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

Mr. Gress has a very different, and original, interpretation of the
Atlantic Charter. He sees it as an amalgam: an expression of the
values of the New West as represented by the skeptical Enlightenment
and as influenced by the circumstances of 1939-41. It proclaimed
national self-determination, democracy, free trade and collective
security--the causes that the interwar years were thought to have
neglected or betrayed. And although the Charter was signed two months
after Hitler's invasion of Russia, this was also the political
program that the Western democracies had formulated in opposition to
both totalitarian dictatorships, united after 1939 by the Nazi-Soviet
pact. What would later be fully articulated as "anti-totalitarianism"
was implicit in the principles outlined at Placentia Bay. Moreover,
by bringing America into the contest, at least in spirit, the
Atlantic Charter was giving new energy to this traditional West,
since the Americans still had that confidence in freedom, democracy,
capitalism and the future that had begun to wither in Europe.

But once the alliance with the Soviet Union was entrenched, it
inevitably transformed the West's view of "what we are fighting for."
Christianity and capitalism, for instance, could hardly be the war
aims of an alliance that included the Soviet Union, and capitalism
was at least seen at the time as compatible with the genocidal West
represented by Hitler. Indeed, the very notion of the West was
compromised, because Hitler claimed to be fighting for it against our
new Soviet allies. So anti-totalitarianism was replaced by what Gress
calls "the anti-fascist mindset." In place of the now compromised
triad of science, democracy and capitalism, for instance, the Soviets
proclaimed science, equality and rational planning, a substitution
designed to delight the "children of the French Revolution" in
Europe. Indeed, as the "anti-fascist mindset" spread during the war,
it seemed to many that the true West must include the Soviets and
exclude capitalism and Christianity. A West that made the opposite
choices would be plainly tainted with fascism.

The result is described by Gress:

"The argument over Western identity was thus between those who
identified the West with America--the commercial republic with its
Christian foundations--and those whose idea of the West rejected
Christianity and capitalism and looked rather to the ideals of
progress and social transformation that they believed had been at
least partly realized in the Soviet Union."

Admittedly, there were socialist factions and individual
intellectuals--the Bevanite Labour Left, George Orwell--who urged an
early Third Way, arguing that either Britain or a new united Europe
should pioneer the combination of socialism and democracy as a
civilized alternative to totalitarian Scylla and capitalist
Charybdis. But even the Attlee government, which might theoretically
have favored it, saw this as a distraction from the urgent tasks of
rebuilding the postwar European economies and organizing resistance
to the Soviets. As the illusory nature of this Third Way became
clear, its supporters either gave their backing to the American-led
democracies, like Orwell, or became "neutralist" with a bias toward
the "socialist" world.

Thus began what might be called a cold civil war in the West, in
which anti-Americanism always enjoyed substantial support among West
European intellectuals. From 1941 to 1947 admiration for Soviet
wartime heroism ensured that the anti-fascist version of the West was
largely dominant. Between 1947 and 1968 fear of the Soviet Union
became a paramount factor in Western opinion, the concept of
anti-totalitarianism was dusted off, and the West united politically
and to an extent even intellectually under American leadership. Then,
the Vietnam War concentrated attention on America's flaws, and for
twenty years after 1968 there was a sustained campaign against
America, and later the West generally, represented as the enemies of
mankind politically, economically and ecologically.

Finally, without this campaign having abated even slightly, the
Soviet Union suddenly collapsed. This discredited for the moment the
economic and political claims of the radical Enlightenment, installed
America as a hegemonic power in both the West and the world, and gave
immense prestige to the New West ideals of democracy, science and
free markets. By any standards this was a world-historical
victory--yet one, as Gress concedes, that was curiously muted by the
West's own moral self-doubt, and in danger of being drowned out by
the unabated cries of environmentalists, multiculturalists and
fifty-seven varieties of anti-Western criticism.

These are very different analyses and they dictate very different
prescriptions. Coker, suspecting that the West is losing its internal
cultural coherence and is doomed to split politically into rival
continents, thinks that in this weakened condition it had better
reach some kind of multicultural bargain with other civilizations.
Gress sees America as the heartland of a New West with an irreducible
minimum of cultural identity that cannot and ought not be dissolved
into a vague multicultural universalism. And so he concludes that in
a world of clashing civilizations, it has an unavoidable interest in
maintaining the habits and structures of political cooperation.

Alternative Futures

Neither line of argument is entirely satisfactory. Coker claims that
none of the usual suspects--China and fundamentalist Islam, for
example--in the police line-up of anti-Western challenges is likely
to be sufficiently threatening to persuade the West to rediscover its
sense of common purpose. But the chapter discussing such vast
subjects is too sketchy to be persuasive, and Coker is forced to
leave extremely important questions hanging in the air. For instance:
"China may emerge as a fully modern state or dissolve into a vast
Third World country." True enough, but the West will hardly be
unaffected by which it is. If Coker seems unaffected himself, it is
because he thinks that the world has moved beyond old-fashioned power
politics, making a revived Western coalition an inappropriate, if not
unavailable, form of geopolitics. The West's next task is to engage
in a constructive dialogue with other civilizations in order to help
construct a new world culture.

It is hard to know what to make of this. To begin with, it is largely
unnecessary to instruct the West to act in the wider international
interest. Except in occasional articles and speeches by some
over-muscular neoconservatives, the West has not displayed any marked
civilizational egoism in recent years. At least as led by the United
States, it has sought in its policies on trade and international
economics to accommodate, and even advance, the legitimate interests
of other parts of the world. One large exception and one important
qualification must be attached to this general rule. The exception
has been Europe's Common Agricultural Policy; but that has ignored
the interests of the United States, Australia and New Zealand as much
as it has those of the Third World, and is therefore a factor in the
dissolution rather than the expansion of the West. The qualification
is that while the West may have accommodated other interests, it has
done so in the light of its own values--notably free trade and human

A new world culture would presumably correct that bias, would it not?
Again, however, what would such a culture look like? Cultures are
made up of such intractable components as language and religion.
Always a magpie civilization itself, the West has been happy to
appropriate religious styles, foreign words and all kinds of ambient
cultural bric-a-brac. But more than that is unlikely. It is hard
enough to interest many Westerners in their own religions, let alone
Asian or African ones, and with the rise of Christian and Muslim
"enthusiasm", religion is more likely to be a source of cultural
conflict than of accommodation. As for language, the tongue most
likely to be the basis of any world culture is English, which, even
granting such developments as the "post-colonial novel", implies the
opposite of a Western retreat. Is Coker, then, more concerned with
strictly political and economic values? If so, the problem becomes
still more perplexing. Strip political authoritarianism from "Asian
values" and what is left sounds suspiciously like the "Victorian
values"--hard work, law and order, good schools and a decent family
life--of no less Western a figure than Lady Thatcher.

But political authoritarianism, having just been defeated after a
long struggle within the West, is unlikely to be openly embraced by
even the most masochistic multiculturalist. Its inconsistency with
the liberty at the heart of the West is too blatant. What follows,
surely, is that any halfway realistic prescription for a world
culture must avoid the cultural fundamentals derived from the Old
West, and stick instead to the New West's outward signs of inward
grace--democracy, free markets and the scientific method--which can
be represented as the heritage of all mankind.

The resulting paradox we might call "Western universalism", and this
turns out to be one of the main targets against which Gress aims the
last rounds in his Maxim gun. And indeed he directs devastating fire
at a bewildering variety of targets in his final two chapters:
postmodernists, multiculturalists, environmentalists, communitarians,
post-materialists, transcendental humanists, Islamists, the Singapore
school and several others besides. Most of these schools of thought
come under the heading of anti-Western Westerners, the
great-grandchildren of the French Revolution, who have adopted the
intellectual methods of Marxism but abandoned social class for the
environment, race or gender as the grounds for attack on the West.
Gress demolishes their arguments with a fine painstaking zest. His
comprehensive diligence reminds me of the British Conservative
Party's Campaign Guide, which used to be issued to canvassers and
which contained full and complete answers to every possible question
that might be posed on the doorstep. But this comprehensiveness
sometimes risks obscuring the outlines of his main argument: a
critique of so-called Western universalism.

Essay Types: Book Review