It’s time to take the idea of the West back from the populists
The current wave of populism in the United States and Europe is often equated with mere nationalism. Populists from Marine Le Pen to President Trump claim to uphold the nation and its people against elites besotted by international, transnational and supranational commitments. Hence the need “to put America first” or to declare, as Le Pen’s supporters were urged to do, that it is the French who are properly at home in France.
Hidden within this populist-nationalist wave, however, is a curiously nonnational affiliation. It is with “Western civilization,” a Cold War rallying cry that had faded away in the 1990s. During the Cold War, “the West” was a ubiquitous phrase, signifying everything from NATO to the Enlightenment, from the Christian faith to the free market. The West was all that the Soviet East was not.
For Le Pen, Trump, Viktor Orban and their fellow travelers, the West is narrower and thinner. Theirs is the West of counterterrorist anxiety and therefore a West that must be saved from the wrong kinds of immigration — as well as from post-national elites. The populists’ West is deliberately exclusionary, marking the border between Islam and Christendom and describing a European inheritance that approximates European descent. It is tacitly — or not so tacitly — a white West.
It is also a West no longer synonymous with NATO, which in Turkey included a majority-Muslim, non-European Middle Eastern state from the outset. In fact, with its weakness for humanitarian intervention, NATO may be part of the globalist problem for a president who is conspicuously reserved about the responsibilities this alliance imposes. Vladimir Putin’s Russia – a European state that affirms ethnos, nation and church – might be a better object of populist emulation than multinational NATO, not to mention the European Union. Whether of the West or not, Putin demonstrates, for some, how a West that has forgotten its identity might rise up and assert itself once again.