Redefining the West

Comments by Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about the superiority of Western Christian civilization over Islam has inflamed opinion around the globe. Here Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic and a noted playwright, attempts to clarify what Western civilization now stands for.

PRAGUE - What does the term “the West” mean? First, it is a geographically delimited territory that can be described as the Euro-Atlantic or Euro-American region. However, it is of equal, if not greater, importance to define the West in terms of its values and culture. The West has had, in essence, a shared political and economic history emanating from a common set of spiritual sources. For many centuries the character of its civilization and its inner ethos equipped it to exert a major influence on other regions and eventually to determine disproportionately the current shape of our entire global order.

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To be sure, it is now recognized that the West exported to the rest of the world not only many wonderful accomplishments but also less praiseworthy values, resulting in the forcible liquidation of other cultures, suppression of other religions, and fetishism of incessant economic expansion regardless of its qualitative effects. However, the key factor in the present circumstances – particularly for us in what was until recently considered the East – is that the West has also deepened and propagated fundamental principles such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, a democratic political system, and economic freedom. While many other countries now also profess these values, they belong to other geographical areas and therefore – if only for this purely external reason – cannot be considered part of the West.

Yet, as a citizen of a European postcommunist country, I must admit that when I listen to the mantra-like claims about our Western affiliation, the Western direction of our policies, and the obligation of Western organizations, such as NATO and the EU, to offer us speedy admission, I often feel somewhat uncomfortable. There is an implied tone underlying this rhetoric that I find disturbing.

My unease lies in an unacknowledged judgment that partly defines the terms “West” and “East” – at least in our postcommunist environment. Soviet rule, in both the USSR and its European satellites, was characterized by spiritual and physical oppression, callousness, ignorance, empty monumentalism and a general state of backwardness, boastfully presented as progress. These traits contrasted so manifestly with the culture and prosperity of the democratic West that it inevitably led us to perceive the West as good and the East as evil. The term “West” thus became, both unwittingly and knowingly, a synonym for advancement, culture, freedom and decency; “East,” on the other hand, was reduced to a synonym for underdevelopment, authoritarianism and omnipresent nonsense.

Needless to say, the end of the bipolar division of the world and the progress of our civilization along the course that we now call globalization urge us to engage in a radically new way of thinking about the future world order. Thus, the implicit perception of Western superiority and Eastern inferiority is untenable in the long run. No single geographical and cultural territory can be considered a priori better than any other once and for all, or as a matter of principle.

Indeed, I believe that “West” should gradually become a morally neutral word again. In the future, it should mean no more and no less than a clearly defined region of the contemporary world, one of the spheres of civilization that is characterized by a shared history, culture, scale of values, type of responsibility, as well as by its very own specific concerns. The same should also be true of the “East,” in spite of all the problems, obviously deep-rooted, that afflict it at present.

As long as the word “East” evokes a pejorative connotation, and the word “West” an affirmative one, it will be immensely difficult to build a new world order based on equality among the various regions. There is nothing wrong in being part of the West, nor is there any reason not to profess this affiliation.

On the other hand, being a Westerner or a Western country does not mean being a priori superior. The same should apply for all the other entities of today's world, and there is no reason to feel ashamed because of an affiliation to any of them. Respect for other identities, and a certainty that all are equal, must be concomitants of the effort to forge a world order based on genuine peace and partnership, an order emanating from a universally shared commitment to certain absolutely fundamental moral and political principles.

The time of the domination of the white man, the European, the American or the Christian over the entire globe is over. We are now entering a new era, and it is our duty to respect one another and to work together for the benefit of all.

Read more from our "Havel Lives" Focal Point.