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A nation must think before it acts.
These are difficult times in the United States and Europe, the primary interest of FPRI’s Center for the Study of ericaerica and the West. The combination of economic malaise, demographic gloom, and geopolitical chaos have encouraged an increasingly depressing, defensive, and fractious political climate. Voices from across the spectrum rail against a political establishment that has failed to provide stability and security, and look for solutions to self-proclaimed outsiders who claim to offer new ideas unfettered by conventional pieties.
Worries about the future of the West range from the mundane to the eschatological, providing a bull market for predictions of disaster as well as for purveyors of political panaceas. In such gloomy times, it’s understandable that many elevate outsiders to savior status. But the transitory bromides of political campaigns offer sparse comfort, and fewer real solutions. If we hope to understand both the nature of the challenges we face and possible solutions, we need to seek the broadest and deepest conversations. The American Review aims to provide a forum for just such a wide-ranging, continuing conversation. The conversation will be political, but its approach to politics will extend beyond immediate electoral practicalities, to embrace discussions of culture and society, and how they shape and are shaped by the politics of the day.
Goodness knows there are significant practical issues facing the West, in this election year and for many years to come. Each will require practical responses. To list just a few is to appreciate their complexity and their interconnection:
Future essays in this journal (not to mention elsewhere within the FPRI stable) will deal with many of those practical problems. In an effort to start us off, this essay will take up a fundamental question: If we agree that the West is in crisis, and that it needs to be revived, then what is the most basic definition of the West?
For a many conservatives, defending the West is built around a vision of the West as the embattled heir of a medieval heritage. Bret Stephens offered a pithy example of this in the Wall Street Journal back in October. Stephens’ “In Defense of Christendom” combined a critique of European immigration policy and the European Union’s general political and economic failures with a larger jeremiad about the decline of Europe’s sense of its historical purpose and identity, with baleful consequences for the West.
Stephens quite correctly identified the disturbing weakness and blind spots in contemporary European politics, especially the failure of Europeans to define their collective identity, or to make sacrifices to protect their heritage. Those are precisely the sorts of practical topics that we will address in future issues of the American Review, as noted by our laundry list above. After making that case for a more self-assured Europe, however, Stephens then attempts to define that heritage, and sets a trap for himself. “What Europeans no longer believe in,” he asserts, “are the things from which their beliefs spring: Judaism and Christianity; liberalism and the Enlightenment; martial pride and capability; capitalism and wealth.”
This is a lovely and contradictory catalogue that quite nicely encapsulates the variety of elements in Western Civilization, but it can lead us to conclusions contrary to what Stephens may have intended. For it is indeed true that Judaism and Christianity provide the religious and cultural roots of so much of European and Western society, but “liberalism and Enlightenment” which provided so much of the modern foundation of Western intellectual life sprang up in large part in opposition to that religious foundation. That being the case, what makes the West strong is not the perfect fit between the elements of its cultural heritage, but rather the strength that emerges from internal conflict and contradiction—not uniformity, but multiplicity, and not merely the cultivation of the old, but openness to the new.
One can argue that Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire (who devoted his life to “wiping out the infamous thing” that was Christianity in the name of a vague Deism) or Thomas Jefferson (who declared, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”) were both products of the religious traditions that educated and nurtured them. But the intellectual monuments they built on that foundation offered spirited challenges to it. Western thinkers have not sung in unison over the centuries. The Western tradition has drawn its strength from counterpoint. The variety and cacophony of Western Civilization, with its traditions of freedom of individual conscience, is its greatest strength, and compares favorably against alleged stifling uniformity or frightening dogmatism of other civilizations.
The greatest strength of the West over the centuries has been its contradictions. The West has embraced both the orthodox and the heretical; indeed, its growth and success has depended on the ability of western civilization to find new combinations and mixtures within this never-ending dialectic. This has been true not only intellectually, as such seminal Western thinkers as Hegel have described it, but also physically in the ability of European and American society to absorb the new, the outsider, the stranger. Over time those strangers have become part of the West, making their contributions to the development of the societies and institutions that now seem so in need of protection. As William McNeill put it in an essay reflecting on his classic text, The Rise of the West, “the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” As McNeil notes there (and in his 1997 FPRI essay, “What do We Mean by the West?”), the West’s relative success has depended upon that openness to new ideas, from without and within.
This lesson has repeated itself over time, and yet is just as regularly forgotten by its beneficiaries, who want to deny their own arriviste history, pull the ladder up behind them, and put an end to the conversation. Thus in the United States we have the irony of Irish-Americans—whose ancestors were treated as dangerous criminal degenerates with strange religious practices and suspicious loyalties to a foreign prince—in the forefront of the movement to restrict immigration. Meanwhile, in Europe we have leaders such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, who presents himself as the defender of Christendom, advocating closed borders and restricted political debate, even though he is himself the leader of a people that once came out of Asia to threaten Europe, and only settled down after being defeated at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. The very fact that the Magyars can (and indeed should) see themselves as part of the West today is an argument against fearfully closing borders, and an argument for encouraging the lively confrontation between ideas and traditions that continues to enrich the West.
The West certainly needs a sense of its borders and contours, in order to understand how it should relate to the rest of the world. There is, however, considerable space between hermetically sealed individual communities and a generalized, deracinated globalism. There’s no reason why a West that understands its limits cannot live in peace and harmony with other civilizations, celebrating their contrasts as well a their human commonalities.
Calls to defend Christendom, as articulated by Stephens, also run up against perhaps the single greatest geopolitical contradiction in the West—the tension between an overarching concept of a common civilization as embodied in such terms as “Christendom” and the equally strong attachment to defending the interests of individual nation states. Many commentators attempt to square the circle by claiming that the nation state is itself the highest product of Western Civilization. This will be the subject of a future essay of its own, but deserves some comment here.
Any defense of the West must be based upon a degree of practical cooperation and a commitment to shared values that require compromising the doctrine of national sovereignty. That was the position taken by such founders of the European Union as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. It was also the position of FPRI’s Founder, Robert Strausz-Hupé, who called national interest and national security “false counsels” and the defense of freedom “a fraternal, a federative enterprise.” Even if deciding how to balance sovereignty and unity was then and remains a practical challenge, none of these conservative defenders of the West would have imagined that the best way for the states of Europe to deal with external challenges was for each of them to retreat behind their respective moats and castle walls. In other words, they would have resisted the siren call of Vladimir Putin, who has been encouraging Euroskeptics from Hungary to France to Britain in pursuit of Russian national interest. It is a sign of Europe’s and the West’s crisis that some of the strongest voices proclaiming the superiority of the West criticize Brussels as a far away and threatening superstate but are willing to take financial and political support from a foreign power that makes a mockery of Western ideals and is poised to profit from European weakness. Thus nationalism can be manipulated to undermine the freedom of nations, just as within the West, an excessive emphasis on individual autonomy can undermine the sense of community necessary to preserve a free society.
Which brings us back to the original point, about the abiding contradictions that give the West its vibrancy, and make it so difficult to define, so fascinating.
I can imagine some of the criticisms already emerging from these observations. It is all well and good to discuss the theoretical value of new ideas and impulses, and the need to be open to them, but what about the alleged threat of waves of immigrants who will refuse to integrate (at best) or who may at worst be actual sleeper agents of an Islamist invasion? What should the actual shape of European integration be? Does it make sense to have a European Union at all? What should be the role of national sovereignty and national interest? What sort of cooperation should exist between the United States and Europe? Should it be any different than cooperation between the United States and other regional partners? How can individual freedom and self-government be protected in a global economy that places increasing power in the hands of transnational economic actors? What is the place of traditional religious beliefs or social practices in a society built around individual autonomy?
These questions, and many more, will occupy future issues of the American Review. Our essays and reviews will range widely, and we hope to encourage discussion among our authors and between our authors and our readers. Consider this an invitation to decide how you would like to participate in the ongoing conversation. Feel free to contact the editor at [email protected] with your responses to what you have read, your suggestions for future topics, and your proposals for contributions of your own.
The floor is open. Let the conversation begin!
 Reprinted in The Best of FPRI’s Essays on America and the West 1993-2015, edited by Ronald J. Granieri (FPRI, 2015), 45-56. Available under /articles/2015/08/best-fpris-essays-america-and-west-1993-2015