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Telos 168 (Fall 2014): The West: Its Past and Its Prospects

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This special issue of Telos investigates the concept of the West. Far more than a geographical term, in intellectual, philosophical, and cultural history, it has been common to speak of a Western tradition in order to name lineages of thought from antiquity to the modern world. In cultural and political debates, Western values are invoked that are linked historically to a deep tradition specifically dedicated to desiderata such as freedom and individual dignity: at stake is the general possibility of any long-term tradition, the durability of culture over time, but also this very specific, distinctively Western tradition as the carrier of particular values. Politically this usage explains the reference to Western democracies (as opposed to the “peoples’ democracies” of the Soviet era) with the suggestion that democratic political forms and norms have emerged from the “Western tradition” and have generated the institutions of both liberal democracy, i.e., democratic procedures that assert popular sovereignty, while simultaneously protecting individual rights, and market economies shaped by the rule of law and the protection of private property.

The West moreover can alternatively be understood ex negativo in terms of the alternatives with which it is contrasted, e.g., the “East,” whether in the Communist sense of the Cold War or with regard to variations of what in recent decades were referred to as “Asian values.” How can we talk about the forms of human experience outside the West? Sometimes invocations of the West imply a particular tradition, tied to a certain delimited terrain, but precisely because that Western tradition also involves appeals to equality, transparency, and human rights, the scope of the term can stretch into a kind of universalism, as if everyone, by virtue of merely being human, were somehow already fundamentally Western. Such an expansionist usage of the term runs the risk of undermining its validity: if everyone is already “Western,” than the designation may become meaningless or at least redundant. Yet, in contrast, any strictly exclusionary definition that would allow for distinguishing between what is inside the West and what stays on the outside runs counter to the universalist sensibility that underpins much of the discourse on the West. This tension between a particularist and a globalizing understanding of the West pervades the debate. Does the West have any limits? Who might be empowered to draw them and on what grounds? Would an exclusionary agenda protect a core Western substance, or would it not actually betray the universalist aspiration that defines the West?

This sort of instability in the term itself raises questions about the immanent weaknesses of the West. For all of its grand accomplishments, triumphalist accounts of Western civilization only go so far, as many critics of various stripes point out, and their arguments should not be ignored. Most compelling perhaps are the immanent critics who direct our attention to the West’s frequent failures to live up to its own ideals. Are Western societies ever as successfully egalitarian as their self-descriptions claim? Are their political institutions unproblematically democratic? Why was the liberal West of the rights of man so implicated in the project of European colonialism? This distance between theory and practice has been painfully clear. However rather than merely dwelling on these discrepancies for propagandistic purposes to denounce the West, the important challenge is to inquire carefully into the conclusions to draw from the West’s difficulty in meeting its own expectations. Is the problem with the norms themselves or the insufficient attempts to reach them? And are past failures reliable indicators of future prospects?

One reasonable response involves precisely insisting on the validity of the norms, upholding the Western values, and arguing politically and historically for an ongoing process of realizing them: the West should become ever more Western. Identifying injustice is the first step in correcting it, akin to Jürgen Habermas’s understanding of modernity as a not-yet-complete project. In this view, we need to devise institutions that would allow us to pursue more effectively the values at the core of the tradition. Alternatively, however, others may draw the melancholy conclusion that the norms themselves are untenably empty dreams, self-contradictory, impossible to realize, and bound to disappoint. This critique of the West opens the door to a dark cynicism that eventually concludes morosely that the inequality that abides demonstrates the ultimate impossibility of equality. This is the sort of conclusion that the post-Heideggerian critique of “Western metaphysics” has propounded. Finally, other radical critics of the West reject its values and its institutions in order to opt positively for decidedly illiberal alternatives: such is the critique of the West inherent in the visions of Soviet Communism, German Nazism, and contemporary Islamism. All three developed programs for societies emphatically hostile to the core components of liberty at the heart of the West. For all their specific historical differences, they share the totalitarian contempt for individual freedom, and they have all therefore waged war on the West. More unites these several anti-Western traditions than divides them, just as today’s fellow travelers of Islamist anti-Westernism borrow freely from their Communist and Nazi forebears. Understanding “the West” necessarily involves recognizing these enemies. For the political (and international relations) discourse, the “West” refers primarily, if not exclusively, to the competition with the Communist world; for the contemporary humanities discourse, “the West” refers primarily to questions of colonialism, post-colonialism, and the polemics around “Orientalism.” Today’s debates are marked by the intersection of these genealogies. Advocates of the West should not be afraid to name their opponents.

The East-West competition of the Cold War appeared to come to an end twenty-five years ago, on November 9, 1989, with the opening of the Berlin Wall, leading soon to the reunification of Germany—one of the epicenters of the East-West divide—and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A binary era that had begun in 1917 seemed to stop, relegating the duality of Communism and Capitalism to a historical past. To be sure, the competition between the United States and Russia had deeper roots in the nineteenth century, but for the better part of the past century the two superpowers were viewed through the lens of alternative political-economic systems and their associated values. With the disappearance of that paradigm, the standing of the notion of the West grew unclear, even at its moment of apparent triumph: why worry about the West any longer, if the East has disappeared? Hence the premature thesis of the end of history, as if wars of ideas had suddenly become obsolete in a world of unchallenged liberal capitalism: because the whole world appeared to be becoming exclusively Western, the West seemed to surrender its distinctiveness during that giddy transitional decade of the 1990s. Globalization posed a further challenge to a coherent notion of the West, as Western fashions, practices, and representations spread around the world, immigration diversified Western populations, and, to the extent that “Western” came to imply “modern” and “developed,” Asian countries—Japan, India, and China in particular—lost their radical difference. Although part of a geographical East, they could lay claim to their own developed, modern, and, indeed, Western standing (leading as well to internal discrepancies, e.g., between the Westernized portions of coastal China and the less developed hinterlands).

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, brought that dreamy interregnum to a bitter conclusion. Expectations to the contrary, history was not over, and the West rediscovered itself in the war with the jihadist East. Through the military escalations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Western agenda—relying on a broad alliance of participants, although clearly under U.S. leadership—emerged around goals of democratization, as articulated especially in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address where he described a commitment to the global promotion of democracy. In practice, that goal proved tragically elusive, while doubts about the validity of the goal itself spread through the debates of a war-weary American public. The foreign policy of the Obama administration has followed in the wake, defined largely in terms of a radical reduction of U.S. power and engagement in the world, the destabilizing withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and—another legacy of the naïve illusions of the post–Cold War—the “reset” with Russia. Yet very quickly that dream dissipated. Russian loyalty to the Assad dictatorship in Damascus, the annexation of Crimea, and the incipient war with Ukraine put an end to that effort to heal Cold War wounds, and with that the East-West competition returned with a vengeance. As little as the Obama administration sought confrontation and as much as European trade interests would prefer comfortable business as usual with Moscow, the patterns of the Cold War divide have suddenly become unmistakable.

In addition to its historical and political vicissitudes, the concept of the West is a crucial point of reference in the intellectual traditions that have animated Telos. For Marx, the overriding historical narrative described the progress of economic and political forms of the West, and Marxism never shied away from contrasting Western dynamism, which it celebrated, with the backwardness of “Asiatic” societies. For Max Weber, the distinctiveness of an occidental rationality defined modern European society, although for both Marx and Weber the fascination with the achievements of the West, especially its capitalist economy, was tied tightly to a critical understanding of its negative consequences: for Marx, these included exploitation and poverty, and for Weber, bureaucracy and alienation. For the philosopher Edmund Husserl, the Western, or rather European, philosophical project remained crucial to a humanistic universalism that provided a basis for an alternative to the threatening irrationalism of fascism during the 1930s. Finally, for the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the West reappeared as the notion of enlightenment itself, with its potential for freedom as well as its simultaneous capacity for domination. This dialectic also marked a split within that Critical Theory tradition, with Adorno firmly rejecting Soviet Communism as well as the violence of the student movement, while Herbert Marcuse endorsed the movement of the 1960s and the New Left. Its reception of Leninist anti-imperialism betrayed its affinity for Moscow—the New Left very quickly ceased to be very “new”—by articulating a critique directed against the colonialism exclusively of the Western liberal democracies but never of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, for which it was happy to offer apologetics. In this through-the-looking-glass world, Western allies such as Israel became targets of vitriolic attacks, while the abuses of anti-Western regimes, such as in Castro’s Cuba or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, were ignored or even celebrated, in a tradition of selective internationalism: solidarity for some, contempt for others.

Within the academy, this New Left anti-Westernism merged with philosophical currents in continental philosophy, as a post-Nietzschean, post-Heideggerian rejection of Western rationality turned into a third-worldist or post-colonial political rejection of Western power. This distorted perspective still defines the left academy today. Its hard-wired instincts place it on the side of any dictators that self-identify as opponents of the West, it refuses to criticize restrictions of rights carried out by those regimes, and it thrives in a world of double standards. Do not look to that academic left to protest the crushing of the Green movement in Iran or to condemn Syria for gassing its citizens; it rails against the security fence in Israel, designed to keep terrorists out, but never uttered a critical word about the wall in Berlin, which kept a trapped population in. Such are the practical consequences of a reified anti-imperialism: Leninism frozen in amber, hostile to the Western tradition, and enamored exotically with the other, any other, as long as it is not Western. Ultimately, we face a profound gap between this cultural discourse of the academic world, caught up in dogmatic ideologies, and the realist, let alone an idealist, discussion of foreign policy. The communities that participate in both are intensely interested in politics, but they have little to say to each other. This deep gulf between significant parts of academic life and the political world weakens our culture.

With this issue of Telos, we hope to open up a discussion about the prospects for the West, including both the cultural and political dimensions. In recent decades, during the post–Cold War period, U.S. foreign policy has lurched between the notional unilateralism of the Bush era (although it was never as unilateral as its adversaries insinuated) and the Obama administration’s commitment to the universalism of international law (although it has been prepared to break those rules when it deemed it necessary). A serious revisiting of the “West” will hopefully generate new perspectives adequate to current foreign policy challenges, especially as the competition between East and West reemerges as the defining feature of world affairs. A broad discussion of the West, its past and its prospects, is urgently needed, and we hope that this issue of the journal will contribute to it.

Jeffrey Herf opens the discussion with a clear recognition that the West is not monolithic. On the contrary, it has always involved multiple cultural traditions. While some strands have had disastrous results, others have in fact triumphed over tyranny and spread human freedom: Nazi Germany built on Western legacies, but so did the Allied effort to oppose it. The failures of the Western tradition do not cancel out its achievements and prospects: the history of slavery is not somehow proof of the impossibility of freedom. Understanding this potential in the West and the role of the United States in leading it, Herf worries about the invisibility of the West in American university history curricula, particularly given the continued indispensability of the United States as a force for good in the world. In his words: “The United States must lead what we can still call the free world, or else the liberal international order will not be effectively defended. The defense of the better traditions of ‘the West,’ those of individual liberty, equality of citizenship, the rule of law, political and intellectual freedom, of pluralism and compromise as a tradition depends now, as much as it did during World War II and the Cold War, on the willingness of the United States to lead.” This is the strong case for the West: despite undeniable failures, a history of true and significant accomplishments reflecting a realization of values, rooted in tradition, and in the past century driven by American leadership.

Yet there are cogent critics of this account. While Herf insists on the necessary role of the West and U.S. leadership, Michael Kimmage provides a sobering alternative, a lucid argument regarding a hypothetical decline of the West as a factor in U.S. culture and politics. Do Americans still really see themselves as part of something called the West? Once they certainly did. The emergence of the United States as a world power during the First World War overlapped with an American educational culture that was decidedly European and historical in its orientation. These tendencies converged dramatically in the first three post-FDR presidencies, all decidedly Western, even if with different nuances. Those American leaders and their public understood the United States as embedded in a tradition, which it had a responsibility to preserve and defend. (The widespread study of Latin in public high schools was a clear expression of this self-understanding.) According to Kimmage, that era has passed. The experience of the Vietnam War ended the political self-confidence of the West, and a combination of multiculturalism (which he views effectively as an inward turn toward U.S. minorities) and globalization (a turn beyond Europe) undermined the privileged place of the West in American education. He therefore concludes with the stark verdict that the term will soon only have antiquarian significance. The West will quickly be forgotten, he claims, and with it the traditional foundation for American leadership. In a similar vein, Charles Hill presents, in a rhetorical tour de force, a dystopic retrospective on the West, which once represented a combination of ideas and politics that aspired to extraordinary brilliance but which failed due to its own internal flaws. The hyperbole of Hill’s narrative and its crushing discouragement suggest that it is intended as a warning rather than as a summative judgment. Yet even if it is a literary satire, his vision is unsparingly bleak, and his prospects for the West are slim, unless a dramatic reversal of fortune takes place. Kimmage and Hill are the challengers to Herf’s ambitions.

As a philosophical agenda, the West draws on the liberal tradition. However, as a political project, the West involves state power and the formation of an interstate alliance. Is there some tension between the liberalism of individual rights and its unavoidable corollary, the politics of state power? David Pan gets at this question through a reading of two German political thinkers, Jürgen Habermas as the theorist of the liberal public sphere and communicative rationality, and Carl Schmitt with his focus on the originary violence of political order. Even liberal democratic states depend on force; even the rational West has to be able to recognize its opponents and decide to resist them. Advocates for democracy should be prepared to defend it, but the deployment of violence is not inherently democratic: engaged in battle, soldiers do not call for a vote with the enemy. As Clausewitz underscored, the goal of war is the imposition of one’s will on the adversary, not a polite conversation among equals. Furthermore, a key point in Pan’s account involves a reading of Goethe’s bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister, and how it famously stages the conflict between bourgeois life, i.e., liberal democratic culture, and the aesthetic representation of power. Pan’s account thereby highlights some of the immanent tensions within the West. Even democratic states require power and strategies of representation. Luca Castellin’s essay continues with similar themes of power in his portrait of Reinhold Niebuhr and his evaluation of the American role in history in the aesthetic terms of an ironic discrepancy between virtue and realism. For all of its ideals, the West is not a suicide pact and has to be prepared to use force to defend itself. The question from the 1930s may become germane again: do democracies have the will to fight?

In contrast to the primacy of power implied in Pan’s adjudication between Habermas and Schmitt, Adrian Pabst enters a plea for a different model of international relations, an “associative commonwealth,” built on substantive reciprocity among participating parties rather than on either abstract principles or forceful domination. Broadly historical and philosophical, his essay calls for a rethinking of international politics as such in order to allow for this new form of alliance, which in turn would mirror other social relations, and not only at the international level. The space of commonwealth is lodged somewhere between the individualism of market liberalism and the heavy hand of statism. Pabst’s argument borrows from a postsecular critique of modernity that allows him to advocate this “neo-medieval” form, which seemingly might apply not exclusively to the West. Yet Pabst, like Herf, ends with a full-throated defense of the West, even if his philosophical foundations are quite different from Herf’s. “The West can either fracture and split permanently, abandoning international relations to unipolar hegemony or multipolar anarchy. Or else it can redefine its covenantal destiny, aspiring to be a genuine beacon to the rest of the world and to cooperate with other nations toward the same, shared ends of virtue, honor, and mutual flourishing.” His phrasing deftly captures the options of the historical moment by trying to identify an alternative to the impoverished choice between single-power hegemony and anarchic disorder. He describes the third option for the West as “covenantal,” a term that points to the need for cooperative alliances held together by trust and shared values.

The next two articles probe the cultural substance of the longer Western tradition, in particular the Judeo-Christian inheritance. Mary Frances McKenna traces the synthesis of the legacies of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, with particular attention to the crucial congruence of faith and reason. She underscores the important role religion has played in Western history, not as a source of conflict (as which the contemporary atheist agenda sometimes denounces faith) but as a source of freedom. Meanwhile, Angelo M. Codevilla defines the West against globalizing tendencies by drawing clear boundaries against other cultural regions. At stake however for him are the foundational ideas of the West, Greek philosophy and the Judeo-Christian revelation as the sources of Western values. Both McKenna and Codevilla underscore the derivation of recognizably liberal desiderata from the specific Western synthesis of revelation and philosophy: Benedict’s Regensburg address casts a long shadow here.

The final essay in this issue, by Gerard Williams, steps outside the West itself to look at Chinese political culture. A seemingly unexpected concluding topic to this special issue, the China question turns out to be crucial. The connections to the West are in fact multifold, and not merely in the sense of a grand competition. Is China the conclusion, the Aufhebung of the West? Or are the two fundamentally similar? For Williams, Chinese culture, like Western culture in some traditional views (including Leo Strauss’s account to which he refers), involves an ongoing dialogue with its foundational texts. In addition, China’s ongoing progress will require, so Williams argues, an appropriation of liberal education as it was once known in the West (and, as Hill and Kimmage bemoan, may no longer thrive). “China’s rise represents the eve of the decision upon the decline of the West. Perhaps, among all the high cultures it is most with China that the fate of Western civilization and its stewards will be decided. It is in confrontation with China that the cardinal objects of liberal republicanism, the benefits of open markets, the rule of law, the rights of freedom and the privilege of the West’s happiness, pleasure and enjoyment, the vital spirit of its secular democratic traditions and polities, will be tested in their international pre-eminence.” Can China emerge from one-party rule and, in effect, become the better West? Or can the West through its encounter with China rediscover its own cultural depth? When all is said and done, Williams’s account is not only about China but also about how the rise of China raises the question of the West and the possibility of its renewed viability in a profound way. It involves a significant cultural challenge, quite different from the strategic and military rediscovery of the West in the face of Putinist Russia.

This issue of Telos concludes with two short book reviews, one on the letters of Thomas Sowell, which touch on aspects of the politics discussed in this issue, the other on the fiction of Daniel Fuchs, which explores transformations of twentieth-century America, the problem of the culture industry, and a different “West” as part of the American imagination.

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