America Versus the West?

The summer of 1997 saw a momentous event in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and indeed of the West itself. This was NATO’s formal invitation to three Central European countries— Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary— to become members of the alliance. The cunning of history, however, may be composing an ironic twist. For the expansion of the Western project into Central Europe may be occurring at the very time that the concept of Western civilization itself has been discarded within NATO’s central and essential power, the United States.

The Question of American Commitment

From its beginning NATO was seen as the defender of Europe. But this conception did not provide a sufficiently robust base for the participation of NATO’s most important member, the United States. Although the two world wars seemed to demonstrate that Europe was essential to American security interests, this kind of strategic argument was not always compelling outside of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Something else, more like a philosophical worldview than a strategic calculation, was needed to provide the broad popular base for a comprehensive and consistent American commitment to NATO over the long run. It was not enough for America to be just the defender of Europe; it would be best if America was itself a part of Europe, or rather if Europe and America together were parts of something that was even bigger and that they shared between themselves.

As it happened the concept for this something bigger was already available. This was Western civilization or more simply “the West.” The idea of the West had been much discussed in both Europe and the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century, it had high prestige among some academic elites, and it had just the right contours to hold both Europe (particularly what was coming to be called Western Europe) and North America. The purpose of NATO or the Atlantic Alliance thus was not just to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. NATO was also the defender of the West against the East, or more particularly of Western civilization against Eastern backwardness, tyranny, even barbarism. The formation of NATO was closely connected and clearly legitimated with the spread of the idea of Western civilization.

The strength of the idea of Western civilization was multifold. It lay first in the grandeur of its cultural traditions and the attractiveness of its political freedoms. But it also lay in the close congruence between the boundary of Western civilization and the boundary of the vital interests of the United States. These interests lay largely within the North Atlantic region and the member states of NATO. Indeed, there was a symbiotic relationship between (1) the idea of Western civilization, (2) the vital interests of the United States, and (3) the membership of the Atlantic Alliance. This symbiotic relationship was greatly strengthened by the close congruence among the boundaries of the three.

In later decades, however, the strong U.S. support for the idea of Western civilization would be undermined by two great changes. One was the steady growth of U.S. interests, especially economic ones, outside the boundary of the West. The other was the steady growth of cultural diversity, especially multicultural ideology, inside the United States itself. By the 1970s, these changes had brought about the decline of the idea of the West among much of the American elite. By the 1990s, they had brought about its total displacement.

The Growth of Multicultural Ideology

The growth of cultural diversity came about in part because of the change in U.S. immigration law in 1965 and the subsequent large increase in the Latino American and the Asian American populations of the United States. It also built upon the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the subsequent change in the status of African Americans. The preferred cultures of the intellectual elite are now those of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. These cultures are derived from African, Latin American, Confucian, and Islamic civilizations rather than from Western civilization. Together, they form a sort of series of beachheads or even colonies of these civilizations on the North American continent, and they have successfully contested the hegemony there of Western civilization.

The increased presence and influence of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans were sufficient to create a multicultural ideology by the 1980s and 1990s. But these three groups alone probably would not have been sufficient to have that ideology adopted by much of the American intellectual and political elites, or to have it translated into academic and government policies aimed at establishing a multicultural society. Even a grand coalition among them would not have been grand enough to win power and make policy. A truly grand coalition had to include, indeed had to have at its core, a group that was much closer in social and educational background to the existing elites and much more central to the new economy that was based upon information rather than upon manufacturing. That group, which was not really a group but was actually a majority of the population, was women, and the movement that claimed (often inaccurately) to speak for them was feminism.

The feminist movement has been central to the multicultural coalition and its project. It has provided the numbers, having reached a critical mass first in academia and now in the media and the law. It has promoted the theories, such as deconstructionism and postmodernism. And it has provided much of the energy, the leadership, and the political clout. The multicultural coalition and its feminist core despise Western civilization, which they see as the work of “dead white European males.” Their multicultural project has already succeeded in marginalizing Western civilization in its very intellectual core, the universities, and the media of the United States.

The core ideas in the intellectual critique of Western civilization are deconstructionism and postmodernism. These were invented by French intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s and then adopted by American academics in the 1980s. The American academic elite has deconstructed Western civilization and has constructed instead a multicultural ideology. It has displaced the modern idea of the West and replaced it with a disparate collection of postmodern, post-Western ideas. In effect, the West has been displaced by the post-West within the brain of Western civilization, the American intellectual class. And this displacement of the West has now spread to the American body politic.

The U.S. Versus Western Civilization

Thus, in some respects, the United States itself has become the great power that opposes much of what was once thought of as Western civilization, especially its cultural achievements and its social arrangements. The major American elites-those in politics, business, the media, and academia-now use American power, especially the “soft power” of information, communications, and popular entertainment, to displace Western civilization not only in America but also in Europe. They attack and mock any traditional European authorities, such as religion, nations, families, and high culture. In their stead, they promulgate the current American ideas of human rights, multiculturalism, expressive individualism, and popular culture. It is the American popular culture that is especially destructive of what was once defined as Western civilization. American popular culture presents as its normative human types the star entertainer and athlete. It exalts the personal qualities of inherent talent, self-centeredness, frantic energy, and aggressiveness. These are the distinguishing qualities of an adolescent, not of a mature person. It is no accident that adults in America are increasingly adopting the qualities of adolescents.

Elite Americans imagine themselves as advancing the ideas of human rights, multiculturalism, and expressive individualism. They might even claim that these ideas are the best, perhaps the only worthy, legacy of Western civilization. In fact, they are subverting not only the traditions of the West, but of all civilizations. It is not surprising that some of these civilizations, especially the Islamic and the Confucian ones, have mounted various forms of resistance to these American ideas. Samuel Huntington has referred to this as “the clash of civilizations” involving “the West against the rest.” But it also may be a clash between all civilizations: both the West and the rest on the one hand-and anticivilization, the actual behavior of many Americans today, on the other.

The Implications for NATO Expansion

This new and anti-Western character of the American elite has implications for the grand project of a new and expanded NATO. The new NATO will not be based upon any vision or idea comparable to the Western civilization of the old NATO. That idea helped to build conviction among NATO’s most important support, the American people, and to build credibility with NATO’s most important adversary, the Soviet Union.

The new NATO will lack the old vision and indeed will have no authentic and coherent vision at all. It therefore will have little conviction among the American people and little credibility with a Russia that one day will regain the strength to assert its interests. The new and expanded NATO thus will bring with it two dangers. First, NATO will have undertaken a commitment to its three new Central European members—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—without the conviction and credibility needed to sustain that commitment in bad times as well as good. Even more ominously, it may have induced Russia to exact compensation from countries that must remain outside of NATO, most obviously the three democratic Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

The new NATO, as led by the new United States, thus is not likely to be the true fulfillment of the grand vision of the old NATO. It is more likely to be a contradiction of that vision-by putting the Baltic peoples at risk, by giving the Central European peoples a membership devoid of meaning, and by opening up a new gap between the foreign policies of the American elite and the international convictions of the American people.

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