In his book (really an extended essay) Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan claims that the political construct of the “West” was conjured up by the United States and Western Europe during the Cold War as a response to the threat posed by the nuclear-armed, hostile and expansionist U.S.S.R. The implosion of the Soviet Bloc rendered the “West” an obsolete, meaningless, and cumbersome concept, on the path to perdition. Cracks in the common front of the Western allies the Euro-Atlantic structures widened into a full-fledged and unbridgeable rift in the run-up to the war in Iraq (see “The Demise of the West“).
According to this U.S.-centric view, Europe missed an opportunity to preserve the West as the organizing principle of post Cold War geopolitics by refusing to decisively side with the United States against the enemies of Western civilization; enemies such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Such reluctance is considered by Americans to be both naive and hazardous: proof of the lack of vitality and decadence of “Old Europe”. The foes of the West, steeped in conspiracy theories and embittered by centuries of savage colonialism, will not find credible the alleged disintegration of the Western alliance, say the Americans. They will continue to strike, even as the constituents of the erstwhile West drift apart and weaken.
Yet this analysis misses the distinction between the West as a civilization and the West as a fairly recent geopolitical construct. Western civilization is millennia old, though it became self-aware and exclusionary only during the Middle Ages or, at the latest, during the Reformation. Max Weber (1864-1920) attributed its success to its ethical and, especially, religious foundations. At the other extreme, biological determinists, such as Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), predicted its inevitable demise. Spengler authored the controversial Decline of the West in 1918-22.
Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) disagreed with Spengler in A Study of History (1934-61). Toynbee believed in the possibility of cultural and institutional regeneration. But, regardless of persuasion, no historian or philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century grasped the “West” in political or military terms. The polities involved were often bitter enemies and with disparate civil systems.
In the second half of the past century, some historiographies notably The Rise of the West by W. H. McNeill (1963), Unfinished History of the World (1971) by Hugh Thomas, History of the World by J. M. Roberts (1976), and, more recently, Millennium by Felip Fernandez-Armesto (1995) and From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun (2000) ignored the heterogeneous nature of the West in favor of an “evolutionary”, Euro-centric idea of progress and, in the case of Fernandez-Armesto and Barzun, the decline.
Yet these linear, developmental views of a single Western entity, be it civilization or a political-military alliance, are very misleading. The West as the fuzzy name given to a set of interlocking alliances is a creature of the Cold War (1946-1989). It is both missionary and pluralistic and, thus, dynamic and ever-changing. Some members of the political West share certain common values; liberal democracy, separation of church and state, respect for human rights and private property, for instance. Others, such as Turkey or Israel, do not.
The “West”, in other words, is a fluid, fuzzy and non-monolithic concept. As William Anthony Hay notes in “Is There Still a West?” (published in the September 2002 issue of Watch on the West, Volume 3, Number 8, by the Foreign Policy Research Institute): “If Western civilization, along with particular national or regional identities, is merely an imagined community or an intellectual construct that serves the interest of dominant groups, then it can be reconstructed to serve the needs of current agendas.”
Though the idea of the West, as a convenient operational abstraction, preceded the Cold War, it is not the natural extension or the inescapable denouement of Western civilization. Rather, it is merely the last phase and manifestation of the clash of titans between Germany on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Europe spent the first half of the 19th century (following the 1815 Congress of Vienna) containing France. The trauma of the Napoleonic wars was the last in a medley of conflicts with an increasingly menacing France stretching back to the times of Louis XIV. The Concert of Europe was specifically designed to reflect the interests of the Big Powers: to establish their borders of expansion in Europe, and to create a continental “balance of deterrence”. For a few decades it proved to be a success.
The rise of a unified, industrially mighty and narcissistic Germany erased most of these achievements. By closely monitoring France rather than Germany on the ascendant, the Big Powers were still fighting the Napoleonic wars while ignoring, at their peril, the nature and likely origin of future conflagrations. They failed to notice that Germany was bent on transforming itself into the economic and political leader of a united Europe, by force of arms, if need be.
The German “September 1914 Plan”, for instance, envisaged an economic union imposed on the vanquished nations of Europe following a military victory. It was self-described as a “(plan for establishing) an economic organization … through mutual customs agreements … including France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and Norway”. It is eerily reminiscent of the European Union (EU).
The 1918 Brest-Litovsk armistice treaty between Germany and Russia recognized the East-West divide. The implosion of the four empires following the first world war the Ottoman, Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov only brought to the fore the gargantuan tensions between central Europe and its east. But it was Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) who fathered the West as we know it today.
Hitler sought to expand the German Lebensraum and to found a giant “slave state” in the territories of the east, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. He never regarded the polities of west Europe or the United States as enemies. On the contrary, he believed that Germany and these countries are natural allies faced with a mortal, cunning and ruthless foe: the U.S.S.R. In this, as in many other things, he proved prescient.
Ironically, Hitler’s unmitigated thuggery and vile atrocities did finally succeed to midwife the West, but as an anti-German coalition. The reluctant allies first confronted Germany and Stalinist Russia, with which Berlin had a non-aggression pact. When Hitler then proceeded to attack the U.S.S.R. in 1941, the West hastened to its defense. But, once the war was victoriously over, this unnatural liaison between West and East disintegrated. A humbled and divided West Germany reverted to its roots. It became a pivotal pillar of the West, a member of the European Economic Community (later renamed the European Union), and of NATO. Hitler’s fervent wish and vision a Europe united around Germany against the Red Menace was achieved posthumously. That it was Hitler who invented the West is no cruel historical joke.
Hitler and Nazism are often portrayed as an apocalyptic and seismic break with European history. Yet the truth is that they were the culmination and reification of European history in the 19th century. Europe’s annals of colonialism have prepared it for the range of phenomena associated with the Nazi regime: from industrial murder to racial theories, from slave labour to the forcible annexation of territory.
Germany was a colonial power no different to murderous Belgium or Britain. What set it apart is that it directed its colonial attentions at the heartland of Europe, rather than at Africa or Asia. Both World Wars were colonial wars fought on European soil. Moreover, Nazi Germany innovated by applying to the white race itself prevailing racial theories, usually reserved to non-whites. It first targeted the Jews a non-controversial proposition but then expanded its racial “science” to encompass “east European” whites, such as the Poles and the Russians.
Germany was not alone in its malignant nationalism. The far right in France was as pernicious. Nazism, and Fascism, were world ideologies, adopted enthusiastically in places as diverse as Iraq, Egypt, Norway, Latin America, and Britain. At the end of the 1930s, liberal capitalism, communism, and fascism (and its mutations) were locked in a mortal battle of ideologies. Hitler’s mistake was to delusionally believe in the affinity between capitalism and Nazism. To his mind this was an affinity enhanced by Germany’s corporatism and by the existence of a common enemy: global communism.
Nazism was a religion, replete with godheads and rituals. It meshed seamlessly with the racist origins of the West, as expounded by the likes of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Indeed, the proselytizing and patronizing nature of the West is deep rooted. Colonialism a distinctly Western phenomenon always had discernible religious overtones and often collaborated with missionary religion. “The White Man’s burden” of civilizing the “savages” was widely perceived as ordained by God. The church was the extension of the colonial power’s army and trading companies.
Thus, following two ineffably ruinous world wars, Europe finally shifted its geopolitical sights from France to Germany. In an effort to prevent a repeat of Hitler, the Big Powers of the West, led by France, established an “ever closer” European Union. Germany was (inadvertently) split sandwiched between East and West and, thus, restrained.
East Germany faced a military-economic union (the Warsaw Pact) cum eastern empire (the late U.S.S.R.). West Germany was surrounded by a military union (NATO), cum emerging Western economic supranational structure (the EU). The Cold War was fought all over the world, but in Europe, it revolved around Germany.
The collapse of the eastern flank (the Soviet “evil” Empire), of this implicit anti-German containment geo-strategy, led to the re-emergence of a united Germany. Furthermore, Germany is in the process of securing its hegemony over the EU by applying the political weight commensurate with its economic and demographic might. Germany is a natural and historical leader of central Europe the EU’s and NATO’s future Lebensraum and the target of their expansionary predilections (“integration”). Thus, virtually overnight, Germany came to dominate the Western component of the anti-German containment master plan, while the Eastern component, the Soviet Bloc, has chaotically disintegrated.
The EU is reacting by trying to assume the role formerly played by the U.S.S.R. EU integration is an attempt to assimilate former Soviet satellites and dilute Germany’s power by re-jigging rules of voting and representation. If successful, this strategy will prevent Germany from bidding yet again for a position of hegemony in Europe by establishing a “German Union” separate from the EU. It is all still the same tiresome and antiquated game of continental Big Powers. Even Britain maintains its Victorian position of “splendid isolation”.
The exclusion of both Turkey and Russia from these re-alignments is also a direct descendant of the politics of the last two centuries. Both will probably gradually drift away from European (and Western) structures and seek their fortunes in the geopolitical twilight zones of the world. The USA is unlikely to be of much help to Europe as it reasserts the Monroe doctrine and attends to its growing Pacific and Asian preoccupations. It may assist the EU to cope with Russian (and to a lesser extent, Turkish) designs in the tremulously tectonic regions of the Caucasus, oil-rich and China-bordering Central Asia, and the Middle East. But it will not do so in Central Europe, in the Baltic, and in the Balkan.
In the long-run, Muslims are the natural allies of the United States in its role as a budding Asian power, largely supplanting the former Soviet Union. Thus, the threat of militant Islam is unlikely to revive the West. Rather, it may create a new geopolitical formation comprising the U.S. and moderate Muslim countries, equally threatened by virulent religious fundamentalism. Later, Russia, China and India all destabilized by growing and vociferous Muslim minorities may join in.
Ludwig Wittgenstein would have approved. He once wrote that the spirit of “the vast stream of European and American civilization in which we all stand … (is) alien and uncongenial (to me)”.