What exactly is the West?


PARIS — Everyone everywhere has by now heard about the “clash of civilizations.” This Samuel Huntington concept has become universal. In the 1950s, French economist Alfred Sauvy had a comparable success with the expression “Third World.” One reason these phrases gain wide acceptance is their lack of clear definition. The “clash of civilizations,” basically the West against the rest, is supposed to describe the world as it is. In reality, the West is vague enough to include a vast array of areas without describing their unifying characteristics.

So what exactly is West? What does Westernization mean?

Why is Japan considered Western and China not? Where does Shanghai stand? Is Russia part of the West?

From these uncertainties, we can conclude that the West is not a geographic entity. It probably first established itself as a mind set when the Greeks, 25 centuries ago, perceived themselves as Western versus the Oriental Persians. Since the West has lost any clear territorial basis since then, the phrase “the West” has become a universal not a local notion.

To be Western or Westernized, above all, is a mind set that does not coincide with any continent, nor with any specific nation or religion. Huntington’s mistake, it seems, was to contain the West inside national borders.

There is no map of the West. No map can work when some Asian nations are Western (Japan, Taiwan), when non-Western groups (Muslims in Europe) live in supposedly Western countries, when some Eastern countries are partially Westernized and some Western countries (Russia) are not fully Westernized.

Eventually it looks easier to define the mental borders of the West than its territorial borders.

I believe that the West is a mind set defined by three fundamental traits that cannot easily be found in the so-called Eastern civilizations: a passion for innovation, a capacity for self-criticism and gender equality.

“What is new?” — a personal greeting since the Hellenistic age — captures the essence of the Western mind. The non-Westerner, however, would rather place tradition above innovation. But innovation as a fundamental value explains the scientific breakthroughs of the West versus the East. It explains unavoidable conflicts with conservative non-Western societies and it also explains what we should call “the Westernization of the West.”

The West keeps destroying its own traditions, including its religions. Economist Joseph Schumpeter defined this process as one of “creative destruction.” The term could be applied to all walks of life in the West. Western conservatives are no less prone to creative destruction than Western liberals: Conservatives, indeed, are well known for inventing traditions. Take 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who invented most of the supposedly ancient traditions around the British monarchy. Innovation in the West seems to be a never-ending, self-transforming process.

Self-criticism, even more than innovation, is a defining characteristic of the West. In most if not all non-Western civilizations, pride and self love exclude self-criticism or at least the criticism of one’s civilization as such. A true Muslim or Chinese scholar cannot be defined as a true Chinese or a true Muslim by being critical of his own world. Not so in the West.

The Western scholar remains perfectly legitimate when putting to death Western values: there is no Chinese or Muslim Nietzsche claiming that his own God is dead. Is there a Chinese or a Muslim Montaigne ready to write that the “Indian savages” may be wiser than us, as Montaigne did in 16th-century France?

Of course there must be some Chinese or Muslim Montaigne or Nietzsche, but they would not be considered beacons of their civilizations. Self-criticism, not self-love, and cultural relativism are the nuts and bolts of the Western mind set.

The same goes with gender equality. This has not always been so. In the ancient Greek, Jewish and Christian religions, women were perceived as inferior to men. But this notion has been contentious in the West for centuries. Nowadays, gender equality has become the norm.

This is not the case in most non-Western civilizations.

Some would argue that gender equality is a consequence of the modernization process, not of Westernization. This may be true, but the status of women is clearly one issue that puts non-Western Muslims into opposition to the West.

If we accept the above definition of the West as a mind set, this leaves open three major questions: can the East be modernized without being Westernized? Where do we draw the line between West and East? Will the West remain Western?

So far, there is no case in history of non-Western modernization; the discourse on Asian values, initially started in Singapore, is basically a political discourse.

It is after retooling their mind set toward innovation and self-criticism that Asian countries have become modern.

This does not make them less Asian. Contemporary Koreans or Japanese remain fully Korean or Japanese but are closer to a Westerner than they would be to their own ancestors.

Similarly, a modern Egyptian or a modern Saudi will be more on par with a French or an American than they would be with an ancient Arab.

Does this Westernization make the Egyptian or the Saudi less authentic Arabs? Such a debate does take place within all Eastern societies, which leads us to the real clash of civilizations: All societies today are fragmented between Westernizers and non-Westernizers. This clash within civilizations on what modernization means is more significant than Huntington’s alleged conflict between geographical entities.

The controversy on the essential meaning of modernization, also known as an identity crisis, does impact Western countries as well. Vast groups who live in the West, Western and non-Western fundamentalists, fight the unending Westernization process in the name of tradition.

Many would like to stop the engine by using various guises like ecology or identity, but a Western society where you could not start your day by asking “What’s new?” would not be Western any more.

Guy Sorman, a French philosopher and economist, is the author of “Empire of Lies.” © 2008 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences. www.project-syndicate.org