A Crisis of the West
When you say “we,” who do you mean?
Many of us would start the answer with our family and our friends. Widening the circle, we might think of our town or region, supporters of the same football team, our nation or state, a sexual orientation, a political affiliation (“we on the Left,” “we Republicans”), or those who profess the same religion—world-straddling fraternities these, with more than 1.3 billion Muslims and nearly 2 billion Christians, though fraternities scarred by deep internal divisions. Beyond this, most of us have a strong sense of “we” meaning all our fellow human beings. Some would add other living creatures.
Yet these largest senses of “we” are seldom what people really have in mind when they say “we must do this” or “we cannot allow that.” The moral “we” of all humankind is today more important than ever, but it’s not the same as our operational “we.” So let us pose the question more precisely: What’s the widest political community of which you spontaneously say “we” or “us”? In our answer to that question lies the key to our future.
For me, an Englishman born into the Cold War, that widest political community used to be something called “the West.” My friends and I didn’t spend much time worrying about its boundaries. If you had asked us, we could not have said exactly where it ended. Was Turkey part of the West? Japan? Mexico? But we had no doubt that it existed, as Europe existed, or communism. At its core, we felt, were the free countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in Western Europe and North America. This Cold War West faced a hostile power that we called “the East.” The East meant, in the first place, the Soviet Union, its Red Army, its nuclear missiles, and its satellite states in what was then labeled Eastern Europe.
Occasionally, Western politicians or propagandists tried to persuade us that noncommunist countries everywhere should be described as “the free world”—even if their governments were torturing critics at home, gagging the press, and rigging elections. My friends and I never accepted that claim. We did not think Chile under General Pinochet was a free country. Altogether, this tag “the free world,” with its strident definite article, implying that all inside are free, all outside unfree, has seldom been used in public without pathos or in private without irony. “We’re the most hated cops in the whole of the free world,” boasts a Los Angeles Police Department officer in the Jackie Chan film Rush Hour.
But the West—yes, that was real. Anyone who traveled regularly behind the Iron Curtain, to countries like Poland, was confirmed in this belief. My friends there talked all the time about the West. They believed more passionately than most Western Europeans did in its fundamental unity and its shared values; they feared it might be weak and decadent. “We,” they said, “are the West trapped in the East.” At the time, I felt these Polish, Czech, and Hungarian friends were, so to speak, individual members of the West far more than I felt Turkey or Japan were collectively part of it. Others, with varying personal experiences, saw things differently. Where you stand depends on where you sit. Everyone had his or her own West, just as everyone today has his or her own America,* France, or Islam. There are as many Italys as there are Italians. Nonetheless, Italy exists.
This political community of the West was, like all political communities, both real and imagined. At its military front line, it was as real as real can be. On a cold winter morning, Dutch, Belgian, British, German, Canadian, and American soldiers stood shivering all the way down the frontier between West and East Germany, ready to die together—“all for one and one for all”—in the event of an armed attack from the East. The community was imagined in the sense that behind these men and women prepared to die together in battle there stood another army of assumptions made by the people who put the soldiers there, but perhaps also by the soldiers themselves; assumptions about what united “us” and what made “us” different from the people on the other side of the barbed wire—a mental army of the West.
* I hope other inhabitants of the Americas will forgive me for using “America” throughout this book as shorthand for the United States of America. It’s what we usually say in Europe, and it is shorter.
Many believed, for example, in what they called “Western values.” The West stood for freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law. These good things, they thought, had grown mainly in the West and distinguished us from others. The (hi)stories we tell ourselves are also the history of our own times—and a sometimes unintentional account of our intentions. During the Cold War, generations of American school and university students were taught an inspiring story of Western Civilization, marching onward and generally upward from ancient Greece and Rome, through the spread of Christianity in Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the English, American, and French Revolutions, the development of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and universal suffrage, two World Wars and the Cold War, to the sunlit uplands of an American-led “Atlantic Community.” In the grand narrative of “Western Civ,” the West began in Europe and ended in the hands of America. It went from Plato to NATO.
On a dusty bottom shelf in the library of Stanford University in California I once found an example of this story told at its most confident and simplistic. Life’s Picture History of Western Man, published in 1951, began by asking: “Western Man—who is he and where did he come from?”1 The identity of this “most wonderfully dynamic creature ever to walk the earth” apparently became clear in Europe “about 800 ad (earlier in some places, later in others) and he was ready to set out on his bright-starred mission of creating a new civilization for the world.” In those good old days, Western Man—always capitalized—was “fair of skin, hardy of limb, brave of heart, and he believed in the eternal salvation of his soul.” Darker-skinned persons, not to mention women, hardly featured. Western Man “worked toward freedom, first for his own person, then for his own mind and spirit, and finally for others in equal measure.” Life’s handsomely illustrated picture history followed Western Man’s progress “from his first emergence in the Middle Ages to his contemporary position of world leadership in the United States of America. . . . A new vehicle called the Atlantic Community,” it concluded, “now carries Western Man on his way.”
At once fed by and feeding these assumptions about a shared future written in the past, there developed in the second half of the twentieth century an immense, intricate, close-knit web of special relationships between government and government, military and military, company and company, university and university, intelligence service and intelligence service, city and city, bank and bank, newspaper and newspaper, and above all, between millions of individual men and women, aided by the rapid growth in the speed and volume of air travel and telecommunications. On this teeming worldwide web, each kind of thread had a hundred bi- and multilateral variants, French-American, French-German, British-American, American- Polish, Portuguese-Spanish, Slovenian-Italian, New Zealand–Europe, Australia-America, the European Community, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and so on and on. Ever more people met, telephoned, wrote, or faxed each other ever more often for ever more purposes. And that was before e-mail. Start drawing these links in different colors on a map and it would soon disappear entirely beneath the inky tangle. There was a proliferation of such ties all around the world—people had begun to speak of “globalization”—but no strands were thicker than those between Western Europe and North America.
If I close my eyes and try to conjure a visual image of this West, I come up with something so mind-numbingly conventional that I immediately open them again. What I see are those endlessly familiar newspaper photographs of our leaders meeting each other, which they now do constantly, unlike leaders in most of recorded history, who met only on very rare occasions, if at all. Turning the pages of this mental album, I come first to the group portrait of a dozen or more heads of government on the steps of some palace or grand hotel, almost all of them middle-aged white men in dark suits (Western Man in his Native Dress). Next come those demonstratively bonhomous, back- patting, elbow-clutching bonding displays between French president and German chancellor. Here’s a grainy old snapshot of four men in tropical wear sitting under a beach umbrella in Guadeloupe, talking nuclear missiles; then a newer, digital image of an open-shirt and jeans encounter at some country retreat, with the American president and British prime minister serving as unpaid fashion models for Levi’s, Gap, or Banana Republic. And finally there’s the perennial buggy scene—in which, somewhere in America, two middle-aged men, grinning boyishly, snuggle close together in the front seat of a golf cart. The closeness is the message.
“Friendship” is the name diplomatically given to these relations between statesmen or stateswomen and, by two-way symbolic extension, to relations between the states they represent. If the states are friends, their leaders had better be; if the leaders become friends, that helps relations between their states. These instant, speed-glued political “friendships” are interesting to observe. You wonder how genuine they can possibly be. When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met aboard a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with their massed British and American crews, they made one of the great symbolic bondings of the twentieth-century West. In what sense were Churchill and Roosevelt ever really friends?
Yet in the modern world we’re not condemned to stand around like peasants at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, wondering how the Great Ones are getting along inside the marquee. We’re not swineherds nervously contemplating the quarrels of the gods on Mount Olympus. We make our own history. Whatever the truth about the “friendship” between, say, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, I know that, for me, Pierre in Paris, Helena in Warsaw, John in Washington, and Michael in Bonn were, and remain, friends. These friendships were born in the particular circumstances of a time and place. What friendship is not? We stood for the same things and against the same things: not all the same things, all the time, but quite enough to make common cause. We wanted to preserve freedom in the West and win it for people in the East. We had that essential fellow feeling. We felt that we were “we.” And so we were.
To be sure, I also had quite a few good acquaintances who thought of the West as “them.” The bloody Americans, the fucking Tories, the Scheissliberalen—imperialist, oppressive, exploitative, corrupt, responsible for toppling Salvador Allende in Chile and napalming children in Vietnam. Yet these critics were often measuring the Cold War West against its own proclaimed moral standards. Even as they savaged the hollow, hypocritical rhetoric of “the free world,” they were confirming the West’s existence. Unless you are Don Quixote, you don’t attack a chimera. So the Cold War West was a reality. If enough people think a political community is real, it’s real.
With the disappearance of the communist East at the end of the Cold War, this West slowly descended into crisis. There were omens of discord throughout the 1990s, like a gathering storm, as well as endless speculation about what the new world order, or disorder, might be. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the storm broke. When a group of Islamist terrorists flew two airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, it seemed that the most influential prediction for the shape of the post– Cold War world was coming true. Here, surely, was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” For those planes seemed to be aimed at the heart of the West, one of Huntington’s “civilizations,” in the name of another, Islam.
At first, the rest of the West rallied to America’s side, under a heroic motto proclaimed by the editor of Le Monde, “We Are All Americans.”2 But within a year this crisis for the West had become a crisis of the West. Faced with the problem of how to fight an abstract noun—Terror—the nations of the West did not pull together as they had in the late 1940s against Stalin’s Red Army; they fell apart in bitter disagreement. The administration of President George W. Bush decided that the “war on terror” required a war against Iraq; most Europeans disagreed. By the spring of 2003 we had the unprecedented spectacle of France actively canvassing for votes against the United States in the Security Council of the United Nations, on a question of war or peace that the United States considered vital to its own national security.
The American neoconservative Richard Perle concluded that France was “no longer the ally it once was” and therefore NATO “must develop a strategy to contain our erstwhile ally.”3 Many Europeans thought the United States was threatening world peace. “Is this a free world or Bush’s world?” demanded a banner at a million-strong demonstration against the Iraq War in London on February 15, 2003. This was just one of several massive demonstrations in European capitals that day. They seemed, for a moment, to unite the continent in a single European “no” to America’s proposed war.
So the West was divided between Europe and America. Or was it? Certainly, most Europeans opposed the war and most Americans supported it. Political writers on both sides of the Atlantic saw in this an expression of deep underlying differences. One liberal American writer averred that the coming “clash of civilizations” could be not the West versus the Rest, but Europe* versus America.4 “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” wrote the conservative American Robert Kagan in an influential one-liner, suggesting that Americans are at once Martian, martial, and the real men.5 The original book title to which his quip alluded was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Many on the European left hastened to agree: yes, Europeans and Americans are from different planets; yes, Europe, scarred by so many wars—lovely Europa, remembering her bad experience with bulls—proudly represents the female virtues of peace.
Excerpted from Free World by Timothy Garton Ash. Copyright © 2004 by Timothy Garton Ash. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.