Most of us were brought up seeing ourselves and our nation as members in good standing of this political, social, and economic entity we liked to call "the West." We formed the Western World.
It's over. We blew it.
Guardian columnist, Rafael Behr, writes that the West that won the cold war no longer exists.
The post-cold war realignment has now lasted almost as long as the confrontation itself. The Berlin Wall has now been down for longer than it was up. The period is politically definitive for those who grew up in it, and strangely remote to those who came after. The generation that occupies most positions of power in “western” countries has a crisp sense of what it means to be “the west”, but it is vaguer in their children and nebulous to their grandchildren.
The term can be very problematic. It is too often used to conflate democracy, civilisation and whiteness. But in the context of a strategic rivalry with Berlin as its epicentre, “the west” accurately described one side. So the label stuck.
But the lines are blurred by Polish and Hungarian membership of the EU. Their accession in 2004 was supposed to require the highest standards of political pluralism. The deal was liberal reform in exchange for promotion to the economic premier league. Transition was meant to be a one-way street. More established EU states are alarmed by easterners’ sliding back to bad habits.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s leader, now Austrian vice-chancellor, is not Eurosceptic in the style of Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage. He nonetheless leads a party with an aggressive fixation on Islam – but Austria is a “western” EU member, and that unofficial senior status seems to confer privileges in the club that survive having xenophobes in high office.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. The US president makes a parody of the idea of the west as a beacon of moral authority. It is true that his despotic urges are hemmed by law in a way that lesser countries might not manage. But it is some downgrade of the system to boast that it might withstand assault by a venal, nepotistic maniac. America used to aim higher than constitutional kleptocracy.
In such times it is easy to forget that the “western” model is still the best way to organise people into peaceful, prosperous societies. The benefits of liberal democracy are routinely taken for granted by people who live in one, but not by those who don’t. Millions vote with their feet, migrating across continents in search of a better life. That movement flatters the achievements of democratic societies, although our politics rarely casts it in those terms. It took a generation to get from the idealism of tearing down the wall to the backlash and pulling up the Brexit drawbridge.
Now, as illiberal forces arise in democracy’s heartlands, liberals find themselves frighteningly short of rhetorical tools to defend their cause. There is no eastern bloc peering enviously over our fences, testifying to the superiority of our methods. The fences are down, and those we once pitied are treated as interlopers, snaffling scarce resources. And while Britain, the US and western Europe are still among the richest places on Earth, millions who live there do not take it as a blessing. They feel insecure, disenfranchised, cheated.
We still produce the best TV and the softest toilet paper. But those weren’t ever irrefutable arguments for liberal democracy: they were advertisements for something called the west. And that product, sold on those terms, doesn’t exist any more.