The “decline of the West” fills today’s headlines. The rise of populist-nationalism in Europe and North America ushered in piercing, cynical analyses. Broadly speaking, these fall into three categories. Pundits question the truth and future of the “liberal international order” built by America after World War II, economists draw attention to the booming growth of Asian markets vis-à-vis the turmoil of the E.U. and the U.S., and strategists worry about the expansion of Russia and China.
True, the trumpeters of America’s postwar foreign policy omit the blood spilt in countless coups and civil wars. They omit the racial overtones of U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam. And the economists are right as well— the dynamism on display in Asia will likely overtake “Western” economies in the next 30 years. The strategists, too, make good points— Russian maneuvering in the Ukraine, Syria and Iran coupled with China’s expansion into the South and East China Seas and Central Asia poses a threat to Western primacy. Yet, a clear definition of “The West” cannot be found in the current predictions of its decline.
These metrics used to evaluate the West’s descent follow from a centuries-old view rooted in geography, culture and identity: geo-culturalism. Geographically, the West can be conceptualized as the U.S. and Europe, with a rhetorical line extending from Poland to Greece. The states bordering Russia— and the Balkans— lie caught in the middle, not quite “Western” and not quite “Eastern.” Crucially, Russia and the countries of Asia are “Eastern.” Clear overtones of culture and identity arise from this geographically-minded perspective.
As an example, the rhetoric of populism flooding Europe and America’s politics centers around a historical identity. Protecting it became the calling of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Denmark’s People’s Party, Norway’s Progress Party, Finland’s True Finns, France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party. The Syrian refugee crisis rapidly changed the demographics of these countries, with millions of immigrants migrating into culturally homogenous towns and cities. The people of the “East” moved west, and brought with them different religious practices and social norms. In America, President Trump’s desire to cut illegal and legal immigration stems from the same feeling. Coupled with stagnating middle-class prospects, populism became a backlash resting on a Western identity under threat.
The decline of the West lies in the ongoing struggle between populist geo-culturalism and liberal geo-culturalism embracing the West as an idea. Tracing the philosophies of Athenian democracy through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and American Independence, many of Europe and America’s governing political parties extrapolated this history—whitewashed, but no less effective—to their vision of Western identity. German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron, for example, continue to favor improved economic and political ties and with the rest of the E.U. and free migration through the Eurozone. Former President Obama similarly pursued liberal-capitalist policies favoring the geographic West, expediting trade relations and investing in the NATO alliance. However helpful geo-culturalism once was in tying America and Europe together, today’s officials must realize that linking identity to geography and idealized history no longer reflects intelligent policy.
Holding onto identity politics while neglecting economic and social policies that could improve the well-being of millions stains the credibility of liberal-capitalist countries. Turkey and Iran can rightly argue against the calls for political change from the U.S. and E.U. as resting on now-disproved notions of superiority. To repair the reputation of the West, European and American leaders must abandon their geo-cultural myopia. India, Japan and South Korea prove that democracy thrives outside the geographic West. Their societies testify to “Western values” of secularism, freedom and capitalism no longer being exclusively Western. Are they perfect models of democracy? No. Yet perhaps by abandoning geography-based notions of the West and further strengthening relationships with these countries, America and the E.U. can expand the “liberal international order,” make massive economic gains and check the expansionist tendencies of rising Eurasian powers. Those forecasting the decline of Europe and America succumb to the same mistake as those whipping up fear and anger. The West is not strictly geographic or measurable by any metric. It is first and foremost an ideal.
Shankara Narayana is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.