Skip to main content

The following account of a conference held earlier this year by the Foreign Policy Research Inst. in Philadelphia, PA, presents conclusions reached on an unusual question: Does the Center, in a manner of speaking, hold? Sixteen scholars essay answers in the following report.—Ed.

Is There Still a West? A Conference Report

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and their aftermath raised the critical question of whether the United States could hold together a fluctuating alliance of like-minded nations to prosecute the war on terrorism. Conflicts over the American approach to the new conflict, highlighted by Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war, now focused attention on the Atlantic Alliance and whether its foundations still held firm. Did “the West” still exist as a culture shared by societies on both sides of the Atlantic? Were the United States and Europe still able to coordinate their security policies in the face of a common threat? FPRI brought a distinguished group of speakers together in Philadelphia on February 12 and 13, 2004 to address the prospects for continued security cooperation between the United States and Europe. Our participants looked beyond current disputes to offer perspective on the most important dimensions of the transatlantic relationship.

Jonathan Clark of the University of Kansas argued that the idea of the West emerged in the late 1940s as an intellectual justification for American engagement in Europe during the Cold War. Only gradually did it provide a concept for organizing history that connected the United States and Europe as part of a shared culture that faced Soviet totalitarianism. Geography did not impose a natural East-West division, and Clark noted that culture and climate both tended instead to support a North-South division. The challenge from Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, followed by the Cold War imposed a political dichotomy that distinguished Western states from those under Soviet control to their east. The idea of the West provided an intellectual framework for the Atlantic alliance, and while it dominated American culture up through the 1960s, Clark argued that multiculturalism progressively distanced the United States from the culture of Western Europe. Differences over the Iraq war brought this gradual cultural divergence into the open. Two new and competing meanings for the West recently have come into use. One understands the West as the culture of Western Europe to which the United States has an ambiguous relationship; if there is a West, then America is no longer a part of it. The other defines the West as synonymous with the ideals and political goals of the United States, and it thereby becomes something against which the rest of the world reacts.

Daniel Mahoney of Assumption College traced the plural sources of the West from classical and Germanic conceptions of civic virtue, Judeo-Christian moral teaching, and a liberal commercial culture that emerged from the 18th century. The 20th century totalitarian challenge held the Western synthesis together, but a split also emerged between the moral tradition expressed in self-government and a universal conception of human rights that rejected the particularity of the nation or community. Mahoney argued that the student movements of 1968 shifted European political culture to a procedural view of democracy recognizing no territorial boundaries or political attachments. Individual autonomy and human rights became principles to subvert traditional social institutions and mores. A split consequently emerged between a European political class that rejected the nation-state as a context for democratic governance and Americans who approach politics in terms of national interest. Strident rhetoric and inept American diplomacy have worsened the break. Mahoney noted similarities between European humanitarianism and American neo-conservatism as two facets of democratic universalism committed to social transformation, and he warned against a politics of antagonism. American leaders must appeal to their European counterparts and revive the ties that sustained an earlier generation.

John O’Sullivan, editor of the National Interest, noted that Clark approached the question from an Anglo-American perspective while Mahoney adopted a French viewpoint. He then asked whether the divisions might be more within Western societies than between them. Anti-Americanism reflects what James Kurth has called the “post-West”; a radical critique of the Western tradition along the lines Mahoney described that exists on both sides of the Atlantic. O’Sullivan argued that Washington’s consistent support for European integration may prove mistaken as the European Union increasingly defines itself in opposition to the United States. Bringing Central and Eastern Europe into the West will bolster Atlanticism, but the disruptive impact of Muslim immigration threatens to promote anti-Americanism and undermine civilizational identity within Europe. Political divisions under such circumstances may become cultural divisions that produce a real split, and O’Sullivan urged Americans to sustain Atlanticism by engaging sympathetic groups and friendly governments in Europe.

The cultural and political consequences of demographic change have a major impact on the West as multiculturalism in the United States and Muslim immigration in Europe draw the core regions of the West apart. Zachary Shore argued that restive Muslim populations in Europe pose a security threat to the United States highlighted by the September 11 attacks that were planned in Hamburg. Unassimilated Muslim immigrants in Europe provide a recruiting ground for terrorists, and the problem has generated domestic tension while fueling anti-Americanism. Shore urged the United States and Europe to cooperate on strategies that integrate Muslims into Western societies. Demographic trends in Europe and the Middle East, along with the fact that immigrants tend to settle similar existing communities, mean that Western Europe will remain a magnet for Islamic migrants. Even if newcomers were excluded, high fertility rates in European Muslim communities make the question of integration unavoidable. Educational programs for young children and investment to raise employment among Muslims provide important steps toward bringing these communities into the mainstream of European societies. Both would help change the role of women, and the subordination of women marks an important barrier to assimilation into Western culture and improved relations between Muslims and other Europeans.

Michael Radu, co-chair of FPRI’s Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security noted that over the last forty years migration from Latin America and East Asia to the United States and from the Islamic world to Europe has replaced mass immigration within the West. Along with the different sources of this new immigration, North Americans and Europeans take contrasting views of the phenomenon of non-Western immigration. Radu discussed national responses to Muslim immigration in Europe, noting the general failure to assimilate into the host culture. Islam plays an increasing role in self-identification among young Muslims detached from both European culture and the homelands of their parents, and this pattern created opportunities for radical movements. Few European leaders have addressed the underlying cultural problem of alienated Muslim groups, prompting a political backlash from populist parties that capitalize on frustrations over crime and terrorism. Radu concluded that Europe and the United States face a common challenge from Islamic terrorism, but the fact that what Americans view as a security issue Europeans face as a cultural problem brings tensions within the alliance.

James Hollifield of Southern Methodist University noted different attitudes toward immigration in Europe and the United States, both of which have used guest workers, and the different models those perspectives bring. Nothing is more permanent than a temporary worker, and Hollifield quoted Max Frisch’s phrase that “we asked for workers and people came instead.” While Europeans tried to freeze the situation in the 1970s, chain migration brought family members to join workers in Europe. Social networks emerged that made it easier for people to move, and labor demands pull migrants into developed economies. Western values and the open society they represent demand a renewed commitment to balancing assimilation and security with respect for individual rights while economic imperatives make restricting immigration unworkable over the long term.

In his keynote speech, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig argued that tensions within the Atlantic Alliance involve less than meets the eye. Disagreements over Iraq did not disrupt military cooperation, and NATO is still relevant for European security. Its main purpose of facilitating reconciliation after two world wars remains important, and the integration of transatlantic security provides a vital foundation for the European Union’s project. Extending democratic stability into Central and Eastern Europe is also an ongoing task. Focus on the wider challenge of terrorism should not distract attention from the older project of securing a Europe whole and free.

Haig described American and European policies against terrorism as an abject failure over thirty years and warned that regaining credibility requires hard work. NATO remains a vital forum for cooperation, though mistakes on both sides of the Atlantic must be acknowledged. The United States has neither the desire nor will to remake the world in its own image, and trying to sell such a program only antagonizes allies. Nor can multilateralism become a facade for anti-Americanism among the Bush administration’s critics. NATO offers a proven basis for a working multilateralism, and without agreement within the Western alliance effective solutions cannot be expected from the United Nations. Revitalizing NATO for new tasks is the challenge for Western leaders rather than finding alternative means to pursue common objectives.

Harold James of Princeton University and Stephen Schuker of the University of Virginia argued that economic issues themselves are unlikely to divide the West. James pointed out that measures of GDP from 1900 to the present indicate very little divergence within the West compared with the rest of the world. Western economies diverged only when the global economic system failed during the 1930s. Politics and the political repercussions of change remain the dominant factors, and James described an historical pattern in which international economic integration leads to disintegration and then re-integration. Individuals viewed risk as coming from outside their societies, and political leaders consequently focused on redesigning monetary and trading systems to shelter populations and shift the balance of power. James argued that the present anti-globalization movement reflected an effort to bring the nation state back into the economy as a buffer against dislocation. Critics view globalization as a kind of imperialism, and a shift away from it may be emerging.

Schuker argued that economic and financial conflicts within the West do not lend themselves to the melodramatic treatment one finds in current writing about the politics of transatlantic relations. Economic divergences wax and wane, but they have not caused present differences nor are they likely to bring an ultimate divorce. Schuker outlined the historic success of the Western economic model as a path to growth that created an unparalleled dynamism. Tensions within the West pale in comparison with its divergence from other societies that resisted liberal economic regimes, and conflict within the West over technical economic questions really indicate political disagreement. Europe largely adopted a greater state role in the economy after 1945, including central planning and a comprehensive welfare state to help resist political extremism. Jean Monnet and other Europeans sought a third way between American capitalism and Communism, but those policies brought a high structural unemployment and lower long-term growth that separates Europe today from the higher growth patterns in the United States and East Asia. Schuker concluded that the failure to reform European economies creates a gradual divergence as American trade shifts elsewhere. This is more important than actual disagreements among Western states. The West may become a state of mind in the 21st century rather than a geographic location.

Bernard Munk, director of FPRI’s Program in International Political Economy, questioned whether globalization would be reversed without a major war between states. He distinguished between a model of globalization and a doctrine of fairness based upon outcomes. Political reactions to this fact lead the state to impose rules on the outcome, thereby becoming an arbitrageur between economics and politics. Western societies vary in the degrees to which they allow market determined outcomes or mediate them through redistribution and regulations. Munk concluded that the way in which adjustments occur conditions politics with states and within the West generally. This is still very different from other societies where the government, rather than the market, determines economic activity.

Douglas Porch of the United States Naval Postgraduate School argued that the disputes among allies are a common pattern in the West. The typical response of conflict within cooperation ultimately gives way to cooperation, and recent disputes over Iraq indicate the pattern. Porch described three counter-terrorism strategies; a neo-conservative approach focused on American military superiority, a globalization model for easing tensions through development, and a multilateral approach that leverages political and military assets for maximum effect. The preemptive strategy advocated by neoconservatives provides an offensive option and accepts the reality that globalization alone cannot guarantee peace against spoilers. But this approach also displays the limits of military power in facing terrorism, and Porch warned against having tactics drive strategy as they have done in Iraq, thereby slighting the importance of political objectives to winning wars. A foreign policy drawn from Thucydides’ Melian dialogue and its assumption that “your hatred is evidence of our power” cannot be sustained. Porch argued instead for political leadership to overcome differences in the West and prosecute the war on terrorism at all levels. Current disputes within the West are an intramural spat that pales in comparison to earlier conflicts during World War II and the Cold War, and leaders should aim at returning to the tradition that contains conflict within cooperation.

Jeremy Black from the University of Exeter and a Senior Fellow of FPRI addressed whether there is a Western way of war that provides a decisive advantage against other cultures and what the historical debate on the point means for public policy. The concept became popular after Victor Davis Hanson coined it, but history presents a different picture. Western countries vary in military organization and experience. One example is how societies vary dramatically in their reliance on volunteers against conscription. Another lies in the balance in force structure between armies and navies. Black stressed the military’s role as the ultimate arm of state authority, noting that conflict within states is as important as conflict between them. The diversity of Western (and non-Western) military experience brings a variety of perspectives on war that must be reconciled for effective cooperation. Missions define forces, and since different missions follow from the priorities of governments the real gap involves politics rather than weapons or doctrines. Bridging the gap requires political skill, and Black noted the alliances are dynamic entitles with tensions that vary according to circumstances. He ended with the fact that the British and French — Europe’s leading military powers — are closer in operational doctrine and training to the United States today than in the late 1940s and political difference within the West less acute.

James Kurth of Swarthmore College and co-chair of FPRI ‘s Center for the Study of America and the West agreed with Porch and Black, offering further thoughts on Western military policy against terrorism. He contrasted the way in which the Western alliance operated since 1949 with the Iraq war. NATO involved a division of labor, with the United States providing advanced weapons and mobile forces alongside numerically larger European forces structured primarily for territorial defense. This relationship worked with some modification in the Balkans during the 1990s and Afghanistan after 2001, but European governments and public opinion rejected American plans for Iraq. European support for intervention required that a policy advance European, not only American, national interests. Instead of what Kurth dubbed the Western alliance way of war typified by NATO, the Iraq War brought a reduction in mass of the army with a greater reliance on technology and mobility. Reduction in mass leaves the army less reliant on mobilized public support. Kurth argued that this will lead the United States toward an older British model of colonial wars using local auxiliaries to perform constabulary and counter-insurgency duties alongside smaller, highly professional American forces. Adopting such an approach to overseas intervention, however, will draw the United States and Britain away from their European allies and create tensions within the West.

The final session explored the prospects for security cooperation. Yves Boyer from the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research pointed out that the existential threat of Soviet totalitarianism compelled the United States and Western Europe to pool their strengths, and America’s advantage in many spheres made it the leader of the West. The Soviet collapse, however, has prompted reassessment on both sides of the Atlantic. Different threat perceptions after the Cold War brought varying policies, and agreement within the West is no longer assured, especially on issues in the Middle East. Boyer outlined the development of a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) and its implications for Western security cooperation. Where NATO is an alliance AMONG independent states, ESDP establishes common policies and institutions for the European Union. ESDP has made great strides, but Boyer notes that its development has reached a plateau that forces reassessment.

If ESDP is merely an adjunct to NATO and limited to the so-called Petersburg Tasks of peacekeeping, then sufficient progress has been made. But if it aims to give Europe military weight corresponding to its wealth and political significance, then the European Union must enter the real business of a military build-up for this to succeed. Heterogeneity must be reconciled with efficiency. Boyer noted that Europeans also need to match American technological initiatives so that their forces can operate alongside those of the United States.

Geoffrey Wawro of the U.S. Naval War College examined how the war on terrorism has involved security cooperation despite severe disagreement over Iraq. Western security policy now means counter-terrorism and stricter controls over weapons of mass destruction. Few would question those objectives, whatever differences they might have over the means of accomplishing them. Private cooperation, as where French intelligence revealed a hijacking plot in Bolivia, plays a greater role than indicated by public tensions. Wawro argued that the real difference lies in disagreement over the American policy of preemption and the capabilities gap that lies behind it. While the Bush administration reserves preemption as an option, its European allies view the policy as bellicose and counterproductive. Wawro claimed that preemption in Iraq has brought changes in Syria and Libya, along with greater cooperation from Saudi Arabia in disrupting terrorism, but it has also created unrest in Iraq that shapes debate on security policy within the West. The United States and its allies are trying to adapt their forces to new threats, but low defense spending in Europe and priorities left from the Cold War have impeded the transition. Budget cuts in Europe, Canada, and Australia threaten to erode present capabilities to project power decisively overseas, though Wawro also noted efforts to develop forces tailored to the new post-Cold War security environment. Lack of a European consensus on foreign policy or public support for military spending sets the political framework for such initiatives. These are likely to proceed on an ad hoc basis at the national level rather than through ESDP.

Barry Lowenkron of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff concluded the conference, noting that a decade of drift followed the end of the Cold War as both Europeans and Americans thought the big problems of foreign policy had been solved. Crafting a common security policy is difficult, but it can be done. Differences within Europe and the need for both the United States and its allies to be clear on objectives are part of the challenge. Lowenkron urged an emphasis on practical solutions that avoid theoretical debates about the principles of multilateralism and power politics. Both sides of the Western alliance need to avoid lapsing into caricatures that impede relations. Lowenkron offered specific recommendations, including keeping NATO engaged as a vehicle for US-European cooperation, continued cooperation with terrorism and proliferation issues, deepening American engagement with the European Union, and joint efforts to promote reform in the Middle East. He concluded that the fundamental question for Western security involves not different cultures or competing institutions, but the commonality of strategic interests.

Originally published in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s WATCH ON THE WEST,, Volume 5, Number 2, May 2004.Republished by permission of FPRI, e-mail

William Anthony Hay, Ph.D., is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of America and the West and assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University. His article “Reading the Past into American Foreign Policy” appears in the Spring 2004 issue of Orbis.

Comments are closed.