In the heady days of the Cold War, “the West” referred to the so-called free world — a liberal democratic order, notes Ivan Krastev (left), the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies. Today it has been replaced by a cultural, rather than political, notion. But unlike in the 19th century, when a “white man’s burden” took pride of place, today what dominates are the “white man’s fears,” he writes for The New York Times.
“[B]uilding a new identity of the West around the idea of a fortress under siege is a risky enterprise. America and Europe might find themselves in the position of the man who, so panicked by death, decides to commit suicide,” adds Krastev, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.
A genuine effort to assert authentic Western values would require calling upon Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party to respect the very essence of Western tradition, particularly freedom of the press, The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen adds.
Having a Western heritage may make liberalism easier, but it is demonstrably, provably not necessary, argues Paul D. Miller, the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. There are many routes to accountable self-governance. Western history was just the first. I find it baffling when nationalists insist on denying liberalism’s global appeal when much of the rest of the world has publicly declared allegiance to these ideals and is well into its seventh or eighth decade governing along lines copied from the West, he writes for Foreign Policy:
Finally, to defend the “West” on nationalist grounds is incoherent. The “West” is practically an invention of universalist dreamers who put together a civilization on foundations borrowed from Jews and Greeks, Romans and Frenchmen — whatever and whomever they could get their hands on. There is no shared ethnicity or language or even religion among Westerners for nationalists to celebrate; only a shared project of plundering the best of humanity in pursuit of social and economic and political flourishing. To celebrate the freedom to do that is the definition of classical liberalism.
While it is true that “one cannot defend liberal values without making it clear that their source—Western civilization—is worth defending,” notes Reason’s Cathy Young [HT: Ron Radosh], “[t]alk of collective will and internal subversion is generally associated with authoritarian populism, not liberal democracy.”
The West is not a place but a concept, an agreement between people, as well as between people and governments, about how we should comport ourselves within society, argues Alexander Nazaryan:
Western values aren’t like the metric system: There isn’t an institute in Paris where those values, and their precise definitions, are enshrined. …That doesn’t prevent us, however, from outlining a foundation on which Western society rests: a respect for the scientific method, a primacy of observable reality over belief and myth; rational discourse in the public sphere; a tolerant humanism rooted in the belief that dignity is inherent in all people.
But these ideals are incompatible with parochialism of any kind, including concrete attachment to and privileging of the people, places, and nations that gave birth to and nurtured them. The West at its best must refuse to stand up for the West as a specific piece of territory with a distinctive history. After all, that would mean in some sense treating the West as superior to other places with other histories. It would mean having to make distinctions between those inside and outside the West, and distinctions among outsiders whose ways of life are compatible with Western ideals and those whose ways of life are not.
“The very populists who happily speak in the name of the West have proven to be the most immediate threat to Western political principles, a threat from within,” according to Michael Kimmage, a history professor at the Catholic University of America. “Those seeking to counter them should revisit and revitalize the Western political tradition, with its reverence for liberty and contempt for tyranny,” he argued in The Washington Post.