Problem in rooting foreign policy in Western values


Invoking the roots of Western civilization, President Trump’s Poland speech recalled the core values undergirding modern democracy, some observers contend.

“Western” values are universal values, and Trump affirmed their universality in Warsaw, declaring that “we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Marc A. Thiesen writes for The Washington Post:

These ideals are described as “Western” not because they are exclusive to the West, but because of the historical fact that they emanated from the West: the first democracy in Greece under Pericles (which predated Christianity by more than four centuries); to the principles enshrined in Magna Carta; the works of the Renaissance humanists; and the treatises of Enlightenment philosophers that inspired the authors of our Declaration of Independence.

Non-Westerners may embrace such values. Millions of people from non-Western lands prefer to live in “the Western community of nations” and willingly risk their lives to defend their adopted homes, notes Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Democracies not geographically Western have borrowed Western institutions, practices and beliefs. Some of the freest non-Western countries today were once colonies of the West or defeated by the West in war,” he adds.

The Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated, notes commentator David Brooks. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals, he wrote for The New York Times:

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

The potent appeal of liberal democratic ideas is evident in the lengths that autocratic regimes go to minimize exposure to them.

In Iran, for instance, “the internet threatens the nation’s soul by providing exposure to Western values that contradict the regime’s Islamist creed,” notes FDD analyst Tzvi Kahn.

But other observers are concerned that the nativist undertones of the Warsaw speech betray its illiberal thrust.

If Ronald Reagan had been asked to define the phrase “America First,” his initial reaction probably would have been: Those were the people too myopic to see why the United States should oppose fascism and Nazism, Brookings analyst William Galston writes for The Wall Street Journal. To judge from his Westminster address, his deeper answer would have been that America puts itself first when it is true to itself. And being true to itself means understanding that our constitutive principles apply beyond our borders. Indifference to democratic self-determination for other peoples is not putting America first; it is a betrayal of who we are, adds Galston (left), a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Certainly, there is an argument for the president’s invocation of Western civilization, notes Harvard’s Lawrence H. Summers. But the president has a problem in rooting foreign policy in Western values and the survival of the West, he writes for The Washington Post:

  • First, if the West is a coherent entity under siege one would think that maintaining its unity was a paramount value….
  • Second, if the West stands for anything it is values of freedom, democracy and human rights. American presidents differ in the emphasis they put on promotion of these values vs. supporting states whose security interests align with ours…
  • Third, much of what has defined the West have been the values of the Enlightenment.  Important among those values has been the idea that there are truths that are rooted in and can be ascertained through empirical observation…..


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