The meaning of the West is today, more than ever, flexible and contested, and any effort to speak to the West must recognize the complexity and diversity of those who speak for the West. For peoples or individuals who believe strongly in cultural essences, the elusiveness of the West can be maddening; however, to react to this elusiveness by denying it, or by imposing an order that isn’t there, would be to move from confusion to error.
The nature of the West has always been changing, and it is clear that the post–cold war period is one of particular flux and unpredictability. The breakdown in transatlantic relations since late 2001 caught most Western decision makers by surprise, and it is not at all clear how profound and long–lived this rift will prove to be. Certainly it is more than merely a momentary disagreement about policy toward Iraq or terrorism. It reflects the different military and economic capabilities of the two constituent parts of the “West,” but it also reflects very different post–World War II histories. In the second half of the 20th century, Europe and the United States absorbed and assimilated immigrants from around the world in very different ways, and those differences are reflected in divergences in both domestic and foreign policy.
Similarly, the increasing importance of religious observance and “faith–based” policy and politics in the United States (and perhaps with the new Pope Benedict XVI in Europe as well) represents a challenge to conventional interpretations of the modern Western political landscape. Despite assertions that the rise in public religious commitment in the United States is tolerant and ecumenical—that is, that Americans continue to prefer faith of any kind to atheist or irreligious principles—most religiously observant Americans are Christians, a fact that seemed to prove very important in the 2004 presidential election. In an essay published by the New York Times Book Review on September 18, 2005, American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., articulated this phenomenon:
The recent outburst of popular religiosity in the United States is a most dramatic and unforeseen development in American life. As Europe grows more secular, America grows more devout. George W. Bush is the most aggressively religious president Americans have ever had. American conservatives applaud his “faith–based” presidency, an office heretofore regarded as secular. The religious right has become a potent force in national politics. Evangelicals now outnumber mainline Protestants and crowd megachurches. Billy Graham attracts supplicants by the thousand in Sodom and Gomorrah, a.k.a. New York City. The Supreme Court broods over the placement of the Ten Commandments. Evangelicals take over the Air Force Academy, a government institution maintained by taxpayers’ dollars; the academy’s former superintendent says it will be six years before religious tolerance is restored. Mel Gibson’s movie “Passion of the Christ” draws nearly $400 million at the domestic box office.31
Whether this rise in religious sentiment will turn out to be inclusive and embrace American Jews, Muslims, and others, or divisive, pitting the American Christians against Americans of other faiths, let alone the rest of the world, may be among the most important issues in U.S. domestic politics in the coming years.
On the global scale, the extent to which international institutions born in 17th–century Western traditions of sovereignty and statehood, and designed by Western powers during the 20th century, can nevertheless manage to serve a genuinely international community is a matter of profound debate, as the heated negotiations of the United Nations 2005 World Summit demonstrated. Although they reflect Western interests and values both in their structural design and in the predominant roles assigned to Western powers, particularly the United States, these institutions are still seen by many as indispensable to peaceful resolution of conflict.
Finally, one cannot fail to note the self–questioning described earlier here that reverberates through the multiple layers and interstices of what is generally called the “West.” In many ways, this introspection echoes the search for a new identity and a new anchoring that is at work in another tradition—that which is generally called “Islam” by the West. Will these twin identity crises be exacerbated by the words and deeds of extremists in both camps and lead to a “clash of civilizations”? Or rather, will this reflection be channeled into more productive and peaceful endeavors and serve as the springboard for an “alliance of civilizations”?32These will be major questions for the future not only of the Western and Muslim worlds, but for the entire world in these times of nuclear, biological, and chemical arms proliferation.