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Institutional Complexity of the West

The institutional structure of Western societies was projected on the world scale in the design and development of international institutions after World War II. In fact, the war’s conflicts were not yet over when a majority of the world’s independent states (at least those who were explicitly anti–Fascist) assembled in San Francisco to form the United Nations. The institution closely reflected the new West: it was dominated by a single state—the United States; placed great emphasis on ensuring the stability of existing states, not least by enshrining the 1945 balance of power with the establishment of the Security Council’s “permanent five” members (United States, China, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain); accepted the de facto division of West and East; and most important, accepted and strengthened the idea that the victorious Western powers had a responsibility and a right to mold the global system.24 The same perspective was applied by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and indeed, all major international institutions. In other words, all “global” institutions—political, economic, social, and cultural—would be Western–dominated, with a subservient yet substantial role usually reserved for the large Eastern powers (the Soviet Union and China).

Several trends have since undermined this structure: the economic recoveries of Germany and Japan; the shrinking percentage of the world’s population living in the West; the West’s disproportionate use of, and dependence on, petroleum; and the breakup of European empires, including the Soviet Union. The international architecture of the late 1940s has not always adjusted well to these trends. Nonetheless, the “international community” in its varied institutional expressions is still largely Western–dominated, due in part to Western leadership of international intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.

The institutional West is not, however, as monolithic as it sometimes appears to be. As discussed, there are many significant differences between the United States and the rest of the West; between the English–speaking countries and continental Europe; and between Eastern and Western Europe. One can speak, for example, of a European social model that is increasingly distinct from the American. The European model—with its emphasis on the mutual obligations of citizens and the state, and the attendant right of the state to make fiscal and other claims on its subjects—is quite unlike the American model, where the emphasis is on freedom from governmental interference.

Likewise, differences exist between European and American beliefs on the rule of law. In the course of unification, Europe has developed an extensive set of regulations and laws, “right down to beer and sausages,” as Robert Cooper—a British Foreign Office senior civil servant and a chief security–policy planner for the European Union—notes in his reflections on “postmodern states”:

No one compels [European] states to obey the rules of the CFE Treaty or to pay fines imposed on them by the European Court of Justice. They do so because of their interest as individual states in making the collective system work and, within the European Union, because all have an interest in maintaining the rule of EU law . . . [Europe], perhaps for the first time in 300 years, is no longer a zone of competing truths. The end of the Cold War has brought with it something like a common set of values. 25

Americans tend to place their arrival at a common set of values much earlier than the end of the cold war—rather, at the moment when the Constitution was written. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are seen by most Americans as the basis for the legal order and, in many ways, the social order. The law rests on a conception of individual freedom that focuses on limiting the powers of the state, not on defining the activities of the individual.26

European and American attitudes toward secular values and human rights are also different in some aspects. Europeans remain much more positive than Americans about legislating and enforcing a rather complex set of human rights norms (the core human rights treaties and their annexes run to hundreds of pages). Expansive European thinking about the future has begun to take the form of a growing European community of values. This is no longer commonly seen as a Western project, or even a Euro–American one, but more as a European effort to lead an “international community” different from, and in some ways against, the American–led contingent.

The Western media similarly reflect both Western dominance and significant differences within the West. To the degree that a “global culture” exists, it is transmitted by Western–dominated means and reflects Western values. Yet until approximately 30 years ago, European newspapers tended to be affiliated with one or another political party, while radio and television were primarily government–run. Over the past 30 years, however, European governments have either privatized media interests or allowed private companies increasing control of the airwaves.

The American media present a more complex picture. In the postwar period, American newspapers, radio, and television were privately owned, and, by contrast, strove on the whole for nonpartisan objectivity. The general trend is still toward consolidation of ownership—though somewhat in contrast to European ownership, U.S. companies have consolidated across media as well as within a particular medium, especially since the Internet boom of the late ’90s. For instance, CNN is not just the dominant global news network; it is part of a still larger company, Time Warner, which owns print media, film, Internet, and television production companies. The result, in terms of who speaks for the West, is that a few companies dominate the debate, offering a glut of news and cultural information, some of it balanced and comprehensive, and some of it myopic and poorly informed. Since September 11, in particular, some of the more “patriotic” popular media have presented foreign news as a contest of Friends versus Enemies.

The intensity of the Western engagement with radical Islam after September 11 has also led to the amplification of some extremist voices and a willingness among the public to listen to extreme statements about Islam and the Muslim world in both Europe and the United States. Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Brigitte Bardot and Michel Houllebecq in France, Melanie Phillips in Britain, Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter in the United States, and many others have exacerbated, in popular language, the idea of a clash of civilizations, with Islam on one side and the West on the other.27 Such exploitation of an alleged Islamic–Western cultural divide has had its counterpart in occasional remarks by Christian leaders like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham.28 It has also received some intellectual validation in works by such scholars as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.29

Beyond the media and popular culture, the role of scholars and intellectuals in speaking for the West varies greatly. On the European continent, particularly in France and most of the Eastern/Central European countries, the influence of public intellectuals is considerable, whether as commentators or policy advisers. By contrast, in Britain, and still more so in the United States, even the most influential and visible intellectuals are largely excluded from policy making. In addition, the American practice of rotating hundreds of positions with each new presidential administration means that a wholly different team regularly replaces not only politicians but policy advisers, academic experts, and mid–level State Department and other planners. This practice contrasts quite sharply with the European pattern, whereby public intellectuals and accredited experts often retain their connections to policy making, and to the fashioning of the nation’s image, for decades at a time.

In the United States there is, however, also an intellectual community poised between the traditional academy and the media, namely the various councils and institutions grouped under the term “think tanks.” The policy intellectuals in this arena can have considerable influence over government.30 Think tanks cover the entire political spectrum and often provide a home for government policymakers when their party is out of power or their point of view has fallen from favor. These institutions overlap with influential magazines like the Weekly Standard and the New Republic; they also provide many of the “experts” called on by television producers and opinion–page editors to offer commentary on current events.

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© 2014, The Center for Dialogues: Islamic World - U.S. - The West

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