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

He argues that it is in the first instance a kind of hallucination. Other civilizations may seem to have adopted Westernization, but the likelihood is that unless they actually cease to be themselves, they have merely taken over the technical knowledge and procedural rules of Western culture. They may institute free-market capitalism, and do so successfully, but will they prove as capable of habitual innovation? They may have procedures for voting, but will that result in a routine transfer of power from government to opposition? He concludes that the world outside the West is likely to see the spread of capitalism but not of democracy, and that this process should therefore be called modernization rather than Westernization.

Even this limited adoption of Western institutions will make other civilizations richer and stronger. But as Samuel Huntington points out, that will have the perverse result of making them more anti-Western as well. They will certainly be more resistant to Western cultural hegemony. Already, many Muslims believe that they have learned to combine Western techniques with the greater spiritual and civilizational powers of Islam. Far from converging, therefore, civilizations will tend to grow apart, with the rest becoming "more modern and less Western", in Huntington's words. The end result will be a world of five or six major civilizations, all of which are rich and powerful in varying degrees, but which remain foreign, mysterious and even suspect to each other.

That being so, the West will have a strong incentive to retain some sort of organizational unity and to remain distinctively Western in spirit and culture. As Gress says exasperatedly at one point, in what might almost be a direct reply to Coker, "A multicultural West is a contradiction in terms; the only West that can be accommodating to other cultures is a West that knows itself and, on the strength of that understanding, encounters others."

What would such a West be like? It would recognize itself, in Gress' words, as "the obedient child of the Old West." Among other qualifies, it would have a place for religion, above all Christianity, in its self-image; it would understand that capitalism was not democracy's antagonist but that they were mutually dependent; and it would know that liberty was safest in pluralistic societies "where several govern." As at the signing of the Atlantic Charter, this unmistakably describes a West that includes - and indeed is led by - America, the strategic heartland where Christianity and capitalism still retain considerable, if reduced, self-confidence and popularity.

There could hardly be two more contrary conclusions. Coker thinks that the Western Brothers have quarreled so irrevocably that there is nothing for it but for them to divide the estate and go out to seek profitable alliances with their former retainers. Gress thinks that the hostility of those beyond the Pale will force the family to stick together under the slightly austere Uncle Sam, who, culturally if not fiscally speaking, has saved and invested more, and partied less, than his improvident relatives. And although both writers concede that the future is unknowable, that will not go far in reconciling their differences.

But perspective may lend a hand here. Coker is pessimistic about a West that began to be imagined about the time of Valmy, was realized in 1941, and started to break apart in the Sixties with the establishment of "Europe." Gress' Europe started to coalesce in the Dark Ages, emerged in its modern divided self at about the time of Valmy, and has been both growing in power and wracked by civil wars ever since. It is understandable that Coker should look at present political trends and conclude that they point clearly to the West's dissolution, and equally reasonable that Gress should see them as yet another, perhaps extended, episode in the long struggle between the mainstream Western tradition and its internal enemies. And in the timescale in which they pitch their forecasts, both may even be right.

The case for Coker's predictions makes itself. The evidence is before our eyes in such signs as the boasts of European politicians that the euro will shortly rival the dollar as top currency; the spread of multiculturalism, bilingualism and a deracinated history in the schools; the drive for a militarily pointless but politically significant "European defense identity" in NATO; the divergence between the United States and the European Union over American sanctions on Cuba and Iran; the EU's restrictions on American cultural imports; and much else. National Interest readers have already seen the case that Atlantic arrangements are destined to erode in the post-Cold War world argued ably and briskly by Stephen Walt in "The Ties That Fray: Why Europe and America Are Drifting Apart" (Winter 1998/99). Coker's additional point is that these ties began to fray while the Soviet threat was still an incentive for cooperation and that they therefore signify a much deeper civilizational divide. If Gress is to convince us otherwise, he has to point to less obtrusive trends that are likely to draw America and Europe together over the long haul.

These are not hard to find. To begin with, the West, which was linguistically balkanized one generation ago, is now increasingly united by a single language. English is the language of business, the airline industry, practical diplomacy, Hollywood and the Internet. It has even been given official status by the EU. To be sure, English is also shared with many non-Westerners, but that does not diminish its force as a factor fostering Atlantic cultural unity. Cultural unity does not, of course, preclude passionate disputes; indeed, it practically guarantees them, as Shaw's remark about Americans and British being divided by a single language recognizes. The quality of Atlantic culture, especially its pop-cultural side, is one indictment in Europe's charge-sheet against the United States. But these atrocities are of concern to Americans as much as to Europeans, and the official European response - to subsidize even worse local imitations of American trash - hardly improves matters. Moreover, the concept of Atlantic culture is not exhausted by television sitcoms and Hollywood "slasher" movies. English also fosters the development of an Atlantic public opinion and consciousness. Through magazines like The Economist and newspapers like the Financial Times, we are all aware of the same information and all concerned about the same controversies. Inevitably, this political culture is often superficial, but that is in part because Atlantic cultural unity is in its early stages.

Religion is another source of Western unity - or at least no longer a barrier to it. Most commentators focus on such obstacles to a strong West as growing secularism, the divide between secular elites and the Religious Right, and the allegedly similar divide between a post-Christian Europe and a still-Christian America. But these are emotionally mild conflicts compared to those between different Western religions in the recent past. Even as late as the Forties, there were deep and bitter divisions between different Protestant denominations, let alone between Catholics and Protestants and Christians and Jews. And these translated into significant national religious differences between, say, Protestant England and Catholic France. But movements like Christian ecumenism and the Jewish-Christian dialogue have healed these divisions to an extent that would have astonished our grandparents.

Nor does secularism enjoy a settled victory either in Europe or among America's elites. "Modern man" is a creature shaped largely by agnostic philosophers and liberal theologians who created him in their own image. Church attendance may be down in most countries, but opinion polls show a large residue of Christian and other religious beliefs in European populations. The United States is experiencing a religious revival that some observers compare to the Great Awakenings. Above all, the supposed link between modernity and secularism is a fragile one. It may apply, for instance, to the liberal humanities, but it does not seem to hold for the physical and technical sciences. Evangelical Christians are apparently found in large numbers at the cutting-edge of science and technology, and America is not only more religious than Europe, it is also more advanced in the new applied sciences. It would not be surprising if even agnostic sectors of society were to be influenced over time by this evidence of worldly accomplishment - which would soothe another cultural tension in Euro-American relations. But in any event secularism seems unlikely to divide the West in the way that earlier religious differences did.

Political divisions are, of course, more eternal than religious ones. And the division between American capitalism and European social democracy, though largely a matter of degree, is now of fifty years standing. But it must be qualified by three new divisions that currently fracture Western politics. The first of these is the latest incarnation of the conflict between the skeptical and radical Enlightenments; let us call it the battle between the West and the post-West. This is a struggle over, among other things, the meaning of democracy. As the scholar John Fonte has pointed out, the traditional Western view of liberal democracy is now being challenged by advocates of "cultural democracy", who would replace individual rights with group rights, majority rule with "fancy franchises", and individual merit with ethnic proportionalism. Indeed, gender proportionalism would trump even popular democratic elections, since the voters would have to choose a parliament composed 50 percent of women.

Supporters of cultural democracy are now entrenched in national and international bureaucracies, and are the main source of activist energy in parties of the Left. But they are as likely to be found in Washington as in Paris; this is a conflict within Western nations rather than between them. It is also a fairly mild conflict compared to the murderous ideological battles that have disfigured this century. If cultural democrats are Bolsheviks, they are Bolsheviks acting within the restraints of formal democracy. But then - to borrow from Marx - socialism repeats itself: the first time as genocide, the second time as therapy.

The second division has opened up because cultural democrats are opposed, or at least hampered, by their allies in social democratic parties who retain, or have recovered, a faith in the New West triad of democracy, capitalism and science. These are the advocates of the Third Way, which, when it is not mere blather (which it is most of the time), is an attempt to reconcile the social democratic parties with the West, correcting the mistaken policy of the postwar Left of maintaining a high-minded neutrality between Western freedom and Soviet socialism. This task is made much easier by the economic and social progress of the last fifty years. The original advocates of a Third Way, like Orwell, could point to real hardship in capitalist societies that had very modest nets of social welfare. By the end of the Cold War, the conservative parties in America and Western Europe were advocates and custodians of extensive welfare arrangements. Indeed, one reason why the Blairite Third Way sometimes seems so thin is that it claims to occupy a distinctive position on the ideological spectrum (free markets plus state safety nets) where in fact even the Thatcherites perched quite comfortably. But admittedly, what is bad argument may be good politics.

And the third division is that between the postwar West and the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. As Gress points out, the end of communist rule led to a revival of classical liberal thought in the new democracies. The need for new constitutions led to politicians reading Burke, Montesquieu, Constant and the Federalist Papers for the first time, and drawing on such ideas as the separation of powers. The experience of the planned economy persuaded them of the virtues of free-market capitalism. Although these countries all want to be part of "Europe", their leaders also look for guidance, example and protection to the United States. And they have not had their freedom long enough to become disenchanted with the future. They may be closer geographically to Western Europe, but politically and philosophically they are America's natural friends. So their entry into the Western community, far from introducing a difficult cultural challenge as Coker seems to suggest at one stage, is likely to strengthen the West by reducing the net amount of anti-Americanism in Europe.

On balance these new political trends seem likely to moderate rather than aggravate existing tensions between America and Europe. But these may look more threatening at present than over the long run because they are the result in part of the West's overwhelming dominance in the world. It is, after all, the bloc led by the world's only superpower, and as such plainly feels that it can enjoy the luxury of internal rivalry and dissent, just as the variations on postmodernism within the academy testify to a society that is rich and secure enough to afford almost any frivolity

But this present dominance is an extraordinary and probably temporary state of affairs. No one can forecast the precise coalition of civilizations, nations or sub-national forces that might pose a serious threat to Western interests in the future. Such a coalition is, however, a moral certainty at some time. And when it arrives, the West is likely to exist as a civilizational, economic and political coalition and as at least a potential military one. That is not everything of course; but it is quite a lot.

John O'Sullivan is editorial consultant with the National Post in Canada, and editor-at-large of National Review.

Essay Types: Book Review