of definition. Who exactly is “in” the West and who is not? With ancient roots, the term has had a wide range of meanings over the centuries. For historians interested in the roots of “western civilisation”, the term can be anchored in the classical civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome. The west in Greece meant the Greeks cities led by Athens that resisted the Persian invasions of the 5th century BC while, in the case of Rome, it meant that western part of the empire that collapsed in 476 AD while the eastern half survived as the Orthodox empire, centred on Constantinople, until its overthrow by the Ottomans in 1453.
But these apparently ancient roots can be attacked as largely contrived and invented since it is doubtful if any Greeks or Romans thought of themselves as belonging to a distinctive “west.” The term really only begins to acquire something like its modern meaning with the emergence of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century and an expanding western frontier towards the Pacific. “The west” in this context became closely linked to imperial expansionism and this would become ever more evident as the United States emerged as a superpower in years after 1945. “The west” during the Cold War meant the alliance centred on NATO after 1949 with the USA at its core – though it also became linked to other concepts such as the “free world” to distinguish it from a communist bloc defined around the idea of “totalitarian” rule. However, its link to the idea of “western civilisation” was by no means so simple since many on the left during from the 1930s to the late 1950s saw communism as both growing out of “western civilisation” and advancing it to a new and higher level. [i]
All this now seems very distant from contemporary international politics. The break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War might possibly have led to the very demise of the idea of “the West” given increasingly fashionable ideas of globalisation. In the decade or so after 1991 there were serious suggestions, in some policy quarters, to integrate post-communist Russia into NATO, either as a full or associate member, to help the wider global fight against terrorism. Russia appeared at this time to many to be an increasingly “westernised” society as it abandoned the trappings of a dreary state-controlled Soviet lifestyle for the allure of western clothes, fast cars, holidays abroad and the market economy. By contrast, there was never any comparable suggestion that a state like China could ever be part of “the West” despite the was never fact that its economy from the late 1970s and it created a modern infrastructure rivalling “western” states in Europe or North America.
So, the question returns to the wider issue of deciding who is and is not “western”? During the bitter Cold War years of the late 1940s to the 1960s few doubted that countries such as Australia and New Zealand were inextricably part of “the West” even though they were the other side of the world and part of the Asia Pacific region. The idea of “the West” was only ever partly geo-political since it also denoted an attachment to a set of political and social values, anchored in ideas about human rights and the establishment of a democratic system under the rule of law., though these by no means the sole preserve of the “west”. But these ideas had considerable significance during the post-war period when many counties in Africa and Asia were emerging from colonial rule and were part of distinct entity variously called the “Afro Asian bloc”, the “developing world” or the “third world.” Such societies seemed to be “modernising” or “developing” – some even said “westernising” – though they were clearly not as yet any formal part of the “western” world even if they wished to be. These societies were more of a challenge for “the West” to keep onside in a global ideological cold war with the communist bloc: a key motive, for instance, for the US by the late 1950s to start championing colonial independence in order to avoid being upstaged by either the Soviet Union or Communist China.
In the event, the end of the Cold War led not to the demise of “the West” but its ideological rejuvenation. With triumphalist ideas of an “end of history” espoused by Francis Fukuyama, “the West” now appeared to be linked to a clear path of political liberalism which would, in time, ensure its eventual global triumph over all other rival ideologies – this had, after all, not always been the case when Portugal under its dictator Salazar had been a member of NATO. It became increasingly attached to theories of “globalisation” and the opening up of formerly closed economies to the rigours of the free market. The “west” now had a new economically driven set of imperatives compared to older ones linked to notions of “civilisation”. The ideological baggage of “western civilisation” had all too often ended up embarrassing the defenders of both “the West” and “the free world” during the Cold War, especially when they came from clearly undemocratic, if not repressive regimes such as South Africa and Southern Rhodesia where exponents of white settler rule were fond of declaring their attachment well into the 1960s to the values of “western civilisation.” The term acted as a kind of millstone from the past given that it stretched back to the era of nineteenth century European empires and doctrines of a “civilising mission” in continents such as “darkest Africa” that, to Victorian empire builders, seemed to be in need of it.
Freed of its former attachment to imperial cultural and racial baggage the “west” took on a new life of its own during the decade of the 1990s and into the new millennium. In a way it had attached itself to a global variant of the increasingly fashionable concept of multi-culturalism in Europe and North America as it looked at all cultures as being of equal worth and standing. This was also the language of humanitarian intervention into the Balkans and West Africa as “the West” appeared no longer linked to old-style imperial intervention but to the rescuing of societies from the clutches of repressive warlords and the putting back together of “failed states” such as Bosnia, Liberia and Sierra Leone though not, unfortunately, Somalia.
It is this economically driven and globalised west which has come under growing challenge over the last decade or more by a radicalised Islamic insurgency, following the “western” interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq. “The west” in this instance began to take on some of the trappings of the nineteenth century European concert of powers as many “western” states such as the USA, Britain, Canada, France and Germany became part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 1386 in December 2001. The failure to defeat the Taliban and even to destroy the Al Qaeda leadership exposed apparent military failings in the old Cold War western alliance. The poorly-planned aftermath to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 failed to stem the emergence of Islamist insurgencies among both the Sunni and Shi’a that only escalated after the departure of US troops in 2011. The same year, the assistance of a number of western powers in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya further exposed weakness in the Alliance since, once again, western forces were rapidly withdrawn leaving the country with a weak government that soon fell apart in a vicious sectarian civil war.
On a number of fronts, indeed, it is possible to see both a lack of “western resolve” if not a loss of political nerve. The Obama’s administration resort to protracted diplomacy that has often been poorly linked to the projection of military power, can easily be interpreted by the USA’s enemies as simple weakness. The slow and ponderous response by the European Union to the refugee crisis on its southern borders can again be seen as lack of clear political will by a body that has sometimes been described as a “civilian power” given that it has no proper army or military doctrine. By contrast, the rapid projection – and later partial withdrawal – of Russian military power by President Putin into Syria indicates that state centric and Bismarckian politics are still a rational means to pursue political goals in the modern global system.
It is thus possible to suggest, following the title of a once-fashionable work of pseudo scholarship by Oswald Spengler, that there is now a “decline of the West.” Spengler published his two volume work in 1922 during the dark days of post-war Germany that saw the beginnings of the Nazi party in the Munich beer halls. Spengler at least suggested the need to abandon older ideas of Eurocentric civilisation and suggested that the West needed to be seen alongside a series of other cultures that he suggested usually had a life-span of a thousand years. In some ways his ponderous work was a forerunner of later ideas of “clashing civilisations” espoused by Samuel Huntington, though Spengler gloomily suggested that the Western world as a whole had entered into a “winter time” of a “Faustian civilisation” that had effectively sold its soul to the devil of a rapacious capitalism.
Doubtless the bitter followers of Daesh/Islamic State would be only too happy to agree with this prognosis of the West and its future. The concept of “the West” is currently in some trouble though the patterns of the past suggest that both an economic upturn in the global economy and the emergence of new visionary political leadership can re-moralise it as a useful concept, working in close partnership with other regions, displaying respect for their cultures while at the same time upholding certain core values of democracy and human rights. Seen in this light, the emergence of a Trump presidency in the USA would only further western decline and ensure deep, if not irreparable, divisions in the Western alliance as it has emerged in the decades after 1945.
[i] Alastair Bonnett, The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History. Houndmills: Macmillan Palgrave, 2004, 47.