The West is not only a word, but also an idea, and like any idea, it develops new connotations with time. In the eyes of its defenders, it can be equated with civilization and benign power; in the eyes of its adversaries, primarily in the East, it is synonymous with colonialism and unchecked brutality.
The recent seismic developments in international politics, particularly the war between Russia and Ukraine and the nascent crisis in the Strait of Taiwan, require a fresh look at the ‘West,’ not only as a historical term but also as a present and future concept.
The Idea of the West
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian and geographer, is commonly credited with coining the name “West” in the fifth century BCE. Geographical factors may have been primarily responsible for the origins of this term. In the eleventh century, however, the separation between the West and the East became definitively geopolitical, as the centre of power of the Catholic Church shifted eastward from Rome to Byzantium. The Catholic Church exemplified the West, while the Orthodox Church exemplified the East.
History, and its interpretations, are created by individuals, each with their own religious, patriotic, and regional prejudices, thus the truth is never so black and white. People who lived in the “East” obviously had no choice in the matter, just as people in the modern-day “Middle East,” for example, had little say in how the world’s geography was shaped to represent “regions of influence” and their proximity to the centres of Western empires, such as London, Paris, and so forth.
The West is not a physical location for those living in the ‘Global South,’ but rather an idea, and often a negative one. The West is often associated with negative connotations by those in the South, including political meddling, economic exploitation, and even military interventions.
Southern intellectuals frequently oscillate between the desire to “westernise” and their understandable aversion to the process. In nations like Nigeria, the debate frequently devolves into violence. The name of the terrorist organisation Boko Haram translates to something along the lines of “Western education is forbidden.”
Obviously, the concept of the West extends much beyond its geographical boundaries. The implication can give the impression of being entirely political at times. Even though their physical locations place them in the Oceania region of the world, countries such as Australia and New Zealand are considered to be part of the Western hemisphere.
Washington twisting of the idea of the West
To serve its own military goals, Washington has even redefined the West itself in the past. Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the newly integrated NATO countries of Eastern Europe who supported his country’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as “Old Europe” in January 2003.
The US was occasionally ready to reject the basic notion of the West and draw completely new geopolitical boundaries. Former US president George W. Bush had briefly left the West and entered completely new, unexplored geopolitical territory when he said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” before Congress in 2009.
However, this label did not survive long, as the “war on terror” was pushed aside in favour of more immediate challenges, such as China’s economic ascent and Russia’s expanding military might. In the eyes of Washington, West today means NATO and nothing else.
On August 9, US Vice President Joe Biden formally approved the US government’s decision to admit Finland and Sweden into NATO, a move that the US president had been eagerly anticipating.
“Our alliance is closer than ever. It is more united than ever and … we’ll be stronger than ever,” Biden declared.
Ironically, it was Washington that seemed to be conducting a political war on NATO only four years ago, with then-President Donald Trump warning allies of “severe consequences” if they did not increase spending.
The uneven impact of Russia-Ukraine crisis on the West
Although the US places an excessive premium on proximity, unity, and strength, not all Western NATO members share this optimism. The rifts between European nations, both western and eastern, continue to dominate the daily news. And while other Western economies are struggling, the war in Ukraine is directly benefiting US oil and arms exporters, who are generating enormous profits.
Germany, for instance, is predicted to have a recession in 2023 as a result of a 1% expected decline in its economy. With diesel and other fuel costs soaring, the energy crisis in Italy has gotten worse, negatively affecting significant sections of the Italian economy.
Other nations, particularly those in Eastern and Central Europe, such as Estonia and Lithuania, are expected to suffer worse outcomes than their Western and wealthier counterparts.
An evident reality that has the potential to reshape Western geopolitics is that not all Western countries are sharing the burden of the war or its exorbitant profits. However, regardless of the West’s trajectory, it is undeniable that the East is on the rise, a historic occurrence that has the potential to fortify an entirely new political geography and new alliances. The South may see this as their chance to break free of the West’s dominance once and for all.