#188: What Is “The West” Today? From “Civilization” to Cooperation

Quite regularly, we can hear explanations about both foreign and domestic policy that rely on concepts about “the West.” It is rather commonplace to assume that the world is divided into different political camps that are influenced by different cultures. No other division is more popular than the distinction between those countries who are part of the “West” and those who are not. But what does this mean?

As usual, even though we all may have an instinctual response to this question, the more you try to answer the question, the more confusing it becomes. This is of course not a bad thing – knowledge can  only be gained after the realization that we are lacking it – but it can be disorienting to challenge one’s assumptions. After all, are we not living in a world of fixed definitions and answers? Cannot we easily look something up on Wikipedia or in a book? Are these not things that are clear and defined, and is it not utter sophistry to deny what most people take for granted?

Certainly, there is wisdom in accepting something as settled knowledge: only if we accept something as a fact can we act on such facts and make decisions, make policy. There certainly are such things as facts – the effects of gravity on an object, the speed of light, the shape of the planet, the position of the equator and the poles, and the resultant directions of North, South, East and West. Physical geography is a fact, but how we interpret it, how we imbue it with meaning that is relevant to humans is what is called a “social construction,” following John R. Searle. The simple answer to “where is west” is given by a compass. The answer to “where is the West” is given by historiography, philosophy and political theory. Let us try to figure this out now – and I’ll admit, I have a working hypothesis, influenced by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay that “There is no such thing as western civilization.” In the following though, I will follow less a historical approach (even though history is embedded in my reflections below, of course) than a more institutional one, which could be critiqued for ignoring the deep layers of cultural difference. I will address this problem in a later post, but you should probably read Appiah’s text, which deals with that issue convincingly. Briefly summarized, whatever we call “western civilization” is a global effort drawing from different cultural traditions that will eventually come together and form an identity that is much more diverse and universal than normally believed. But let us begin.

Sometimes, I like to play a game with my students. I ask them a simple question: What countries are “Western” countries? We start off with Samuel Huntington’s Map from The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which has the benefit of being a useful simplification that more or less accurately maps onto popular sentiments mostly in the West, and the downside that it is oftentimes extremely reductive and wrong. Here goes:

Map #0: A rendering of Huntington’s Map

Obviously, this map mixes categories like a maniac – “Western” clearly is not seen as geographical (a correct insight” and it lacks oppositional concepts like “Easter”, etc. “Orthodox” and “Islamic” are religious ideas, and “Hindu” arguably also, whereas “Japanese,” “Sinic,” “Latin American” and “African” are geographical and rather over-simplifying. We’ll get back to that. But it’s a good conversation-starter.

Let’s then build our own map. To make this easier, I show them an empty map of the world and ask them to name countries, we click on the countries on the map and fill in the blanks, so to say. Some of the first countries mentioned are typically the United States, Canada, and some European countries. Thus after a few attempts, we agree to add all NATO, EU and EFTA  countries, as well all EU and NATO member candidates (they have made a choice to belong). To round out the economic ties, we should probably also include Mexico, as it has been a long-standing NAFTA/USMCA member. All of these considerations lead to this map:

Map #1: A first step: NATO+EU+EFTA+USMCA

But now I have some questions, of course, some of them informed in conversation with Huntington’s map, others of course from a historical lens:

  • Religion: Turkey is clearly a NATO member, and still an EU candidate, but Huntington puts it in the Islamic camp. Some parts of Europe that are now in NATO and/or the EU are put into the “Orthodox” camp by Huntington, and yet, we are not marking “Catholic” or “Protestant” either. Maybe religion is more complicated – which would make sense given the large diversity of religions within the countries already marked on the map. We’ll return to this question later.
  • Soviet times: Some students were unsure whether to add “Eastern” countries like Poland to this scheme, similar with other former Warsaw pact countries.
  • Western/Central/Eastern Europe split: following the same lines, where exactly is the line of division between Western and Eastern Europe? There seem to be two rules: First, the division of the Roman Empire into a Latin- and Greek-speaking part, which then translates into a Catholic/Protestant vs. Orthodox/Islamic split (so far, Huntington’s map is happy), but also the Cold War split between NATO and Warsaw pact.
  • Germany historically has not been part of either the “West” or the “East” until “Western integration” of West Germany after World War II. It has historically seen itself as equidistant from both, between France in the West and Russia in the East. It emerges as a country of its own only in 1871 after the defeat of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon in 1806 (famously the “End of History” according to Hegel, as revived by Fukuyama).
  • Greenland here is still in association with Denmark. Serbia and Bosnia are maybe on the path to EU membership, Kosovo is difficult. Ukraine is a recent EU candidate, and Georgia is interested as well.

Now let’s follow the idea of alliances. NATO, EU and EFTA are straightforward, but what about the more recent alliances, AUKUS and the QUAD? This adds Australia definitely, and also Japan and India. Given that these three are clearly democracies, aligned and embedded within the Western framework, that should be not too difficult a conceptual step. We should also add New Zealand, which is part of the Five Eyes alliance, and Israel and South Korea (KORUS Free Trade agreement and mutual defense treaty) also, given their close ties to Europe and the United States (there are other Major Non-NATO Allies which I will come to later). Thus we have a revised map reflecting wider strategic and economic ties:

Map #2: Adding Strategic Partners

This map now seems to show a clear focus and signals a definite direction. Some may still question whether India and Turkey really fit in culturally, especially given the current Turkish government under Erdogan and growing Hindu fundamentalism in India, but these problems come and go. India is clearly a democracy, it is embedded into Western economy, has had a strong cultural presence in Europe for millennia. As part of the former British Empire, it is part of the English-speaking world, and its political and cultural theory is strongly lodged in “Western” academic disciplines. Similarly, despite all problems, Turkey has been irretrievably part of European history, for better or worse – the Ottoman Empire was the successor state to the Byzantine Empire. Turks and Germans share a long history, and both countries are intertwined through immigration, and Greece and Turkey are connected through history and culture whether they like it or not (similar to France and Germany, one could say – Alsace-Lorraine anyone? World Wars have been fought over areas like this. But I digress.)

If we take historical claims and ties seriously, we must ask difficult questions. Let’s start with the most difficult one first: What about Russia? Is Russia part of the West? Right-wing idiots like Alexander Dugin and historical illiterates like Vladimir Putin disagree, but these are ideologue whose ignorance is astounding. Russia is certainly part of the West, no matter its current behavior, as I laid out before. Briefly, it has historically seen itself as the successor state of the Byzantine Empire and thus as the Third Rome (in competition with the Ottoman Empire), so no surprise why there is interest in Syria and the Black Sea. Peter the Great set a Westward course – even Putin laid claim to follow Peter. Russian music and literature are deeply embedded in Western traditions, and if other Slavic countries can be seen as part of the West (which is definitely true for Czechia, Slovenia and Croatia as part of Austria-Hungary and for Poland), we need to consider adding Russia and Belarus. We shall also add the other countries in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the OSCE. Thus an addition partially in spite of current politics:

Map #3: Adding Russia (in spite of today’s politics), Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and OSCE

Okay, now let’s talk colonialism. Arguably, the core of whatever the “West” is lies in Europe, and yet, from the beginning, we have included former colonies of Europe, namely Canada and the United States. Later, we added Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. Why are we skirting around Latin America? In class, I sarcastically joke that many dubious characters from Germany fled after World War II (and the fall of East Germany) to some Latin American countries, obviously thinking that Uruguay, Argentina and Chile were sufficiently similar as new homes. Chile’s population is 89% European descent, Uruguay 88%, Argentina 86%, Costa Rica 80%, etc. If we argue descent and cultural similarity due to descent – which the North American and Pacific examples seem to indicate – then what exactly stands in the way of seeing all of Latin America as part of the West, given that it was colonized by Spain, Portugal, France, Britain and the Netherlands (while receiving immigrants from other European countries as well, in addition to Africans forcibly moved there during the slave trade)? It’s probably a situation of multiple biases – against Catholicism (taking up the idea that the Christian denomination of the “West” remains somehow unmarked by Huntington’s map, which seems to follow Anglo-Saxon-Protestant modes of thinking and distinguishes the “West” from “Orthodoxy” and ignores the religious affiliations in Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia) and, of course, against the non-European populations in South and Central America, namely Indigenous and African roots.

Certainly, we have just inherited political disagreements as well: Cuba and Venezuela may disagree to the Western label. Their governments currently follow communist ideas, and would that not be part of the “East”? Well, leading Communist thinkers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels hailed from Germany and lived in England. The ideologies of the day are all connected, and academia globally – no matter how some may try – combines ideas from all continents. Indian, Latin American, African and indigenous scholars have collaborated with Euro/American scholars in fields like post- and de-colonial theory, revising age-old colonialist and racist stereotypes. Liberation theology would not exist without Latin American contributions. Most of our food is the result of indigenous American science and research (corn, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate etc. – all these took deliberate intellectual labor; food does not just grow, it needs to be engineered and cultivated). “Latin” music is everywhere, mixing African, Latin American and European styles. It should really be a no-brainer to include all of the Americas, and if all these arguments fail, let’s just stick with the institutional argument and remind ourselves that all American countries are part of the Organization of American States, with the exception of Cuba and Venezuela for current political reasons.

Map #4: Adding Latin America, in spite of some current politics

Our map has become bigger and now encompasses all of the Americas, all of Europe, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Should we continue? If we extend the same principles that we extended before – political and economic and military alliances, religion, ethnicity, shared cultural and intellectual backgrounds, colonial experience – we cannot stop here, and yet, at which point does the term “Western” become meaningless? You probably guessed it already: I strongly believe it to be meaningless.

Let us continue, but I feel I need some justification here. As you can see, this is not about what who belongs to “the West” – rather, this is a meditation about what epistemic power a term like “The West” actually has.

Recent developments with regards to the Abraham Accords and related treaties have brought the parts of the so-called “Islamic” world into closer agreement with Israel and the West. This represents also long-standing alliances and quasi-alliances with otherwise complicated partners, but it is no secret that Saudi Arabia and the United States have had a relationship for quite some time. The very point of the latest war in Iraq was to remove the threat Saddam Hussein had already posed to Kuwait, and that he would continue to pose against other gulf states. The major conflict between the “West” and the “East” which we have not yet talked about is about Greece (and later Rome) vs. Persia – or its current incarnation, the “West” vs. Iran. This constellation has been astonishingly stable, although the Persian Empire actually laid the foundations of what was to become Alexander’s and his heirs’ empires and later parts of Eastern Rome and the Ottoman Empire. Culturally, you could argue that Iran is secretly Western, but politically forced by its government to occupy a separate position underlining the Sunni-Shia split (which, arguably, codes in different terms the Arab-Persian competition).

Egypt has been a cornerstone of “Western” civilization, and you really cannot understand Greece and Rome without Egypt. Classicists and classical political thought sadly still underplay the role Egypt has played within the Western world for millennia. It has also been a reliable ally of Israel’s for some time (after a war we shall not mention). Sudan, as upper Egypt, belongs to this as well. The other states on the Mediterranean rim should be counted as part of the Western world as well, but I shall leave blank for now those with deep political uncertainty – Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Yemen due to active instability. We may add them later, but let’s just proceed slowly here. Also, Armenia and Azerbaijan should belong to the group – in spite of political disagreements. If so much of the core “Islamic” world is included, we also need to consider Pakistan (a sometimes US ally), and Bangladesh as former crown colonies with substantial connections to the rest of the “Western” world. ASEAN countries also share key Western perspectives, with a few exceptions probably (Vietnam and Myanmar), and certainly also Taiwan and Nepal (Bhutan is more isolationist) and the remaining Major Non-NATO Allies, so let’s be generous and see where we are:

Map #5: Adding some MENA countries + ASEAN + Major Non-NATO Allies

Now, we have already considered the legacies of European colonialism in the Americas, let’s turn to the rest of the world. The successor organizations of the British and French colonial empires form a community of countries that are committed to a shared cultural legacy, human rights and trade. They are substantially weaker strategic agreements than those mentioned before, but they represent a choice to belong and choose cultural and values-based commonality. Thus let’s add the remaining members of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, and also the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (Lusophonia). We also should add the remaining countries included in the European Neighborhood Policy.

Map #6: Adding Commonwealth, Francophonie, Lusophonia and European Neighborhood Policy

To recap: the previous maps were based on a combination of economic, strategic and political alliances, some historical ties, and consistent and deliberate engagement with countries traditionally defined as Western. I have not based this on race, ethnicity, religion or cultural commonalities unless necessary (in case of Russia, for instance). But there is another criterium that is always associated with being “Western”: commitment to modernity. Let’s add Liberia, Ethiopia, Somaliland (an independent country that seceded from Somalia in 1991) and China (who could dispute China’s modernity?).

Map #7: Adding Liberia, Somaliland and China

Some areas are remaining blank – mostly due to conflicts. Before addressing this, let us consider how the current map aligns with Huntington’s ideas. This overlay shows how some of Huntington’s assumptions about “civilizations” or “cultures” contradict their institutional choices.

Map #8: Huntington Overlay

Now let’s address the problem areas. First, I have not been mapping all Pacific Islands due to the limitations of such a map, but many of them align with other Pacific Nations already mentioned. The areas still left in grey are those with civil wars or deeply destabilizing conflict (Eritrea, Yemen, South Sudan – which could also include Syria and Libya), totalitarian self-described Anti-Western countries (Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe), dependent countries (West Sahara) or otherwise non-aligned independent countries (Bhutan, Vatican).

Now, let us consider democracy. The following map simplifies the matter a lot, but it should nevertheless provide something of a “depth of democracy” lens: the lighter shaded, the longer-lasting a democratic tradition. Some of those countries are marked in deep red if they have never been democratic for long and are not officially democracies. Quite a few African countries are in this group for the very reason that colonization ended only rather recently. Some countries used to be democratic but have slipped back into dictatorship, like Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Tunisia, Belarus, Uganda and Somalia. As a caveat, this is a very superficial description of how democratic countries actually are – for a more in-depth analysis, please consult sites like Our World In Data or Freedom House, which measures freedom rather than democracy, but what is democracy without civic liberalism? Nevertheless, let us try a rather optimistic map:

Map #9: Democracies vs. outright Dictatorships

Underlying this map is also the realization that contrary to today’s stereotype, which argues that the idea of “the West” is values-based, these values have not been constant in the past. If you believe in “Western Civilization” as the realm of freedom of expression, individualism, human rights and democracy, you will need to ignore all of that prior to 1776. Germany would not be “western” before 1914-18 and 1949, France before the victory of some of the ideas of the French Revolution, etc. Nobody typically assumes that pre-Enlightenment, “Western” culture did not exist; and yet, that would necessarily follow. The assumption that Ancient Greece is synonymous with democracy only holds true for a brief period in Athens, and even then, it would be a completely different type of democracy. The Roman Republic would be somewhat democratic as well. But ancient societies also believed in slavery, and to call this a “Western” value would certainly sound alien today.

This is why throughout this post, I have insisted on some form of alliance- or organization-based argument, and when I insisted on using cultural arguments (as for Russia and Latin America), it was only supplementary to the larger structural arguments.

Finally, let us consider the Human Development Index as an alternative measurement. This basically demonstrates the “modernity” criterium and the notion of “development” as a benchmark. It again illustrates two things:

  • While there could be said to be a “core West” made up of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, this model – based on some “civilizational” ideas – has been spreading worldwide, just as its ideas have originated from a global context (following Appiah again). The focus on development basically equates the idea of “the West” with modernity itself, which also explains why the dismissal of “Western values” is typically tied to a partly romantic, partly revisionist celebration of “tradition,” especially when it comes to ideas of national purity (and rejection of immigration), old-fashioned and simplistic concepts of sovereignty and autarchy, as well – most notoriously probably – gender identity.
  • Wherever this modern or “Western” model has not succeeded yet, or where its success has been delayed, typically illustrates the legacy of colonialism (especially in Africa) or other destructive influences.

With some simplifications (feel free to consult the more complex picture), this map will look as follows:

Map #10: Human Development Index

This means, however, that the notion of development – which Amartya Sen rightfully associates with freedom (even though it needs to be brought into alignment with ecological principles) – is eventually not just about economic measures but also about societal progress.

This brings us full circle in some ways. “The West” indeed is a “civilizational” category, yet not in the static and traditionalist fashion Huntington’s map purports to show. In fact, what I have tried to show here is that institutional frameworks combined with economic development will eventually lead to the success also of some – if eventually not all – of the elements associated typically with “the” West, even though those elements – especially liberal values and democracy – certainly do not have a centuries-long history in the “core” West. Huntington’s approach – though valuable – is idealist, whereas the approach chosen here could be called materialist – or rather – demonstrating that materialism can eventually lead to the same place idealism aspires to. It’s the old debate between Hegel and Marx, whether consciousness determines being (Hegel) or – as Marx has stated – being determines consciousness, meaning, an improvement of the concrete material conditions “on the ground” will eventually lead to higher-order improvements in ethics, morality, justice and democracy.

You could then see that the first lesson for “nation building” would be: it’s the economy first, as Bill Clinton had realized and expressed a bit more strongly. History seems to agree with this notion: the ancient democracies as well as the renaissance democracy of the United States all followed the model that democracy is basically the affairs of the privileged classes – and only over time, once development in the sense of the industrial revolution proceeded, were slavery and the most base exploitations of workers questioned, just as eventually civic freedoms extended to all minority groups, at least aspirationally. Economy first, but this will lead to demands for participation, for recognition, and eventually for the raised consciousness that will then drive progress further. At least, that is the theory – but it has worked well so far (and the risks, mainly economic, are all too clearly visible).

In conclusion, the debate over who is part of the west or not, over what exactly Western culture is, all of this is a smokescreen. The real divisions in the world are within each country, culture, alliance:

  • Tradition vs modernity
  • Democracy vs autocracy
  • Liberal rights vs static cultural norms
  • Universalism vs “ethno-kitsch” romantic notions of identity
  • Development as human need

We can certainly see that these debates are not over, but some of them are losing steam once successes become clear. After all, this is based on theories from the humanities and social science, and as any scientist knows, eventually, the experiment – which can also just be the detailed look at history – will tell the tale. So far, the “Western” model has been an astounding success. There are some who would like to see it fail – I certainly hope they will understand the consequences of such failure.

As the maps illustrate, this is a small planet, and we are all connected. There is not much room for error, and our time should be best used to see the world as it is, and to solve our problems based on reality. Wars, Civil Wars, terrorism, crime, poverty, depression, environmental degradation, climate change – the list of problems is long. The more we let ourselves be divided by some arbitrary “civilizational” categories, the less we have a chance to work together and succeed against all odds.

But what these have also shown is that there is room for hope – the ties that bind us to be accountable to each other are strong, and in spite of all the conflict we still see, eventually, humanity will be able to overcome even the crises of today. I am deeply optimistic that at the end of this road, we will all be better off. I mean it.

Animated Composite of all Maps