Whose West is Best?
July 10, 2017
In his speech in Warsaw this past Thursday, President Donald Trump offered the closest thing yet to a coherent overall vision for world affairs. Delivering a text reportedly written by two of his most conservative and combative advisers (Steve Bannon and Steven Miller) and designed to appeal to his Polish hosts, President Trump proclaimed his commitment to Western Civilization, and to the need to defend the West against threats from the “east and the south.” The most important question, President Trump insisted in his 40-minute address, was “Whether the West has the will to survive.”
At first glance, the President’s references to the solidarity of the West are familiar, and uncontroversial. As former speechwriter Carlyn Reichel noted, many of the terms and tropes the president employed have been a reflexive and uncontroversial element of presidential speeches through the Cold War, as were his historical examples—such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, or Saint John Paul II speaking to his fellow Poles in 1979. Nevertheless, the physical and temporal context of the speech made things a bit different this time, and the context unsurprisingly shaped the responses to it.
We at FPRI pride ourselves on our commitment to the idea of the West, which has long been a centerpiece of our work. Unsurprisingly, we have therefore followed the controversies around this speech very closely. In the essay to follow, I intend to analyze the context and reactions to the speech, and to conclude with some reflections on the meaning of the West for the future of Europe and the United States. Believing that the values of the West are worth defending, I also believe that the vision of the West presented by the president is at best incomplete, and hope that the discussion it has inspired can help lead us to a broader understanding of the West and its role in contemporary world affairs.
The Road to Warsaw
This president came to Europe facing continuing questions about his capabilities, his legitimacy, and his long-term goals. His previous statements and actions have raised questions about his commitment to the Atlantic alliance (the political bedrock of the Cold War West), and his relationships with the leading European allies have been rocky. Furthermore, the schedule included the first public meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose alleged interference in the 2016 elections has cast a shadow over the Trump administration.
Everyone knew that world attention would be focused on the president’s performance at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, where he would meet with Putin and other major world leaders, and perhaps repair an image damaged by his uneven performance at the G-7 summit in Italy two months ago. The White House, learning its lesson from the president’s response to the grueling marathon of his first overseas trip, decided to keep this one short and focused, but also wanted to begin with a stopover in a friendly location to allow the president a chance to start on the right foot.
Warsaw was an ideal choice not only for the historically good relations between the United States and the Polish people, but also because the current government of Poland is led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS). As a populist party of the right, with great support in rural areas, PiS advocates a combination of cultural conservatism, Euroskepticism, and nationalism that is a European pendant to Trumpism. Warsaw is also currently locked in a serious dispute with the European Union over Poland’s unwillingness to participate in the EU’s plans for admitting and distributing migrants and refugees, and thus harbors many of the same grievances against Brussels, Paris, and especially Berlin as the president. President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło were therefore especially eager for high-profile support from the American president, even willing to bus in supporters from outside of Warsaw to guarantee a large and enthusiastic welcome.
One cannot truly understand the reactions to the president’s speech without being aware of this context. With such knowledge, it is no surprise for example to see, in his celebration of Polish resistance against oppression, that the president was more specific about the depredations of Nazi Germany than he was about Russia or the Soviet Union. It was also not accidental that the president celebrated the West as a broadly defined “community,” but lashed out at “bureaucracy” and praised “sovereignty,” significant buzzwords in the current standoff between Poland and the European Union. In a speech that emphasized the West’s deep support for freedom, the president made specific reference neither to democratic governance nor freedom of the press and expression. In his joint press conference with Duda before the speech (the only formal press conference the president held during the entire trip), his only references to press freedom were to denounce “fake news.” Even the president’s specific reference to NATO’s Article V promise of mutual defense—welcome and belated as it was on European soil—came within the context of the president’s attacks on members other than Poland who have not yet met alliance spending targets for their defense budgets.
The president’s paean to the West thus had multiple audiences. The general approach could be embraced by anyone, but the specific terms were aimed at those in Poland and elsewhere who shared with him a suspicion of immigrants and a hostility to European integration. For them, President Trump’s celebration of Europe’s Christian heritage had less to do with theology than with opposition to a threatening Islamic world, and to the faceless dark masses who threaten to overwhelm Western cultural unity. Trump’s speech offered a critique not only of those threats, but also of a feckless elite unwilling to man the barricades against them.
A speech so loaded with big ideas, delivered against such a vivid political backdrop, was designed to grab attention, and in that sense, it was a complete success. The hot takes have thus flowed like lava from the fevered fingers of bloggers and columnists since the afternoon of July 6.
The focus of most of those takes has indeed been the issue of what we mean when we say “the West” and what we should do about it, and they have been as deeply partisan as expected. In most cases, the authors read into Trump’s speech what they wanted, basing their analyses on their own conceptions of the West, their own hopes and fears for its future.
For President Trump’s numerous critics on the left, the speech was a dire warning of the racism lurking behind his brand of populist nationalism. Their immediate analyses attacked the president for articulating a vision of the West that was exclusively white and Christian, and for over-emphasizing the struggle with other cultures. In The New Republic, Jeet Heer accused Trump of presenting the West as an “international brotherhood of white grievance,” built more on blood and soil notions of community than on Western values of freedom and tolerance. Sara Wildman in Vox called the speech “an alt-right manifesto” with its emphasis on the clash of civilizations and its apparent racial exclusivity. Jamelle Bouie in Slate also noted the “white nationalist roots” of Trump’s rhetoric, by linking Trump’s references to the “threat from the south” with his general opposition to immigration.
These critiques reached their mainstream apotheosis in the (virtual) pages of The Atlantic. Peter Beinart saw “racial and religious paranoia” in the speech, claiming that a vision of the West that fixated on ethnic identity denied the variety of peoples within Western countries such as the USA, and sowed division within them rather than providing a unifying vision for free societies. Beinart compared Trump’s rhetoric to the more inclusive, universalist tones of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who preferred to emphasize those Western traditions of individual freedom and democracy that could be shared with other cultures as well.
Some conservatives were less put off by Trump’s message than they were by the messenger. David Frum, who has warned repeatedly that Trump’s political style threatens to undermine democracy, found the contradiction between what Trump said in Warsaw and what he has done as president infuriating, concluding:
[T]he most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker. The values Trump spoke for in Warsaw are values that he has put at risk every day of his presidency—and that he will continue to put to risk every day thereafter. Trump’s not wrong to perceive a threat to the Euro-Atlantic from the south and east. But the most recent and most dramatic manifestation of that threat was the Russian intervention in the U.S. election to install Donald Trump as president. The threat from outside is magnified by this threat from within—and it is that truth that makes a mockery of every word President Trump spoke in Warsaw.
Whether the message or the messenger disturbs more, what these critics have in common is the sense that President Trump’s invocation of the West rings false—either because he does not really believe in the principles he invokes, or because his version of those principles is too narrowly tailored to his immediate political program. Would they have treated the speech differently if President Trump had run a different sort of campaign, or if he had delivered this speech earlier in his administration, or before a different audience? Or are they simply hostile to any discussion of the West at all? Without being able to look into the souls of the critics (or of the speaker), it’s impossible to say for sure. But it is clear that the critiques are linked tightly to the current political context, despite the president’s effort to speak in grand and timeless phrases.
The Conservative Defense
Politics also appears to guide the positive responses to the speech. Many conservatives—even of the “Never Trump” variety—embraced the speech ever more tightly in response to the criticisms of the Left. Their enthusiasm for the concept of Western Civilization, and their frustration at the apparent rejection of the West by Trump’s liberal critics, led them to defend the president, even if that meant reading into the speech sentiments that Trump himself neither expressed nor embodies.
David French in National Review, no friend of Trump, took precisely the opposite position of Peter Beinart. For French, Trump’s rejection of universalism was an overdue and necessary. “Our previous presidents — and, indeed, much of the intellectual establishment left and right,” French asserts, “have sold the American people a false bill of goods about human nature, their own history, and the role of culture in the inculcation of our civilizational values.” French and his colleagues such as Rich Lowry and John O’Sullivan argued that the values of the West, rooted in European Christian culture, should be celebrated as integral parts of a particular civilization rather than watered down into phrases that can apply to anyone anywhere. Lowry praised Trump’s “Warsaw Triumph” and denounced Trump’s critics for finding the West “an offensive and exclusionary concept.” Universalism, in their opinion, had led American and European elites to abandon their roots and put too much faith in transnational cooperation, a position echoed by Robert Merry in The American Conservative. Merry goes further to attack Beinart and Bouie for their imputations of racism, and sees their attacks as part of the phenomenon that produced President Trump in the first place. Merry concludes,
Many Americans, perhaps most hate to see their national and civilizational heritage coming under attack, with those who speak up in its behalf running the risk of being labeled Nazis or racists. They don’t understand why they can’t talk about America as part of the West, with its distinctive attributes and accomplishments and legacy, like their grandparents did and those who came before. And because of the calumny it unleashes when they speak up, many of them keep quiet about it; but many of them also quietly voted for Donald Trump last November in part because of this societal cleavage.
The Wall Street Journal went even further in its praise of the president, calling it a “defining speech,” which he should have given as his inaugural for its effort to reach beyond the present political moment to identify higher principles. The editors praise Trump’s nationalism because it is “a nationalism rooted in values and beliefs—the rule of law, freedom of expression, religious faith and freedom from oppressive government—that let Europe and then America rise to prominence. This, Mr. Trump is saying, is worth whatever it takes to preserve and protect.”
Rod Dreher produced an especially rich discussion of the speech and its critics in his latest long blog post for The American Conservative, with his usual generous helpings of long quotations from the texts, but also engaged in some fascinating misdirection. Accusing Trump’s critics of “despising” their own culture, and concluding that such self-hatred is “chilling,” he accuses Trump’s critics of reading into the defense of the West a racism that is not there, and allowing their politics to turn them against the civilization that nurtured them. Dreher points out (quite correctly) that there is nothing inherently racist in Western civilization, noting that immigrants who acculturate are Western, and uses that defense of Western civilization to attack Trump’s critics. Dreher thus appears to be embracing a vision of the West as a civilization capable of growth, attractive to outsiders, and also able to absorb new ideas.
Dreher’s vision of the West, however, true as it might be, is not necessarily President Trump’s. Trump’s speech was hostile to the idea of immigrants, who are only presented as a threatening mass from the south and east. With all his references to these indigestible foreigners who “threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are,” he made no references to successful integration. He did not even appear to notice that Chopin, whom he name-checked among his avatars of Western Civilization and Polish history, spent his entire adult life as a political exile from his homeland, dependent upon the support he received from French patrons who believed and supported universal values of freedom and self-determination.
An Intra-Western Quarrel?
The intensity of the disagreement on the Trump speech obscures a larger point that bears repeating. The difference here is not about the value of the West per se, but rather about which West is best—the West built on a specific Euro-centric Christian vision, which seeks to build walls around itself to preserve its purity, or one based on the Enlightenment principles of individual freedom, secularism, equality before the law and democracy, which is ready to learn from the world and grow stronger with the new knowledge. One could of course embrace both, recognizing the universal appeal of ideas that were originally nurtured in the West, and celebrating the culture that produced them within the eternal triangle of Jerusalem (representing monotheism and the ancient biblical heritage), Athens (representing Greek philosophy and the humanism at the root of Western thought), and Rome (representing the Christian and European political/cultural synthesis). For all the angry rhetorical jabs on both sides, this debate is taking place on terms that are themselves the product of Western civilization—the tension between local identity and intellectual freedom, between the universal and the particular. The West is not on one side or the other in this debate, it is the very arena within which the debate occurs.
What is missing from the liberal horror at Trump’s mention of the West is the very real civilizational advances that the West has inspired. What conservative cheerleaders for the president are missing is the fact that the West has been greatest when it has welcomed new ideas, and when it has been confident enough to engage with the rest of the world.
One of the most perceptive interpreters of the significance of the West and its rise to prominence in world history, the late William McNeill, saw the interplay between the particular and the universal very clearly. In works such as his magisterial Rise of the West and essays written for FPRI, McNeill offers a vision that can celebrate the West while understanding how its triumphs depended upon the ability of Western civilization to engage other cultures and profit from that engagement. In an essay on “What We Mean by the West,” McNeil concluded that “a concept of the West excludes the rest of humanity it is a false and dangerous model,” because it misses the point that the West is part of a larger world history. The West profited from what came before and came from outside, just as the rest of the world will profit from ideas and approaches born and nurtured within the West.
United West, Fragmented Europe?
A more generous vision of the West’s relationship to the rest of the world can also help the West to avoid the dangerous centrifugal forces that threaten to pull it apart. Which brings us back to the question of the European Union and the West. President Trump’s speech has been correctly identified as praising nationalism. Trump, echoing the Euroskepticism of his advisers and his hosts, took a shot at “bureaucracy,” but ignores the significance of institutions in shaping politics and providing the structure that protects a civilization.
For President Trump, as for President Duda and other conservative Euroskeptics, only the nation-state makes sense as a source of loyalty and political organization, and any attempt to infringe on national sovereignty is an offense against nature. This sentiment lurks within Rod Dreher’s denunciation of the “deracinated, de-Christianized EU elite.”
Rich Lowry joined in the denunciations of the EU, claiming that Trump’s nationalist sentiments constituted an endorsement of a “strong Europe,” but is Europe strong when an American president styles himself as “Mr. Brexit,” and offers encouragement to European states who are openly undermining the European Union? As Molly McKew noted in Politico, one of the main addresses of the Warsaw speech was indeed Russia. Despite some mild references to Russian actions in Ukraine, it was clear from both the speech and the president’s subsequent statements and behavior in Hamburg that Russia is not included in the unnamed alleged threats from the East. Vladimir Putin can only smile at watching the president attack both the EU and NATO as institutions, not to mention their solidarity in complaining about critical media.
But the nation-state, an Enlightenment innovation that didn’t catch on until the later 19th Century, although clearly a product of the West, is no divine gift from the heavens but a rather late addition to the politics of the West. As McNeill writes, there is nothing eternal about [the nation-state], and no one knows what new forms of community may emerge and what new challenges they may pose.” For much of the past two centuries, even as the nation-state has been praised as a source of power, those who envisioned the West as a unified whole decried the separation that nationalism has imposed.
The West is older than the newfangled borders of nation-states, which are not the natural benefices that nationalists claim, and are more or less artificial products of politics and negotiation. The borders of today’s Poland, for example, were only drawn after 1945, and did not receive universal legal recognition until 1990, thanks to the peace and stability in Europe made possible by the end of the Cold War, and the European Union.
The rise of nationalism corresponded to the rise of Europe’s global power in the 19th Century, but also helped contribute to the destructive World Wars of the 20th Century, which destroyed Europe’s global dominance. Reaction against nationalism inspired the political movement for European integration. The founders of the modern European ideal, from Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi to Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, did so in part because they saw how what the fragmentation of the West had led to, and also saw that a fragmented West would be less able to defend itself from an authentically existential threat from the East. Even those European founders more committed to the power of national spirit, such as Charles de Gaulle, spoke of the need for Europe to speak with one voice in the world if its civilization were to prevail.
Robert Strausz-Hupé, the founder of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, placed the European project at the center of his vision for protecting Western Civilization during the Cold War. He argued that power only made sense as a “confederal” project, in which the states of the West overcame national divisions and worked together to defend common values. He argued for the establishment of a true Western community of nations, led by the United States. “Human Liberty is the indivisible possession of all Western people,” he declared in his 1956 book, Power and Community. “None can defend it behind national frontiers. None can abridge it without abridging it everywhere. The defense of freedom is thus a fraternal, a federative enterprise. That enterprise confers justice and nobility upon the uses of power.” Although he agreed that the United States and Europe would be equal partners, and thus could disagree on policy specifics, an integrated Europe was “most consistent with the American ideal, American declaratory policy, and American security.”
For Strausz-Hupé and a generation of Americans, European integration was a project to be welcomed and encouraged. We are in danger of losing our sense of that project’s significance, and should reflect upon what we risk if that project fails.
Those around President Trump who today want to claim that the West faces new existential threats also seem to think that fragmentation will make the West stronger. It’s a paradoxical position that only makes sense if one begins from the assumption about the nation-state, and a position that ultimately undermines itself, since it rejects the idea that a larger community (call if the West or anything else) is possible or desirable.
In his Sunday reflection on Trump’s speech, Ross Douthat tries to have his cake and eat it—to argue that there is such a thing as the West, but then to abandon the European project by throwing up his hands at how hard it is “for a political union to reconcile the different branches of the West—German and Mediterranean, French and Anglo-Saxon.” This statement raises a fundamental question: if the “branches” are so irreconcilable that a federal political organization cannot effectively unite them, then is there a common civilization in there at all? The founders of the European Union believed that the common civilization came before the specific identities of individual communities, and that all had a common responsibility to build structures that respected their variety within unity.
Douthat and conservatives like him, who have decided they don’t like the current politics of Europe, offer at best capitulation and at worst dangerous sophistry. Nationalists want, at the same time, to proclaim the distinctiveness of the West and also the utter distinctiveness of their tribes within the West. This is not an argument for defending civilization against its enemies, it’s an argument for pulling back and back into smaller and smaller units, to forsake an expansive vision of a common civilization for the parochial snugness of an individual castles, hunkering behind the walls hoping that preserving one’s own purity will be enough.
President Trump was not wrong to speak of the importance of the West, but he was wrong to link the West to a narrow nationalist political project. He spoke of “faith” in his references to the West, but his emphasis in Warsaw and in his general approach has been more on fear—fear of outsiders, fear of internal enemies, the sort of fear that imagines a world of walls, and which refuses to see the necessity for interchange and growth.
The West certainly faces significant challenges from without and within. But those challenges will only be met and mastered if advocates for the West display more faith than fear. Trump’s critics may be wrong to assume automatically that the West is a racist construct, but they can only be proven wrong if advocates of the West avoid slipping into an exclusivist identity. The West is best when it is built on cooperation, on integration, on the hope for a better future.
Three historical examples that pro-Western Civ culture warriors such as Steve Bannon embrace, yet imperfectly understand, may help clarify this discussion. When Charles Martel defeated the forces of Islam at Tours in 732, or when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans in 800, the land upon which President Trump stood on July 6 was a pagan barbarian wilderness beyond the borders of Christendom. The West then was not simply content to hunker down behind existing boundaries, but was both expansive (to reach out to other territories) and absorptive (to welcome those who wanted to come into the community and adapt to its culture). Over time, barbarian tribes from the Saxons to the Magyars to the Poles and Lithuanians found themselves welcomed into the Western community, and made their own contribution to the future of that civilization. Furthermore, when the Polish King Jan Sobieski led the troops who drove the Turks from the gates of Vienna in September 1683, he did so at the head of a multinational force, in defense of a multinational empire.
Christendom then, and the West now, is bound together by something more than parochial national identities. It is united by a common faith in the power of free people to build institutions that protect their freedom, and which can be a beacon to the rest of the world. We should be proud of Western traditions, even as we should recognize the crimes committed against people inside and out in the name of the West. We should be proud of our national identities, but not allow our pride to lead us into costly national divisions. We should seek that which binds us together, and face the rest of the world with the combination of confidence and humility that makes peace possible between different cultures.
The West is best when it pulls together, not when it fragments. That was, alas, not the message the president offered at Warsaw. It is, however, the message that advocates of the West should take away from this discussion. If President Trump’s words and the debate they have unleashed help us to see that more clearly, he would have done us all a service after all.