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.

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.