How the West Was Spun

How the West Was Spun

Mini Teaser: Christopher Coker's Twilight of the West looks at present geopolitical trends and predicts the West's dissolution; David Gress, in From Plato to Nato, sees them as yet another episode in the long struggle between the mainstream W

by Author(s): John O'Sullivan

From this point on, the battle lines were drawn between two
intellectual armies defending different versions of the New West. The
heirs of the skeptical Enlightenment--conservatives or classical
liberals, according to taste--defended the imperfect, partial and
compromised versions of democracy, science and capitalism as they
emerged from history. Their opponents--radical liberals or
socialists, again according to taste--demanded mint-fresh
institutions of freedom that would liberate man from historical
oppression (including the oppression of his own customary beliefs and
practices). And because they were asking for institutions untainted
by history, the latter inevitably became disenchanted with the actual
institutions that stood before them and refined their aim into a some
such triad as science, equality and planning. The first clash between
these two forces outside the printed page and the lecture room was
the French Revolution.

Who's In? Who's Out?

It is at this point that Coker appears on the scene, rather like
Pierre at the Battle of Borodino. For he opens his book with Goethe's
account of his experience at the Battle of Valmy, where a
professional Prussian army was soundly beaten in short order by
France's revolutionary peasants. Goethe's comment on this, given to
the soldiers on the evening of their defeat, was: "From this place
and this time forth commences a new era in world history and you can
all say that you were present at its birth." What this scene
signifies for our purposes is the change from the history of events
to the history of ideas.

For as well as the French Revolution, two events on either side of
1789 had raised questions about the proper limits of the West:
namely, the American War of Independence and Russia's full entry into
the European system (courtesy of Bonaparte). Were America and Russia
genuinely Western nations? Or were they peripheral to the main plot
of Western history? On top of that, the American democracy born in
1776 not only raised questions about the West's political character
but initially gave misleading answers about it as well. For the
American Revolution, though inspired and guided by the ideas of the
skeptical Enlightenment, was widely seen at first as precursor and
brother to the French Revolution, which was really the radical
Enlightenment in arms. It seems clear in retrospect that 1776 was the
universalization of Britain's liberal Glorious Revolution of 1688, to
which both 1789 and 1917 were radical counter-revolutionary
responses--with the liberal revolutions of 1989 deciding the contest,
at least for the moment, in favor of 1776. But history had not
clarified that in 1815. And there was one further entrant into the
ideology stakes. German reactions to the French Revolution included
the rise of a romantic cultural nationalism that tended to despise
both Enlightenments--Anglo-American Whiggery and the French
Revolution--as equally rootless and dehumanizing.

As a result, whereas the European sense of the Old West was largely
unconscious insofar as it existed at all, reactions to the French and
American Revolutions in Germany and elsewhere consisted inter alia of
highly self-conscious reflections on such questions as the meaning of
history, the world spirit, the distinction between a civilisation
(French, superficial) and a Kultur (German, profound), and the
legitimate boundaries and spiritual character of the West. In the 140
years after 1815, as Coker recounts it, the poets and philosophers of
Europe devoted much thought and imagination to what the West was and
what the West meant.

Clearly the West was more than Metternich's "geographical
expression." But agreement ended there. And when these debates moved
on to questions of power politics and cultural authenticity, these
were not always clearly distinguished. Was Germany a part of the
West, for instance? An influential school of German cultural
nationalists, including even Thomas Mann at the time of the First
World War, thought not; Germany was a community offering deeper
solace to its people than the bourgeois internationalism of either
the French or the Anglo-American variety. But other Germans no less
concerned with cultural values, notably Nietzsche, had seen Germany
as the West's central power, the one which, because of France's
spiritual exhaustion, would have to take the lead in resisting
czarist authoritarianism.

Was, then, Russia a part of the West? It was certainly threatening to
become so by virtue of its growing power. But as early as the 1850s,
the German philosopher Bruno Bauer, seeing Russia as a barrack-square
society bereft of ideas and Reason, was advocating a European
coalition to resist it. A century later, as we know, America was to
lead such a coalition.

But, then again, was America itself a part of the West? Goethe
believed so. Indeed, he thought it was the future of the West, in one
of his novels dispatching as emigrants to the United States those of
his characters who did not commit suicide. And slightly less
farsightedly, Hegel thought that America might eventually become a
decisive part of the West, but that for the foreseeable future it was
on the edge of history. Spengler, however, took the common view still
found among European elites that America was not a country but a mere
place, "a barren field and a population of trappers drifting from
town to town on the dollar hunt."

As is their wont, the Germans made a disproportionate contribution to
these lofty discussions. The Anglo-Americans were still living in a
splendid philosophical isolation: Americans following a destiny too
manifest to debate, and the British ignoring the world spirit in
their pursuit of world power. It was the French, on this occasion
given foresight by their fading power, who anticipated that the
United States would have to infuse cultural and political energy into
a declining Europe. Coker quotes Henri Martin as fearing in the 1870s
that a Russian-dominated Europe would leave America to preserve "all
the higher human elements of civilization", and Jules Michelet as
forecasting an "Atlantic Union" to prevent this melancholy outcome.
In the event, these debates were conclusively settled in Michelet's
favor by two world wars that dragged America willy-nilly into Europe,
and by the Cold War, which detained her there for another fifty
years. If any single moment was the West's rendezvous with destiny,
it was the signing of the Atlantic Charter by Churchill and FDR on a
British warship in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland in August 1941--as
both our authors agree.

Interpreting Atlanticism

Or do they? Both Gress and Coker attach great importance to the
Atlantic Charter, but they differ seriously on its significance. In
Coker's eyes, it initiated an essentially Anglo-American view of the
West, which began to decay in the Sixties with the growth of a
specifically continental Europeanism; in Gress' opinion, it was one
important episode in the long struggle between Western
traditionalists and "the children of the French Revolution"--a
struggle in which the traditionalists have recently scored a great
victory with the collapse of communism.

Because Coker's judgment is the more familiar one, I shall deal with
it more briskly than his shrewd and sardonic argument deserves. The
Atlantic Charter, in his view, was "a historical turning-point" and
"a change of consciousness", but mainly for the British, less so for
the Americans, and only briefly and pragmatically for the continental
Europeans. France, the most independent of the European wartime
allies holed up in London, did not even sign it until late in 1944.
The Soviet threat ensured that Atlanticism remained a military
necessity for Europe until recently. But as détente and Ostpolitik
took hold in the Sixties, the concept of Europeanism advanced in
tandem with them--fueled by a French intellectual tradition of
anti-Americanism, growing European economic integration and the
political reality that European social democracy never felt entirely
comfortable with American capitalism. By the late 1980s, as John
Laughland pointed out in The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins
of the European Idea (1997), the rhetorical attacks of French
politicians on the "Anglo-Saxons" and their liberal system of trade
and capital movements bore a curious resemblance to what Vichy
politicians were saying in the early Forties.

It is a mystery why American statesmen were so slow to see the
Europeanist threat to Atlanticism, and Coker has some fun reversing
the usual finger-pointing. Instead of blaming the British for missing
the European bus, he argues that they accurately divined its
anti-American (or at least its Americo-skeptical) implications early
on. It was successive American leaders--including such respected
figures as George Ball--who rashly pooh-poohed these warnings in
their eagerness to shovel Britain into what is now the European
Union. (Only Henry Kissinger expressed serious public anxieties on
that score.) Their calculation was that British membership would
ensure that Europe became a more reliable U.S. ally; but at present
it looks more likely that Europe will make Britain a less reliable
U.S. ally.

That may not matter to Americans overmuch, Coker speculates, since
the United States itself is losing its eighteenth-century Western
identity as a result of mass immigration from Third World countries,
the spread of bilingualism and multiculturalism, and the failure or
refusal of America's elites to insist on assimilation. It is
therefore losing also the sense that its primary defense and
diplomatic commitment must be to Europe. Even the prospect of
European protectionism is dismissed as unimportant by Coker since
America has already forged strong trade links with the rest of the
world--though the "Asian contagion" may upset that particular
calculation. On this view America is becoming, or may have already
become, a different civilization from that of Europe--what James
Kurth in these pages has called "the post-West"--and so the two sides
of the Atlantic are increasingly likely to part company politically
too.

Essay Types: Book Review