Out of efforts to manage this divisiveness grew the modern secular state. Soon after it arose in Europe, it began to spread. The export of Western models of state organization took place mainly through the imperial expansion of Western powers, principally Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, beginning in the 15th century and accelerating as the notion of the modern state took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As a source of identity and as an extension of national territory, formal empire remained important—particularly for the Dutch, the British, and the French—until well after World War II. Indeed, partly because of the disasters of that war, the initial postwar response was to turn to empire as a kind of consolation, with the recovered territories in East Asia or the Middle East as a source of renewed standing and confidence for the European homeland. The final loss of empire was in turn felt very strongly in the Netherlands, rather less so in France and Britain, for reasons having to do with scale, but also with the alternative resources and stronger historical identity available to France and Britain. In Portugal and Spain, imperial decline worked very differently—it occurred over a longer period and, since these were not stable democracies, there was much less debate over the implications of decolonization.11
The American attitude toward imperialism has been quite distinct from that of its European precursors. By and large, Americans today do not see their country’s expansionist past in North America as imperial. In part because much of the expansion was associated with commercial projects—from the Louisiana Purchase to the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad and the sale by the state of land for agriculture—most Americans think of their nation’s push westward from the 13 original colonies as driven by material growth and justified by moral progress. They do not think of it as official, formal, political conquest, nor is it taught that way in American schools. The brief period of undiluted American imperialism in the Caribbean and the Philippines—at the turn of the 20th century—is seen as exceptional.
Moreover, today much of what people elsewhere may see as American imperialism— the nation’s dominant corporations, its ubiquitous cultural products, the outsized importance of its consumer market (and therefore of its tariff, tax, and trade policies)—is seen by most Americans as mere commerce or culture—not, in other words, as matters of power.12
In fact, this distinction between the role of the government, formal political institutions, and the rest of society—the private sector and civil society—is a crucial one in understanding how the West operates more generally. The government of the United States, or of any Western country, is but one of many voices seeming—and claiming—to speak for the West. Western societies are cacophonous, perhaps none more so than the United States itself. Western life in the post–World War II period has become thick with political and social opinion and the institutional structures to lend those opinions substance.
Institutionally, the contemporary West took shape during and immediately after World War II. Europe had exploded in violence twice in 30 years, at a cost of many millions dead. The world system had demonstrated its inability to prevent escalating destruction. Continental Fascism had additionally proved that the elimination of an entire people—European Jews—was technologically and politically feasible to a degree almost impossible to imagine. Similar levels of destruction, based on political leaning and class rather than racial or religious grounds, had occurred in the Soviet Union.
The West that grew out of this context had several new features. After 1945, state systems and borders in the major theatres of war were essentially frozen, regardless of whether the peoples affected found such a status quo desirable. The vanquished powers were thoroughly disarmed—permanently, as was generally expected in the cases of Germany and Japan. The victorious powers, above all the United States and the Soviet Union, emerged as the guarantors or enforcers of the new stability.
A second new feature of the West immediately after World War II was the dominance of a single state. As we have seen, the West had always been an arena of competitive states, and its most distinctive ideas—liberal pluralism and the indefinite management of conflict through balancing of powers—developed against that backdrop.13 Single–state dominance drastically altered the context of Western liberalism because it threatened the pluralism of Western state power.
A third new feature was that the dominant state was the United States, whereas the heart of Western civilization had been firmly in Western Europe until 1945. The war, and the decisive intervention by America, changed that dynamic. America’s goal, however, was not dominance in an imperial sense (or in a fascist sense). Rather, the United States believed its interventions in the world wars were unavoidable, the alternative being a German–dominated world.
A fourth development was that this new West faced a new East—the Eastern Bloc—one that had no significant connection with Islam and very little to do with the traditional East, in the sense of “Orient.” The wholesale takeover of the term “the East” by China, the Soviet Union, and the eastern tranche of Europe was entirely unprecedented.
The idealistic side of European imperialism was dismissed—even by most Westerners—over the course of the anti–imperialist independence struggles of the 20th century, in particular those of the period from 1945–1970 and as the cold war came to dominate international consciousness. The reappearance of a more or less “pro–imperial” position among influential Western commentators—European and American—after the end of the cold war and more so after September 11 was thus particularly striking. However, there is no popular pro–imperial movement in the United States or Britain or anywhere else in the West—unless strong belief in a forceful “international community” led by Western countries is itself Western imperialism.
With the end of the cold war, the values represented by the West were now perceived to be universal. This was the contention of the American political thinker Francis Fukuyama in his famous 1989 essay, “The End of History?”14 With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rejection of state socialism by popular movements in the Communist world, Fukuyama argued, the Western system had won and there was no longer any alternative or competitive model. Fukuyama’s analysis received considerable support at the time, even in Europe. The German sociologist and philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf, for example, argued in his 1990 article, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” that “the First and Second Worlds are being reunited into something which has no name yet, nor a number; perhaps it will just be the World.”15 Insofar as liberalism assumes pluralism, however, the notion of a single “world” with no future “history” revealed that a profoundly illiberal strain remained alive in the varied fabric of Western intellectual life. Soon, however, it seemed entirely possible that, far from embracing liberal democracy, much of the world would be consumed in conflicts of ethnicity, nationality, and religion. From 1989 to 1992, religion played an important role in conflicts across the Balkans and in the former Eastern Bloc (as in the impending division of Czechoslovakia, widespread persecution of Gypsies, and the threatening isolation of Russian communities in the Baltic States). Religion was becoming an increasingly divisive force around the world, whether connected to mainstream traditions (Christian terrorism in the United States, Muslim and Hindu conflicts over Kashmir, Sunni–Shi’a clashes in Pakistan, Muslim–Christian conflict in Nigeria and Sudan, and Jewish–Muslim battles in the Middle East) or local enthusiasms (the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, God’s Army of the Holy Mountain in Burma).
Looking back on this period, Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash has written, “Even at one minute past midnight on 1 January 1990 we already knew that this would be a formative decade in Europe. A 40–year–old European order had just collapsed with the Berlin Wall. Everything seemed possible. Everyone was hailing a ‘new Europe.’ But no one knew what it would look like.”16
After 1989, both the United States and Europe drifted away from “the West” as a security concept. Americans debated the purpose of foreign policy, oscillating between relatively modest and conservative definitions of U.S. national interests during the administration of George H.W. Bush to the more ambitious, if very different, idealisms of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “The United States recognizes that we have a special responsibility that goes along with being a great power,” the Clinton administration declared.
Our global interests and our historic ideals impel us to oppose those who would endanger the survival or well being of their peaceful neighbors . . . At the same time, this does not mean that we or the international community must tolerate gross violations of human rights within those borders . . . We will act with others when we can, but alone when we must.17
To what extent was this a “Western” foreign policy? There is no simple answer. The Clinton administration, particularly in its second term, was clearly at the head of what is called the “international community.” It had a sympathetic partner in the secretary–general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan; a broad acceptance among Europeans; and a sense for international structure, whether in managing globalization or advancing human rights, which marked it as enthusiastically cosmopolitan. The international community, however, is not avowedly Western, and to some degree marked itself off from the “West,” which for many in Clinton’s camp is tarred by association with imperialism, racism, and the enforcement of uneven economic development.18 At the same time, Clinton’s actual security policies allowed ample scope for unilateral American action.
In the last years of the Clinton administration, there emerged two additional schools of thought about American security policy: the core/periphery model and the imperial model. Both of these reflected a sort of geographical reorganization of the political–conceptual map of the world. The primary challenge to the West was no longer from the East but from the South, a region seen as less prosperous, less law–abiding, and more dangerous. The core/periphery model distinguished a core of nations—overlapping, to a great extent, with the old West— in which laws, free trade, and human rights formed something like a common patrimony. Within the core, there were no noneconomic rivalries and thus no serious security concerns. Outside this core was a world of conflict and even chaos, from which security threats emanated. The Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 essay, “The Clash of Civilizations,” advanced this model by arguing that the West—which he saw as Europe and the United States—was destined to clash with other “civilizations.” He argued that “Western concepts differ fundamentally from those prevalent in other civilizations,” listing those concepts as “individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state.”19 According to Huntington, these concepts “often have little resonance” outside the West and he advocated a Western security strategy aiming at “westernizing” Latin America; drawing a firm line between Western Europe and the Eastern Orthodox lands of the Slavs; maintaining overwhelming technological and military superiority; and forgoing futile interventions elsewhere. The belief in an enlightened Western cultural core facing a benighted periphery became more widespread over the course of the 1990s; it was used to justify inaction in the Balkans, for example.20
The imperial model was similar to the core/periphery theory in that it saw imperial rule as emanating from a Western, or formerly Western, core. The new imperialists, however, believed in action rather than isolation and took much of their energy from a view that the imposition of imperial rule was virtuous, that it ensured stability and development. The writer and former State Department policy planner Robert Kagan, together with William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, argued in 1996 for an American “benevolent hegemony”; by 1998, Kagan was maintaining that American dominance of the world constituted a “benevolent empire.”21 The term “imperial” had long been used to describe the United States by its critics; its use as a positive term was new. Its currency reflected the demise of a perhaps alien but predictable East and the rise of the often chaotic–seeming developing South as a security focus of the West.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s initial instincts as leader of the most powerful country in the world were isolationist. Although he shared a sense of the perils that the United States faced from the South, he spoke of a new “humility” in the use of American power and a retreat from the expansive engagement of the Clinton administration, in particular, its attempts at nation building. As president, Bush repudiated the Clinton administration’s commitment to the International Criminal Court, declared the Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty outdated, and withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, was dramatically more ambitious than its previous policies, and it reflected embrace of an assertive policy toward the South, particularly the Islamic South. That said, it did little to strengthen American ties to Western allies. As President Bush told Congress on September 20, “Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.”22 The grief and anger were international, as Bush noted in his speech, and the citizens of some 80 nations other than the United States were killed in the attacks. However, in security terms the counterattack (except for police and intelligence work, which proved critical) would be administered by the United States.
Was the United States, then, ending its security link to what had been the West? The idea of the West as a security concept certainly did appear to have been gravely weakened. To many observers the Bush administration seemed to be constructing an American empire, and that empire did not, on the whole, seem to connect America to the West as such.23