Bret Stephens thinks Western societies lack the “civilizational self-belief” that others have:
Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.
The West? Not so much.
Stephens complains that nations all over the world wanted to join “the West” twenty-five years ago, but that today this is not happening. Two obvious responses come to mind. First, Western leaders have done a particularly poor job in the last twenty-five years with commensurate results, so there is less interest in imitating a “civilization” that doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Second, if other nations are not as interested in Westernization as they once were (assuming they ever were), but are instead looking to their own histories and traditions for models, that is to be expected and doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about us.
This bit seemed especially odd:
Russia took itself off the Westernization track shortly after the turn of the century. Turkey followed a few years later. Thailand is on its way to becoming a version of what Myanmar had been up until a few years ago, while Malaysia is floating into China’s orbit. Ditto for the Philippines. Mexico may soon follow a similar trajectory if the Trump administration continues to pursue its bad-neighbor policy, and if a Chavista-like figure such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador comes to power in next year’s presidential election.
Here we can see clearly that Stephens’ problem here has nothing to do with lack of Western “self-belief,” and it has everything to do with changing internal politics of other countries and perceived drift of some states into the orbit of another major power. Russia “took itself off the Westernization track” to the extent that it did in no small part because many Russians found the experience of Westernization in the ’90s to be painful and humiliating, and not because we didn’t have enough “self-belief.” On the contrary, one might argue that for most of the last twenty-five years that many Westerners have been obnoxiously overconfident in the promotion of their political and economic systems and this has generated a reaction in the opposite direction in many places. Regardless, the political changes mentioned here are driven almost entirely by local factors that are beyond our control, and won’t be fixed by becoming more confident in the merits of our “civilization” (whatever that might mean in practice).
Is Mexico any more or less “Western” depending on which party its voters choose? If so, the definition is flawed, or it is such a superficial political definition that it doesn’t mean very much. Maybe Malaysia is “floating into China’s orbit,” or maybe it isn’t, but at what point was authoritarian Malaysia ever meaningfully part of “the West” in any case? As for the Philippines drawing closer to China, why isn’t that considered a normal development instead of a cause for alarm?
Except as a category for organizing different areas and periods of history, “civilization” is not a terribly useful unit of analysis. When those lines are drawn, they are almost always done after the fact and they are drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Few consider the inheritors of Byzantium to be traditionally part of “the West” despite the fact that they share the same legacy of Greece, Rome, and ancient Christianity, and they have almost always been defined as part of some other “civilization” opposed to “the West.” In modern times, “the West” has often been even more narrowly defined to exclude nations that objectively share the same intellectual and religious heritage for contemporary political reasons. Stephens’ column unintentionally confirms exactly that.
The appeal to studying Western Civ is fine, and I did just that in college, but anyone that has carefully studied that history will know that the definition and values of “the West” have not been constants across centuries, nor have the boundaries of “the West” remained the same. The point is that there isn’t and hasn’t been a single “West” and people that belong to it have quarreled among themselves over its definition throughout our history, and I assume they will continue to do so. Indeed, Stephens’ main problem is that many people in Western countries are no longer buying into the ideological definition of “the West” that he favors. Frankly, that doesn’t seem like a problem that needs to be solved.