Political Essay

The West Is Not the World

May 14, 2021


There is an unseen connection between the social justice debates in Western societies and the fate of the West and the liberal international order. There has been much soul searching in the West about new challenges to global order and democratic decline globally and in the West. Western dominance is waning, and what will follow is unclear. At the same time, within Western countries, old orders and habits are also being challenged. Received histories and heroes are being reconsidered in a reckoning with the racial injustices that have been a central feature of European and US history. 

Western proponents of a rules-based, cooperative order—in order to further it—need to learn from domestic debates and better understand how history and the West’s liberal rhetoric is viewed by others. The liberal order and rhetoric of freedom and equality long co-existed with blatant betrayal by the West of “Western” values. A more honest evaluation of the West’s sins and failings will help policymakers find the right balance between confidence and humility. A new equilibrium should include confidence in values, humility in judgement.

“America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back,” announced President Joe Biden five weeks into his administration, warming the hearts of his (virtual) European audience. Yet he and his foreign policy team know this is not exactly true. As with the rest of Biden’s policy agenda, there is no simple building back as the ground has shifted. The United States’ role in the world, the transatlantic alliance, and the West’s place in the world need to be reconceived in a new and different way. This will prove a trying endeavor for US and European leaders.

Even before the management of the coronavirus pandemic by Asian democracies left Europe and the United States looking tired and disorganized, there was reason to reconsider the West and the order it created. There was much contemplation around the 30-year anniversary of 1989 as the victorious “free world” found itself not triumphant and freed from history but struggling and embattled. The United States and Europe were losing their competitive edge against rivals such as China and saw their moral high ground crack beneath them as their democracies faltered and fractured, with populist nationalists gaining in most elections and governments stumbling from crisis to crisis and often failing to cooperate among themselves. As rich as these reassessments have been, they have also been blind to a parallel reckoning. A new level of reckoning with histories and structures of racial injustice in North America and many countries in Europe has been underway. Heroes and received histories have been challenged. Yet, like Rudyard Kipling’s East and West, though they occur in parallel, never do the twain reevaluations meet.

The reckoning over racial injustice has been particularly strong, appropriately, in the United States and, like many social movements of the modern era, it has spread from there to Europe and beyond. Concepts and insights from critical race and gender theory that just ten years ago were confined to the radical left and academia have permeated the mainstream. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality concept of overlapping or interacting discrimination forms, an obscure legal concept from 1989, went viral on US college campuses and then beyond. The center-left and even the center-right have begun to reflect more deeply upon the bigotry of the country’s systems (from policing to housing policies, banking, and education) and to acknowledge that injustice has not been a peripheral note but a core feature of US history.

A new level of reckoning with histories and structures of racial injustice in North America and many countries in Europe has been underway.

The change just in the past five years has been tectonic. When Hillary Clinton used the term “systemic racism” in 2016, it was a first from a major presidential candidate. According to a September 2020 poll, 74 percent of Biden’s supporters said it is a lot more difficult to be Black than White, up almost 20 points from the 56 percent of Clinton supporters who agreed with this statement in 2016 (in the same survey, 11 percent of Trump supporters agreed in 2016 and 9 percent in 2020).1 The share of white Americans who say there is a problem with how Blacks are treated in the United States increased from 34 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2020.2 The heroes and great architects of US history are being examined anew— their righteousness and sometimes even worthiness are challenged; their statues are occasionally defaced or toppled and their names removed from buildings. So it came for President Woodrow Wilson in June 2020, when Princeton University, which he once ran, removed his name from its school of public and international affairs.

Wilson, with his fierce advocacy for the League of Nations at the peace conference following the First World War, the failed precursor to the United Nations, is the originator of the US liberal interventionist tradition, sometimes called Wilsonianism. To redress the fatal flaws of the balance-of-power global order, which viewed war as legitimate tool and had led to almost ceaseless conflict, Wilson envisioned an order in which states would accept enforceable legal restrictions on their conduct at home and abroad.

This tradition has become a core feature, indeed often the dominant approach, of US and Western politics since the end of the Second World War. Today’s liberal international order, a world where international relations are constrained by U.N. rules and guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and where trade rules are global and adjudicated by the World Trade Organization is fundamentally a “Wilsonian order,” albeit imperfectly so. The Wilsonianism of its time was also legalistic liberal internationalism, promoting rules that should apply to the conduct of all, in contrast to the civilizational liberalism of empire, which justified the domination of “uncivilized” people by “civilized” European powers.3 Because of his role in shaping the current world order and the tradition that succeeded him, Wilson is the figure where a reckoning of racism and a reevaluation of the liberal international order must meet.

The Uncritical West

Yet a discussion on global racism is not part of the mainstream debate on international order. Outside academia, foreign policy debates are still barely influenced by critical perspectives.4 There has been much soul-searching in the West, especially since Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency. And there has been much handwringing about the rules of the world and the liberal international order as a result of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and China’s rise. But, unlike in the domestic sphere, post-colonial perspectives have not been part of the reflection process.5

Many now concede that perhaps the geopolitical West bears some responsibility for the challenges it faces from within and without.

Many now concede that perhaps the geopolitical West (the “free world” around the US axis in the Cold War) bears some responsibility for the challenges it faces from within and without. There are essentially two broad lines of criticism. Realists blame a naïve hubris for the West’s mistakes and false assumptions of the past decades. Liberal and especially progressives diagnose a more muscular form of hubris and mistakes driven by neoliberal economic and military policies. But neither approach seriously engages with a post-colonial critique and the idea that systemic inequities and Western dominance are part of the problem.

Realists like Stephen Walt accuse Western elites of having eschewed restraint and realism for a “liberal hegemony” that sought to spread markets and democracy across the globe.6 Western policymakers, especially in Washington, developed after 1989 “a dangerous overconfidence … believ[ing] they had the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to shape political arrangements in every corner of the world.” The mistake was thinking that the rest wanted to become like the West, that liberal democracy was inevitable, and that the systems of governance in Russia and China would eventually converge with that of the West.

More progressive analysts of the “liberal” school argue that the overconfidence and folly of neoliberalism and neoconservatism took the West off track. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s address in March 2021 is a perfect example of this:

Some of us previously argued for free trade agreements because we believed Americans would broadly share in the economic gains that those— and that those deals would shape the global economy in ways that we wanted. We had good reasons to think those things. But we didn’t do enough to understand who would be negatively affected and what would be needed to adequately offset their pain.7

He offered a similar critique of neoconservative hubris, promising to “not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force.”

Some, especially in Europe where the division between foreign policy schools of thought is often blurred, draw from both critiques. As Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff has argued,

liberal overreach emerged: a belief in a glorious democratic future and a tremendous sense of entitlement promulgated throughout the West. At the same time, the will and the means to implement the necessary policies remained limited. The liberal world no longer knew adversaries (apart from some terrorists), only partners who were on the course to become like-minded friends.8

All of these observations are insightful, but they miss something.

The American academic Walter Russell Mead offered a case in point on foreign policy and critical discourses almost, but not quite, meeting. Writing about the end of the Wilsonian era, Mead shares the realist critique: The “most important fact in world politics,” he writes, is that Wilson’s noble effort to remake global politics “has failed.” 9 The next stage in world history will not unfold along Wilsonian lines. The idea of this order has been the dominant vision of US and Western politics since the Second World War (with some exceptions, notably the Nixon/Kissinger administration) but no longer.

According to Mead,

The nations of the earth will continue to seek some kind of political order, because they must. And human rights activists and others will continue to work toward their goals. But the dream of a universal order, grounded in law, that secures peace between countries and democracy inside them will figure less and less in the work of world leaders.

The effect of the racial-justice movement on the conservative Mead is clear. It is unlikely that ten years ago he would have so unequivocally supported Wilson’s condemnation. Today, however, he concedes that “[a]s ‘cancelations’ go, this one is at least arguably deserved. Wilson was an egregious racist even by the standards of this time.” But Mead keeps Wilson’s “personal views and domestic policies” distinct from his influence as an “ideologist” and “among the most influential makers of the modern world.” The only link between the two is temporal. Wilson’s devaluation along racial-justice lines coincides with the failure of a Wilsonian vision for foreign policy. Yet is it possible that Wilson the man was racist but the world he created was not?

Mead, like most of his peers, is not particularly interested in this question. He concedes that “Western” values have not been uniformly upheld or enforced, as it was “chiefly weak countries whose oppressive behavior attracted the most attention.” US government crimes against Native Americans or Black Americans, or Russian crimes against Jews or Muslims in the Caucasus went largely uncommented while Ottoman crimes against Christians drew censure.10

Is it possible that Wilson the man was racist but the world he created was not?

Yet, as in many other writings, these critical observations are asides, brief nods at complications that cannot be ignored and yet are. A few years ago, I attended a conference hosted by my organization with top foreign policy analysts and practitioners from Europe, the United States, and China. At one point a Chinese analyst argued that China could be part of the global liberal order without necessarily fulfilling all the liberal-democratic criteria at home. One American participant replied that they had no idea how this could ever be possible. This expert was certainly aware that in the heyday of the United States’ global moral leadership and support for European democracy, the first two decades after the Second World War, Black Americans were systematically denied their basic rights and protections, and regularly murdered with impunity by their fellow white citizens. Similarly, in European countries’ vast foreign territories, the rights of citizenship they espoused were only enjoyed by European residents while colonial natives remained subjects. Yet the American speaker was not challenged on this statement, and I suspect very few, if any, of the Americans or Europeans in the room even noticed the obliviousness it revealed.

Similarly, a former French diplomat, Jean-David Levitte, said in 2019:

During the triumphant decade of 1991–2001, we Westerners had the conviction, or at least the hope, that gradually all emerging market countries would adopt not only the rules of the market economy, but also the values that underpin it and that underlie the Western order. Today, this illusion has disappeared.

So far, so reasonable. But he continued:

China has never shared and still does not share our vision of a world order as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and those of the other major International organizations. The idea of equality of states before the law is foreign to it. For millennia, China has seen itself as THE civilization, surrounded by barbarian kingdoms and whose role is to send emissaries to the Emperor’s court to kow-tow, pay tribute, and leave, illuminated by Chinese wisdom! The Sinicized world, that is to say the proper “Han” region and its immediate neighbors (Japanese, Koreans, Manchus, Mongols, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Vietnamese), did not constitute a nation-state based on the “Westphalian” model.11

Surely Levitte knew that European countries were guilty of the same disregard for the “Westphalian model” for all those “barbarian kingdoms” beyond the boundaries of Europe for centuries and until quite recently. And that Europe has equally viewed itself as “the” civilization. And that China itself was forced by Europeans powers to forfeit much sovereignty into the 20th century. To be fair to Levitte, he is not an outlier— not at all. I could just as easily have quoted a hundred other Europeans or Americans.

Indeed, Americans and Europeans have a tendency to recognize a right as fundamental and universal ten minutes after having finally accepted it, following decades of persecution and protests (women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights). It is not wrong that they should champion these rights internationally, especially by supporting advocates on the ground, but this is often accompanied with a seeming sense of unwarranted superiority, as if these rights have always been part of the wise and modern West.

The blind spot of white-supremacy thinking fundamental to the worldview of Wilson (and most of his contemporaries) are deemed irrelevant—or at most side notes—to the Wilsonian order.

The Wilsonian order was only ever partially realized, as Mead concedes. The problem, in the mainstream foreign policy reading, is that values and political systems around the world did not converge as Wilson and his ideological descendants expected. The fact that this order coexisted for many decades with blatant betrayal by the West of “Western” values, and more than occasional disregard for legal restrictions is apparently not worth considering. The blind spot of white-supremacy thinking fundamental to the worldview of Wilson (and most of his contemporaries) are deemed irrelevant—or at most side notes—to the Wilsonian order.

But this is only true in the West. For others, the crimes and hypocrisies of the West have always been too present. As the Indian public intellectual and post-colonial critic Pankaj Mishra points out,

neither hard-headed politicians nor their intellectual dupes fully understood … how the rhetoric of liberalism and democracy had gone down in the colonized world. Certainly, Wilson, working deep in a world run by and for white men could have little sense of the bitterness and disillusionment felt by this “darkie” admirers.12

What West?

The definition of the West can depend on the position of the beholder. It can be a vague and shifting creature. “Confusingly,” as the historian Michael Kimmage writes, “the West is a place, and idea, a value—or places, ideas and values.” It can be a geopolitical, historically shifting entity, but it can also “indicate a range of cultural and philosophical constellations.”13 Kleine-Brockhoff identifies four different Wests—the cultural and Christian West, the white West, the civilizational industrial West, and the political Enlightenment West.

The West as a geopolitical entity is not fixed but has shifted over time. It was, in Kimmage’s retelling of the West as a foreign policy concept, the Athens “West” against the Persian East, and later, after the Ottoman victory in Constantinople in 1453, “the Christian Europe versus the East of Islam.”14 Later still “World War I was fought along an East-West axis, a clash of authoritarian (Prussian) East and liberty-loving (Franco-Anglo-American) West.”15 The Cold War featured perhaps the cleanest East-West division. There is also a common history of Western thought and civilization (exported with Europe’s white settlers to North America and Australia) and a history of alliances against different “non-Westerners” (the Persians, the Arabs, the Russians)—with Germany sometimes in the “East” and Russia sometimes aligned with Western powers. From the perspective of the others beyond Europe (such as the East of Islam or China in the Far East) the West they encountered was all of the above. It was the geopolitical but also the cultural or Christian West, the white West, the civilizational industrial West.

The definition of West used here is geopolitical but also ideational: the liberal geopolitical West that was formed by Enlightenment thought and liberalism from the late 18th century.16 During the First World War it consisted chiefly of the United States, Britain, France (but also Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium) with Germany and Italy joining later, and Spain and other European countries later still. It is in the presidency of Wilson that was born a new vision of Western liberal foreign policy—the pursuit of a “Wilsonian order”—even if did not materialize significantly until later. To separate the Enlightenment West from the realities of the geopolitical West is to make an academic distinction. Especially during that long and formative period where colonialism and liberalism overlapped, the two are inextricable, particularly when considering a non-Western perspective.

The Critics of the West

A critical appraisal of the West after 1989 echoes the West’s own self-diagnosis of hubris, but with a crucial difference. Again Mishra:

The victories of the Cold War … revived illusions of omnipotence among an Anglo-American political and media elite that has always known very little about the modern world it claims to have made. Consequentially, almost every event since the end of the Cold War—the rise of radical Islam, of India and China; the assertiveness of oil-rich Russia, Iran and Venezuela—has come as a shock, a rude reminder that the natives of Delhi, Cairo and Beijing have geopolitical ambitions of their own, not to mention a sense of history marked by resentment and suspicious of the metropolitan West.17

The Western assessment is that the West misunderstood actors like Russia or China or was naïve about their certain march toward democracy, aided by market forces. But perhaps policymakers in the West did not try very hard to understand these actors in the first place. In the world made by the West, others were expected to want to fall in line. To the Western mind, used to centuries of global domination, the only path forward is the Western-forged one.

It is easy, once one takes another perspective, to be cynical and to dismiss the lofty rhetoric of Wilson and those who followed as “an especially aggressive form of hypocrisy.” As Mishra writes,

Wilson’s rhetorical achievement—which distinguished him sharply from traditional European practitioners of realpolitik—was to present America’s strategic and political interest as moral imperatives, and its foreign interventions as necessary acts of international responsibility. European leaders periodically stressed their civilizing mission, but no one before Wilson endowed national exceptionalism with such a modern and unimpeachably noble aspiration as “democracy.”18

Of course, the contradiction predates Wilson significantly. Already in 1742 the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume observed that “free governments have been commonly the most happy for those who partake of their freedom; yet are they the most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces.”19

Where the Western view tends to brush past the critical, the post-colonial one rejects the charitable. In the latter, the genuine progress that Wilson’s rhetoric of democracy and rights may have brought are sidenotes to the West’s imperialist sins. If for those like Mead the Wilsonian order is failing because of its democratic determinism and it presumes a convergence of all nations, for post-colonial critics like Mishra the order is failing because it was false and insincere. This critical perspective of Wilsonianism or liberal internationalism as practiced by European powers and the United States is as perceptive and intellectually consistent as the mainstream Western view—but it is also incomplete.

Many of the facts are established and unquestioned. Civilizational liberal rhetoric was applied to extractive and often brutal colonial realities—from slave labor in the Congo with a death toll in the millions or the Opium Wars and oppression of the Chinese to the brutal suppression of rebellions, the harvests requisitioned, and all the more mundane indignities of being a subject, unequal and vulnerable to execution without trial by Western colonizers rhapsodizing about liberty.

One does not have to agree that the perceptions of Mishra and other post-colonialists are the full and simple truth—but one should know what these perceptions are and consider them. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion that the West knows too little about the rest of the world.

And yet is it possible that the Wilsonian order, like the man himself, was imperfect, racist, unjust, and also genuinely lofty? Could it be that, though it did not live up to its promises, it was radically progressive and more just than anything that had come before? Can the Wilsonian order be hypocritical and guilty of White supremacy and yet also constitute a genuine step toward a better world?

  • 1Pew Research Center, Voters’ Attitudes About Race and Gender Are Even More Divided Than in 2016, September 10, 2020.
  • 2Gallup, Race Relations, undated. In June-July 2020, 41 percent of white people said they were very or somewhat satisfied with the treatment of Black people and 59 percent somewhat or very dissatisfied. In contrast, in June 2001, 64 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied and 34 percent said they were very or somewhat dissatisfied.
  • 3The distinction is more grey than black and white. Wilson was also a man of his era and influenced by civilizational ideas that some people need to be “taught” to be able to be free. As he said in 1900: “Freedom is not giving the same government to all people, but wisely discriminating and dispensing laws according to the advancement of the people.” From a newspaper report of a public address at an alumni meeting in Pennsylvania, February 24, 1900, quoted in Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 28. 
  • 4Here and in many instances in this paper the term “critical” refers not simply to criticism, but to the specific sense of “critical theories” in academia, referring to a variant reading of international relations theory. Marxist readings of foreign policy are well established in academia, but much less established in the mainstream international relations debates, including in foreign policy think tanks.
  • 5There are of course other relevant critical approaches, Marxist and feminist, to name just two. Post-colonial approaches are the central focus here as they pertain quite centrally to an inside/outside view of the West and are the nearest international relations equivalent to critical race theory. Furthermore, a post-colonial view seems particularly crucial in a world where Western dominance is waning, but capitalism is not.
  • 6Stephen M. Walt, “The End of Hubris,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019.
  • 7Antony J. Blinken, “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” speech at the U.S. Department of State, March 3, 2021.
  • 8Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, “Liberal Overreach and the Misinterpretation of 1989,” Reassessing 1989, German Marshall Fund, September 13, 2019.
  • 9Walter Mead, “The End of the Wilsonian Era,” Foreign Affairs, January/ February 2021.
  • 10Ibid.
  • 11Jean-David Levitte, “With the end of four centuries of Western dominance, what will the world order be in the 21st century? ,” address to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in France, January 7, 2019.
  • 12Panka Mishra, Blind Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire, Verso, 2020, p. 84
  • 13 Michael Kimmage, The Abandonment of the West, Basic Books, 2020, p. 13.
  • 14Ibid., pp. 9–10.
  • 15Ibid., p. 10.
  • 16The championing of liberalism and liberal values has varied from leader to leader and place to place significantly between then and now. 
  • 17Mishra, Blind Fanatics, pp. 85–86.
  • 18Ibid, p. 84.
  • 19 David Hume, “Politics a Science,” in T.H. Greene and T.H. Grose (eds), David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (Philosophical Works volume 3), A. Millar and A. Kincaid & A. Donaldson , London 1882.

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