Re-imagining the West

The Ukraine crisis has resurrected the old Cold War dichotomy of East vs West. But defining "the West" is not so easy, says Robert Muggah.
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April 2, 2014

The 24-hour news cycle casts the Ukraine crisis in dichotomous terms—a renewed Cold War confrontation between the East and West. On one side is Russia, with tacit support from a few ex-Soviet satellite states. And on the other, the United States joined by its “western” allies in the European Union. In an effort to simplify the annexation of Crimea, media commentators lump the rest of the world into one of each of these two camps. In the process, they unintentionally reinforce the always dangerous "with us or against us" oratory of the post-9/11 era. But what exactly is “the West”? There is a risk that the expression is so worn-out as to have lost any analytical utility. 

As simmering tensions risk plunging the region into war, it is worth reflecting on what precisely is meant by “the West.” The West is not, and perhaps has never been, a purely geographical construct. On the one hand, its historical origins can be traced to Hellenic communities efforts to differentiate themselves from the Persians some 2,500 years ago. The construct assumed a geo-political connotation in the twentieth century. After two consecutive world wars the idea of the "West" implied a common political commitment shared by a few countries to democracy and the free market. From 1948 onward, it was shorthand for the United States and those who shared political and economic ties with Washington. It was designed to distinguish the Americans and their allies from the Communist "East" and later, Eurasia.

Paraphrasing Benedict Anderson, the West consists of an imagined community of shared ideas and ideologies. More recently it has been described as a kind of mentality and set of behaviours, not least a commitment to innovation, self-criticism and gender equality. Political philosophers affiliated with universities across North America and Western Europe regularly describe the West as a particular constellation of liberal values shared by a selection of nation states and societies. This thesis was developed most prominently by Samuel Huntington who predicted a clash of civilizations between the liberal West against “the rest.” Other like-minded thinkers have also anticipated the triumph of the (exceptional) West owing to its superior political and economic institutions. 

So where is the West as a unifying idea in the twenty first century? Philippe Nemo argues that it is still fundamentally premised on Greek science and philosophy, Roman law, Christian thought, and democratic revolution. Certainly these ideas are still routinely leveraged to justify membership in Western institutions. Yet the West cannot be reduced to a white Christian polity as is often implied by a vocal minority of right-wingers in North America and Western Europe. For over 60 years the West has had virtually nothing to do with geography or ethnicity. Notwithstanding their so-called “Asian values,” Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are often included in the Western club while China is not. Ultimately, the West continues to be dynamic, and its affiliates have waxed and waned over centuries.

The West today is more diverse, and divergent, than often assumed. While routinely presented as a unified front, it is anything but. There are some 35 countries that form the bulwark of the West, all of them associated with aid and military entities such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Alongside them are another 15-odd countries—many of them erstwhile Eastern bloc members—that stepped in from the cold after a century-long hiatus. There are still others, spread out across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, that while falling into the Western orbit, also diverge in many respects from its historical, geographical, political, ideological, and cultural moorings.

Now, the time has come to re-imagine the West. This is not so much to abandon the idea as to align its immense potential with contemporary geopolitical and economic realities. Where can such a debate begin? Countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa are well suited to initiate and lead a critical discussion on the West and its discontents. Brazil, in particular, is unencumbered by a colonial past, even if serving as the seat of Portuguese empire for a decade. What is more, Brazil resides at the axis of an array of political binaries—East versus West, North versus South, First World versus Third World, and membership in the club of Non-Aligned states. And while Brasilia shares many cultural attributes of the West, it also shares a host of affinities with decidedly non-Western societies.

Having resisted initiating a war for over 150 years and recently pulled some 40 million people out of poverty, Brazil brings great credibility and legitimacy to the table. A proponent for noninterference in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria that frustrated its Western partners, its lack of support for interventions speaks to the country's fundamental desire for a stable global order mediated by effective and efficient multilateral institutions. After all, it is not by chest beating and intervention that the West will prevail in the world's hot spots. Indeed, lasting peace will not be achieved by imposing one's worldview, but rather by genuinely seeking to understand and engage the differences of “the other”—however they might be defined. Once we do, we might then start to mend our disordered world and rediscover our common humanity.