two cheers for the West

The defeat of Marianne Le Pen is a victory for the European Union; and the EU is one of the structures built in the wake of World War II either directly or indirectly by the Western Allies in that war. In that sense, the EU is part of a project called “the West” that also includes at least the Marshall Plan and NATO–and arguably institutions that span the globe, like the IMF and the UN. These institutions are now beset by critics from Putin and Orban to Trump.

One reason to call these institutions “Western” is that Washington, New York, and Brussels lie to the west of, say, Moscow and Beijing. But at least some people believe that these institutions reflect a perspective, value-system, or set of ideals that can be usefully named “the West.” When I took a “Western civilization” course in the 1980s, it was colloquially called “Plato to NATO.”

One of the deepest ideological fault-lines of our time is how to assess this thing called “the West.” Imperialistic? Reactionary? Liberatory? Ethnocentric? Universalist? Inclusive? Greedy? Humane? A threat to US (or French) sovereignty, or an imposition of US (or French) power on others?

This debate seems intractable because institutions like the EU and NATO (not to mention the UN) have been involved in so many episodes and policies and have had so many effects on nations around the world. And if the West means a perspective or value-system, it is fatally vague. Anything we could define as “the West” in that sense encompasses too much diversity and overlaps too much with other cultural traditions to be meaningful.* For instance, Plato actually has almost nothing in common with NATO, but was an explicit influence on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the other hand, most large, co-constructed projects offer resources and inspirations for the present. Even if the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the EU or NATO is the exploitation of the Global South, these institutions also reflect other traditions. They were built on FDR’s Four Freedoms, the UN Declaration, and the promise of economic and social integration to prevent war. A set of states whose domestic arrangements range from democratic socialism to untrammeled capitalism have cooperated to advance international law, human rights, democratic institutions, and robust and interconnected cultures. I don’t deny that these states have done other things as well, but their achievements have been remarkable. Just compare continental Europe in 1945 and 2017.

I’m not sure we have conveyed the grandeur of this achievement–or its vulnerability. The EU is not just an economic zone with high GDP and a lot of bureaucrats in Brussels. It is part of a project that reflects high ideals for humanity. Stopping Le Pen has saved the EU to fight another day, but it doesn’t automatically convey the institution’s ideals. To make the European project inspiring again will require not only beating off its explicit enemies but also reforming “Western” institutions so that they again advance their best values.

*See my posts on the West and the restavoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were one; and on modernity and the distinction between East and West.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.