In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden considers the expression "the West" and if it will soon be politically meaningless.
My father's generation used to talk about Britain and the empire, the United
States of America and Europe. They never talked about "the West" because such an
idea had no meaning.
The Americans had been isolationists ever since World War I and Europe was an alarming place containing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. There was nothing that bound "the West" together, so the expression wasn't used.
After World War II the powerful Soviet Union, surrounded by a buffer of Communist states that extended into the heart of Central Europe, seemed to threaten Western Europe. The NATO alliance was formed - with America as the principal member - to contain this threat.
The French voted on Sunday
We spoke of "the West" and the term meant something. All the countries of "the West" were united by a reaction against the possibility of Russian expansion. The latent differences between western countries were kept in check by the Soviet menace. Now the Soviet Union has gone. We still speak of "the West," but I think the expression will soon be politically meaningless.
Whether they had voted yes or no, the French referendum on the European
constitution brought to the fore the widening gap between Europe and America,
or as the French persist in saying "the Anglo-Saxons."
The French don't like Anglo-American style capitalism. Nor do they share American foreign policy aims. And they aren't alone in their beliefs. There's a kind of European social democracy that's quite separate in its objectives from American capitalism. Britain perches uneasily between these two models.
Years ago when I used to go to Konigswinter for Anglo-German political get-togethers, I remember having dinner with a German politician who's tongue had been
loosened by the wine. What he said wasn't foolish, but it was unusually frank.
He said: "Russia and America are both alien influences in Europe and eventually they'll both
withdraw from it. Then we can return to our historic destiny." Of course I was intrigued
to know what this historic destiny was and eventually he blurted it out.
It wasn't particularly shocking, it was that he wanted European political union to be close
and produce a state called Europe. What I hadn't realised was the sheer intensity of
this man's desire for it and his near hatred of the superpowers who he thought were
Today there's only one superpower - America. Perhaps the US deserves
much gratitude for what it's done to preserve European freedom. In practice it
doesn't get it. Its influence and culture are resented for reasons very close to those my
tipsy German friend gave me all those years ago.
There are deep-seated economic, political and cultural factors that are pushing
Europe and America apart. The first is romantic anti-capitalism. That socialism was,
for some people, a great romance, tends to be forgotten these days.
But I recall an extraordinary character named Konni Zilliacus. He was always being expelled, or about to be expelled, from the Labour Party. For a time he was the MP for Gorton in Manchester and, though I didn't share his views, I liked him.
He'd met Lenin and was forever wedded to a Socialist Utopia. One evening tears trickled down his cheeks as he explained to me the beautiful vision that American capitalism had destroyed.
"Nobody should want possessions," he said. "Whatever their faults, Lenin and Stalin never had any money. The Socialist dream was to produce a new man who loved society and was loved by society.
"Capitalism, in general, was no threat. It worked badly. But this Yankee capitalism has
corrupted everybody. People want cars, clothes and gadgets. America has destroyed
There can't be many socialist visionaries like Konni Zilliacus left. But there are
millions of Europeans who morally reject American materialism and blame it for the
faults in their society. That's divisive enough, but there's a second group that doesn't
want to belong to any West that includes America.
These are old-fashioned right-wingers who bear an ancient grudge. The reason for their hostility to America is that traditionally the US has disapproved of European imperialism. This was a great problem for Winston Churchill in President Roosevelt's later years, particularly at the Yalta conference with Stalin.
In the 1950's both France and Britain felt they had reason to be aggrieved by lack
of American support as they struggled with the last of their imperial problems. The Suez
adventure, which was a reckless attempt to combat the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel
Nasser, by a temporary alliance between Britain, France and Israel was wrecked by the
active disapproval of the USA.
The damage this did to relations with America was hastily covered up and a myth was invented to explain the breach. It was said that poor Anthony Eden was physically ill and wasn't thinking straight. The implication was that few other people fully supported the operation. This version of history is most unjust to Eden. Many notables were strongly opposed to Nasser, including Churchill and Labour's former foreign secretary, Herbert Morrison.
America's lack of sympathy towards the imperial problems of its allies has been
swept under the carpet as if everybody is somewhat ashamed of the subject. But it's
extremely important. Many people on the political right have never forgiven America.
Anthony Eden: Treated unjustly
While the Soviet Union was powerful, mostly they kept silent - though of course
President de Gaulle didn't. With the Soviet Union gone these right-wing critics see no
reason to support America in anything it does. They are, for instance, virulently opposed
to the current campaign in Iraq.
Americans aren't noted for their ability to turn the other cheek. Angry at European
criticism and, as they see it, ingratitude, they've been hitting back sharply. A friend of
mine, a former Senator - and by the way a Democrat, not a Republican supporter of
President Bush - said to me "I don't ever again expect to see the French or the Germans
pointing their guns in the same direction we're pointing ours. They're petty, they're
envious and in their guts they hate us."
This disturbing indication that "the West" is breaking-up is reinforced by a growing cultural difference between America and Europe. Some American commentators note, with something close to contempt, that Western Europeans aren't replenishing themselves because of their low birth-rates. They fasten on to predictions that Holland will become a majority Muslim country within a few decades and they tie this to the general disapproval of American policy in the Middle East.
Then another cultural factor is thrown into the mix. Europe is secular and lacking in Christian religious faith compared to the American heartlands. A picture is painted of decadent European societies without religious belief and without purpose. According to some American pundits these societies are selfish pessimistic and cowardly, with most of the dirty jobs being done by vigorous Islamic immigrants, who despise their hosts as much as their hosts secretly fear them.
I don't believe "the West" of the Cold War can be reconstituted. Too much has
changed. So I can see that some loosening of the more irksome ties, for instance within
NATO, between America and what Mr Rumsfeld calls "old" Europe might be in the
best interests of both.
It's harder to see the logic of an open breach. In the first place, there are many Americans closer to the social democratic European view than that of their own government. Similarly, some Europeans are admirers of the dynamic nature of Anglo-American capitalism.
As a political idea "the West" is obsolete. But there's a reason for avoiding a
quarrel. We've all got enough on our plate. We have the debt burden, the effects of
globalisation and our intellectual uncertainty about what to do for the best. It's not a
good time to pick a fight.
I think Brian will find that his father's generation didn't talk about 'Europe' either. It was always 'the Continent' - another phrase that's become redundant.
Malcolm Bailey, England
I think the term 'west' will not be meaningless for the many Islamists who equate the 'west' with anything that carries an American trademark. Though the term was coined to represent the coalition of states against the Soviet expansion, it has taken root in Islamic societies that are not going to be plugged out so easily. For many Muslims, in a third world country like Pakistan, 'The west' means any or all countries that side and support the American agenda of exporting an 'American democracy'.
In the absence of Soviet Union in a uni-polar world of American imperialism, the historical meaning of the 'west' may become meaningless, but the metamorphosis that it has undergone in Islamic societies in the 21st century, will not whither away, at least for the coming few decades.
Gulab Khan, Pakistan
The Suez crisis comes more and more to appear one of the critical turning points in US-European relations. Not only because it marked the point at which France and Britain had to acknowledge the limitations of their power, but it was also a wound in Anglo-French relations which festered on throughout the early years of the European Union preventing Britain and France from ever reaching a trustworthy political understanding. This was caused by Britain backing out of the Suez adventure before notifying the French in order to salvage its relationship with the US. The UK acted treacherously in dipping out without telling their French allies. The French did not forget. And the US managed to achieve a crucial double whammy: blocking French and UK determination, and preventing any serious alliance materialising between the two countries in the future.
Jeremy Fleming, Belgium
I would disagree with the closing statement. With so much tension, it is exactly the right time to pick a fight. It is only by Europe as a whole standing up to the Americans and saying "your way is not our way", that Europe can move on from the millennia of quarrelling and move forward. The point was made that 'the west' was created to oppose a common foe, Stalinism. Make the common foe the mindless greed at the heart of American thinking and unite Europe so that it can solve its problems in peace. Be that a European State or not, it would be our culture and our choice.
Jaye Foster, UK
It will be intresting to see of the importance of the term "the west" re-emerges as China builds towards to superpower status and once more we will be told that there is something to fear in "the east"
Brian Walden as usual, offers an accurate laterally formulated view of this very complex situation. Sadly, very few politicians and other opinion-formers think laterally or have any sense of historical perspective. As an immigrant from Central Europe who has chosen to live here and has done since 1947, I watch the deteriorating situation with dismay.
Kate Catleugh, UK
"Anglo-Saxon" capitalism seems to be taking the blame for global capitalism. The sad fact is that the Franco-German model of a society with a high social wage is profoundly uncompetitive in the 21st Century. The threat comes from neither Britain nor America, but from the rapidly industrialising South East Asia and South America; and it threatens the "Anglo-Saxon" standard of living almost as much as the Continental one.
This is a much more serious threat to our well being than Iraq or Al-Qaeda. We in the West would do well to face up to this challenge and develop a response to it. A common response to the artificially skewed exchange rates of the pound, euro & dollar with the Chinese yuan might be a start - then the Chinese would have to charge the true rates for their labour instead of £1.50 a day.
This article just about sums up my thought, I have long felt it to be time for America and Europe to part company, America's attitude towards Europe has never been one of mutual interest but rather of gaining political and economic influence. The final straw for me was the American hostile intervention in Suez, yet I noted she was happy to do the same in Panama. With a friend and ally like America, who needs enemies?
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