Twenty Years After 9/11, the West Is Far from Defeated

September 11, 2021 Topic: 9/11 Region: World Tags: 9/11NATOAfghanistanThe WestChinaRussia

Twenty Years After 9/11, the West Is Far from Defeated

Adversaries in Beijing, Moscow, and in the mountains of Afghanistan recognize in the West a worthy enemy, a source of fear not because of its alleged fragility but because of its many strengths. Those adversaries know that the West is still relevant. Does the West itself know this?

This “enlarged West,” in a phrase Italians use to denote the Mediterranean beyond its restrictive maritime borders, does not have the cohesion of the core West, bound by cultural values and shared experiences. India, for example, will not entangle itself in a formal alliance in the United States for the time being. But the enlarged West remains a helpful notion for engaging in an agile and flexible way with partners around the world with whom we share interests and values. Sometimes, these common interests will be surprising. Vietnam, which symbolized Western hubris and defeat in the 1970s, is now a partner of sorts for the United States. It will not identify itself with the West, although its official Marxist ideology and terminology are actually Western imports. That will not stop communist Vietnam from seeking cooperation with the West on areas of common interest. Across the world, such partnerships are growing thicker by the day, in response to provocations from China and Russia. The West is not the only geopolitical actor prone to hubris and overreach. Its enemies make mistakes too, and those should be taken advantage of when they do. Having an international network of friends makes this easier to achieve.

The “enlarged West” will not necessarily be composed of NATO-like alliances. In the enlarged West, allies of the United States are likely to approach their relationships with their partners in a much more flexible way; coordination can be difficult; but this large and loose network of partnerships hardly proves the weakness or the decline of the West in its more restrictive definition. On the contrary, the West has not lost its relevance, and its alliance network remains essential. But its extension beyond the traditional West does require a new, evolving, and flexible approach to partnerships and to security broadly construed.

Never composed of military budgets, treaties, technology, and commercial exchange alone, the West (and the core West in particular) is much more than a materialistic concept. It is a cultural, political, and intellectual project. At its best, it reflects the drive for liberty and self-government derived from the convergent and at times conflicting heritages of classical antiquity, Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Furious debates about its essence, its trajectory, and its achievements make a tradition that is typically Western. Intellectually, the West has always been a debate, a conversation, a contested project, and rightly so. The problem is that in recent years, the West’s advocates have been quiet and almost ashamed of their affiliation, while its adversaries and the proponents of its imminent demise have been loud and emboldened—inside and outside the West.

Such (dis-)quiet on the part of the Westerners is understandable. After 9/11, the war on terror waged by the West vacillated between the practical imperatives of security and a crusade with the potential to estrange Muslim populations. Ambiguities and missteps in the war on terror have allowed the West’s adversaries to equate it with a religious crusade and with foreign invasions. Many Westerners adopted this critique, leading to further uneasiness—and self-doubt. Soul-searching is unavoidable twenty years after 9/11. Yet it remains imperative for the West to define itself and not to let its competitors and enemies tell the story of what the West means and what it does. To lose the narrative is to lose the battle before it has even taken place.

This takes us back to Afghanistan. This twenty-year venture demands serious rethinking, but the war in Afghanistan cannot be made synonymous with the status and foreign policy of the West as such. Indirectly, the chaos at Kabul airport showed that the West can remain a model provided it can see beyond its immediate failures. The efforts of Afghans to flee the Taliban outline the attractions of the Western project and way of life compared to that of its rivals, as did the flight of Vietnamese to the West after 1975. Similarly, brain drain from Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus reveals that, even if many in the West have a hard time seeing its own attractions, there are many who still believe in the West—and wish to adhere to its principles.

In ancient Greek tragedy, hubris is followed by nemesis or punishment, but nemesis is not the end of the story. It must be followed by catharsis, the soul-cleansing required to find a new balance. These same elements are to be found in Christianity (sin-punishment-redemption) and in the ideals of the enlightenment (experimentation-error-self-criticism and reform). They are a good image of the path that the West needs to take to move on—and, more than anything, to move forward.

Skeptics will contend that the West is beyond redemption. This is a prominent claim in debates about the West, the conventional wisdom perhaps. For a debate, though, there need to be two sides. Proponents of the West’s future should make their case with a mix of humility and self-confidence, much like they started to do after Vietnam. Interestingly, adversaries in Beijing, Moscow, and in the mountains of Afghanistan recognize in the West a worthy enemy, a source of fear not because of its alleged fragility but because of its many strengths. Those adversaries know that the West is still relevant. Does the West itself know this?

Re-building self-confidence in the West can benefit from catharsis, if the right lessons are learned. The historical record shows how quickly the tables can turn. In 1935, after the triumphalism of the Treaty of Versailles, the democratic West was in disarray, struggling with the catastrophe of the Great Depression and seemingly behind the political curve. In 1941, fascism was dominant throughout continental Europe, and then in 1945, the democratic West had liberated Western Europe. A few decades later, the decline of the West was invoked again in the fight against communism. The early 1970s were beset by economic turmoil: many intellectuals started to ask whether the socialist model was not the West’s actual future. 1975 was a year of acute humiliation for the United States, with helicopters flying pell-mell out of Saigon. Four years later, America and the West suffered yet another nemesis with the Iran hostage crisis. But by 1985, the tides had turned, and with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev, the next few years would lead to 1989, when the West emerged as the victor of the Cold War.

A cathartic moment of self-criticism must not be the prelude to despair. It should refine the patience, self-assurance, and forward-looking optimism about the future that has long been a Western trademark. It is vastly preferable to theories of precipitous decline, fashionable enough in Western capitals in the fall of 2021 and encouraged by adversaries of the West, who would like them to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. His most recent book is The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, which appeared in 2020 with Basic Books.

Thibault Muzergues is a European political analyst and the author of War in Europe? From Impossible War to Improbable Peace, which will be published in 2022 with Routledge.

Image: Reuters.