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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007, 12:20 GMT
Does 'the West' still exist?
By Bridget Kendall
BBC News, Washington

Sculpture of Nato logo at organisation's Brussels HQ
The US and Western Europe forged the Nato alliance in 1949
With the Cold War no longer defining East and West, a US conference invited delegates from both sides of the Atlantic to try to define the shape of the new world order.

Does the West still exist? And if so, where does it begin and end?

A scene coalesces in my mind of fir trees laden with snow, glimpsed through a grimy train window. It is November 1976. Our train from Berlin to Moscow has pulled into a siding. Shadowy figures crunch along the tracks.

The wheels grate in the hollow frosty air. This is the Polish-Soviet border, where they change the wheels to a wider gauge, to protect Soviet lands from Western invasion. A potent symbol of the 20th century East-West divide.

Outdated concept

But these days, despite veiled threats from the Kremlin, the old definitions will not do anymore. The world is in a state of flux, with muddled divisions between foes and allies.

Seen through American eyes, it seemed the era of fixed alliances was over. From now on the United States would pick and mix
"The Cold War alliance was a golden era," observed one former diplomat shaking his head ruefully. "What we have got now is much harder, the uncertainty of grey."

He was speaking at a recent conference in Washington that brought together eminent policy makers and academics from both the United States and Europe. Their task was to explore how much the US and Europe still have in common.

And discussion had not gone very far before the prevailing American view was dumped into the European collective lap like a bucket of cold water.

"The West is an outdated concept," declared one supremely self-confident senior American official at a dinner where he was the guest of honour.

"And if there is still a West, then it includes Australia, Japan and South Korea. We have a global vision now," he continued, waving his mike like a daytime talk show host, as he roved between the immaculately set dinner tables.

The European guests, several ambassadors among them, toyed uncomfortably with their cutlery.

This did not sound much like American contrition following a ruinous Iraq invasion. Far from it.

Loose commitments

Flags outside the European Parliament on 14 March 2007
The EU is set to mark 50 years since the founding Treaty of Rome
We learnt that Europe was no longer central to American interests. The once turbulent Balkans were no longer a worry. Russia was weaker than it pretended.

And what mattered now were Middle East threats, and the opportunities offered by the emerging Asian giants, China and India.

Seen through American eyes, it seemed the era of fixed alliances was over. From now on the United States would pick and mix. Sometimes partners would be Europeans, sometimes Japanese, Indian or even Chinese.

The name of the game would be selective and loose commitments: "Like an open marriage," said one former US official, eyeing the audience playfully.

Some of the Europeans shuffled uneasily in their seats.

"What rubbish," muttered one to me, snapping shut her notebook as we filed out for a coffee break.

"In my experience an open marriage tends to work only for one side," ventured another, a British academic, "and I suspect it is the Americans who will benefit."

It is hard to see the United States and Europe agreeing on what is the right approach to counter the great problem of our age, international terrorism
To be fair, some of the Americans did admit mistakes and acknowledge policy adjustments. One official talked about Iraq: "There is a recognition you cannot kill or capture your way to victory," he said.

Another mused aloud about whether Iran could be coaxed into negotiations. "We did it with North Korea," he said, "and we've got time. Conflict with Iran is not inevitable."

But neither gave up America's right to go it alone and use military muscle to intervene when it suited them.

It was clear the "war on terrorism" is still just that, a war with an external enemy, to be vanquished at any price.

So different from the view in Europe, where terrorism can be home-grown, and if you use force too recklessly, you risk converting new recruits to the terrorist cause.

Transatlantic split

"Just cut us some slack," shot back the US official addressing the dinner when one former general rose to his feet to suggest that holding prisoners for years in Guantanamo Bay, or using secret CIA jails to extract intelligence might be counterproductive. "We are dealing with a different kind of insurgency here," said the American testily, "and we need to win."

"I was trying to be helpful," said the old soldier with studied politeness. "If you would agree, instead of trying to justify the unjustifiable, the US would be a better place."

A moment of icy tension that revealed a gaping transatlantic split.

So is the West still alive and kicking?

I am afraid as I got on my plane back to London, I was not that optimistic. For all the shared history, and the need to pull together against dangers like global warming, it is hard to see the United States and Europe agreeing on what is the right approach to counter the great problem of our age, international terrorism.

Not when the US sees a weak and divided Europe that cannot even decide on internal reforms, or what its future shape should be.

But there is one thing that the United States should not ignore.

President Bush may have failed in his plan to democratise the greater Middle East. But using democracy to stabilise its neighbours is one area where Europe can boast a rather remarkable achievement.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 March 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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