Is There Such a Thing as ‘the West’?
In many circles, “the West” is a popular phrase. It has a mushy meaning, though—more sentimental than concrete. This allows it to mean whatever people like.
Some use it as a substitute for free societies; others, to imply the white Christian world; others, to imply civilizational excellence. Depending on who you are, it’s an endorsement or a criticism. If you are a member of the Chinese Communist Party or the American far left, the West is a bad thing. In 1987, Jesse Jackson led a march on the Stanford University campus. Demanding the removal of a Western civilization course from the core curriculum, they chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” The marchers couldn’t find a distinction between the West and white supremacy.
For others, it’s the source of human flourishing. Even when the West is good, though, definitions vary. The main pillar of the West could be its Christianity or its classical liberalism. To many American liberals on the right and left, especially in foreign policy discussions, the West just means the world America has made. Everybody has strong opinions about the West, yet nobody can come up with a common definition of it.
We know the origin of the term “the West,” but we can’t tell for sure how its meaning evolved over the past two millennia. Diocletian was the Roman emperor who created the tetrarchic system in the 280s to split the empire between West and East, each to be autonomous, but for the empire to be run by co-emperors. This system created the West-East divide and predated the Christianization of the empire decades later under Emperor Constantine. Over the next two centuries, the split would become concrete through a series of civil wars. In the meantime, Rome had become Christian, so the split of the empire broke the church into the Western and the Eastern churches. The West and the East were terms to define these two different Roman worlds and Christianities.
During the medieval era, another line was added to the divide. The Holy Roman Empire became the West, and the Byzantine Empire the East. Better yet, after the Muslim Ottomans succeeded the Byzantines, that dichotomy became clearer, since the distinctions were not simply between two churches but two entirely separate religions. So the Eastern Church moved northward to Russia to establish the “Third Rome” as the legitimate heir to Byzantium. Russia was the East now.
In early modernity, French Catholic integralists would denounce the West as, in the late sociologist Peter Berger’s words, “wherever Protestantism had done its corroding work.” For their European contemporaries, good or bad, the West was the rootless, individualistic culture that we today associate with capitalism and the bourgeoisie. It was the West because it existed in Protestant Northwestern Europe. Ironically, the West and St. Peter’s Church, once symbiotic, were now mutually exclusive.
The Cold War brought the phrase “the West” back into common use. Again, Europe was at the epicenter of a fight over the right way of life. Christianity, formerly divided between the two churches in the Roman era and between Catholics and Protestants in early modernity, was this time not divided against itself, but rather arrayed against the atheism of the communist world. The geography worked too. NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were, with the exception of Turkey, separated by a vertical line on a map. The Cold War was ideological. Liberalism and totalitarianism were at odds. And that’s how the West came to be associated with liberalism, even though, in its origin, the idea of “the West” predated both Christian Europe and modern liberalism. Russia’s successor, the Soviet Union, was again the center of the East. The irony is that Russia’s claim to the East was based partly on the very church the Soviet Union had cracked down on.
The inconsistencies of the East-West dichotomy exist not only in geopolitical history, but intellectual history as well. The ideas of the West hardly come from the West—i.e., from the parts of continental Western Europe once under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes invented the philosophical tradition of modern liberalism in the 1600s, conceiving the modern notion of rights by declaring the right to life, or survival, as unalienable, but elements of this idea were already in practice, and his liberal conception of a right to life was the fruit of a seed planted by Socrates in Athens. Or take John Locke, who expanded Hobbes’ liberal theory. Locke’s sources of reference, to a great degree, were the Hebrew and especially the Christian Bibles, both written in Jerusalem. Athens and Jerusalem would eventually become parts of the Roman Empire, but only after Socrates died and the Hebrew Bible was written. The Christian Bible, too, though written in Romanized Jerusalem, predates the East-West divide. Moreover, both cities belonged to the Eastern Romans and Byzantium. They were never part of the West.
For those who equate the West with liberalism, it is important to remember that the early success of liberalism was not due to the West, but rather to isolation from the West. Continental Europe, the most accurate geographic expression of the West, was not a friend of liberalism, but its enemy. So liberalism’s first political success appeared in Britain, an island separated from Europe, less threatened by it and thus less in need of a strong standing army. The absence of such an army also made the British monarch weaker than his or her European counterparts. The summoning of the medieval British noble councils that would later evolve into a democratic parliament, the enactment of the Assize of Clarendon, the adoption of the Magna Carta and the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act are the results of several revolutions and civil wars on the island. They partially owe their existences to a weak English king without a large standing army who could be bullied and even overthrown. And finally, a liberal democracy would be born in the New World. Simply put, modern liberalism owes its birth to the separation of Britain and the United States from the rest of the Western world.
While visiting Warsaw in March, President Joe Biden praised how “the West” had responded to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and added, “The West had moved jointly with sanctions to damage Russia’s economy.” Did the President mean to exclude from his praise such Asian and Oceanic allies and partners as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand? No. Like most American liberals on the center-right and center-left, the president was probably using the term as a substitute for the American Extended Universe.
Today, unlike the dawn of the Cold War, freedom is not delineated by a geographic line. Take the cases of Taiwan and Hungary. One is in the East and free, and one is in the West and unfree. To make matters personal, I am an immigrant from Iran with no Christian heritage. While not religious, I treat the U.S. Constitution nearly like the Bible, and the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist Papers like the Talmud. Steve Bannon, the white, alt-right leader seeking to form a Catholic nationalist network, has a better claim to be from the West, but not to be more liberal.
It is a feature of liberalism that it argues against such geographic and ethnic divisions. If liberal ideals are universal (as indeed they are) because human nature is transnational and transhistorical (which it certainly is), then good and evil, freedom and unfreedom, and virtue and vice cannot be separated by a geographic line. They can and do exist everywhere because they exist within every human.
But using the term is counterproductive in realizing the universal truth of liberalism. Anti-European sentiments due to grievances from the colonial and imperial era endure in the developing world—not dominant, but alive. Thus has China, lumping the United States together with Europe, exploited these resentments to separate developing countries from the U.S. orbit of influence and bring them into its own. Their votes with China and against the United States in international organizations are just one way this problem manifests itself. Another is the openness of countries in Africa and Latin America to Chinese development aid and investment. Emphasizing that America is Western—a regional term that the developing world is neither a part of nor has good memories of—simply proves that China is correct. Of course, intellectuals are free to try explaining the subtle nuances of what “the West” actually means, but it is doubtful they can convey these nuances in Swahili or Arabic. Instead, all the term accomplishes is to separate the United States, contrary to its interests, from parts of the world China is gaining influence in.
Many Americans are also hostile to the term. They, their parents or grandparents immigrated from Latin America, the Greater Middle East or Africa, and many of them share these anti-European sentiments. They don’t consider themselves to be Westerners. When they hear “Westerners,” they perceive the subtext to be “not you.”
Similarly, the term’s close association with Christianity makes it less appealing to the large and growing non-Christian population in the United States. If you or your parents are immigrants from India, you are, in all likelihood, a highly educated, upper-middle-class American with a bourgeois life. Setting aside the debate over the potential offensiveness of the term “The West,” it is simply political malpractice to exclude growing demographics from any liberal coalition—left or right.
Marketing matters, so what some call “the West” still requires a name. An easy alternative is “the free world.” It’s a good term, but insufficiently explanatory. We are a free people, but we are more than that: We are liberals, meaning that we aren’t just free and have rights; we recognize that we ought to be virtuous in exercising those rights. So perhaps we of the world’s liberal countries should claim to be what we share: a liberal civilization.
Of course, some will object to the use of the term “liberal.” Somewhere along the way, at least in the United States, the phrase “liberal” became associated exclusively with the left. And now many on the right, which is too often in haste to be anti-left, are in haste to be anti-liberal. So now that the illiberal left and the illiberal right are rejecting liberalism—both the term and the practice—perhaps it is good for us to embrace the term again and remind ourselves that our virtues include both freedom and responsibility. “The free world” is a good substitute for the West because it is an easy one. But “liberal civilization” is more rewarding because it is a heavier lift.
I am an immigrant from Iran. I am a free man. More than that, I am a conservative liberal living in the liberal United States. But I am not Western, for I have never been a European Christian.
Shay Khatiri is a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. An immigrant from Iran, he writes on Europe and the Middle East for the Russia–Iran File Substack.
Originally published in The Unpopulist.