How The 'West' Was Lost

Every year around this time the Economic summit picture reappears: a bunch of guys in well-cut business suits, one woman in the middle wearing a prim but pricey outfit--nothing casual here. They fare posed in a long line, side by side and uniformly spaced, and they mostly wear suitably indecipherable quarter smiles, neither warm nor amused nor even ironic, just little turnups at the corner of the mouth. They always seem to me to have too many clothes on. I don't mean that in a lascivious sense, only that, like the coat-and-vest-andnecktied Nixon in those old incongruous shots from poolside at Key Biscayne, they look oddly inappropriate to the leafy summer setting in which they are pictured.

What is this funny photo about, anyway? It is, as we all know, about the West. We say it with reverence. And what is the West? Well, it is not a geographic designation (Japan is in it and Cuba is not). It is a 40- or 50-year-old big guys' club, part banker, part cop, part mommy and daddy, part keeper of the flame of hard-won democratic practices and values. Until quite lately there was also something nongeographic (Cuba was in it, Japan was not) called the East, a political, military and economic superentity that has now been revealed as a fraud. It has a lot of explosive power, no political coherence whatever and a chaotic economic condition. The question is whether this not-quite-natural thing called the West can exist in the absence of the other not-quite-natural thing called the East.

The question exists because basically from our beginnings as the West roughly half a century ago we have defined ourselves as a contrast to the East. They were tyranny, we were freedom; they were command economy, we were market; they were officially godless, we were sympathetic to and protective of religion; they were predatory, we were peaceful; they were aggression, we were defense. I assume that even the most chauvinist among us will concede that our adherence to these Western values leaves something to be desired. And I assume too, especially after the popular upheavals of this past year, that, on the other side, even the most cynical of our domestic critics will concede that whatever our worst vices and imperfections, the two systems of governance were always worlds apart. But the fact remains that both kinds of Americans are going to have--are having--trouble arranging their thoughts about this construct honored as the West without the handy counterbalance of the East. Much of what was thought and said and done by both groups over the decades turned on the East's existence.

Neither group was always what you would call convincing. In the name of defending against the tyranny of the East, the staunchest combatants among us would often countenance related forms of tyranny among our allies, not to mention also countenancing certain draconian security measures at home that were said to be justified by the threat from the East. Whether or not they were, this disposition to indulge repression in the name of fighting repression was forever undermining the Western rationale. Likewise, much of the left-wing critique of the West, of our values and habits compared with those of the East, falls with the fall of the mythic Soviet-led alternative. We were always being told that if we didn't behave in a more saintly fashion folks all around the world would understandably opt for the Other Way. Now that the Other Way is trying desperately to cease being so Other what are we supposed to worry about?

Or, more precisely, what is the rationale for our behavior, for our involvement in the rest of the world? A lot of people have said our problem is the loss of an enemy. But we are not just missing an enemy. What we are missing is a self-definition, a purpose, an idea of our proper role in the world that can be stated in fewer than ten thousand words. Do we have some Wilsonian mission? Do we really give a damn what happens to all those struggling Third World places if they cannot any longer be argued to pose some sort of strategic threat to us on account of their vulnerability to or affinity for feared Soviet expansion? Do the words "isolationist" and "interventionist" have a contemporary relevance? And, by the way, these fellow Westerners from Japan and Germany and France et al., how are we to behave in relation to them? Why are we buying into so much of their defense?

Ethnic strife: Actually, this West of ours gets less Western every day. Especially in the United States, but elsewhere as well, it increasingly comprises populations and cultures that derive from a set of traditions and beliefs different from those of the Western Judeo-Christian mainstream. We are already fighting ferociously among ourselves about the implications of this fact for our school curriculums. And within individual communities there is a whole new range of interethnic hostilities replacing the familiar ones that got underway a century ago. It occurs to me that, although far less murderous and old-score-settling in nature than the ethnic strife that is re-emerging in Central and Eastern Europe with the disintegration of the communist order, this development too is in some measure a sign of the breakup of the old East-West configuration.

My mind goes back to that annually reissued picture. It sometimes has different people in it, owing to an election here, a politically devastating scandal there. But whether it was the West, class of 1980, or the West, class of 1990, or any of the others, the fact is that those fastidiously groomed, mostly late-middle-aged to youngish elder people in the picture are essentially creatures politically and spiritually formed by the horrors of World War II and its prolonged harrowing aftermath. They saw the birth of the West in its modern incarnation, a kind of latter-day Crusader empire ostensibly seeking to reclaim and defend what was special in its heritage against the infidel incursion from the East. There was much of value in the effort, much that was heroic and essential, a certain amount that was shameful and/or baloney. But the people who brought it all to the point where we are now are having to decide just what the West as a concept means anymore. If we are all for one and one for all, well, which ones? Who are we, anyhow? I have a feeling that the picture is going to change.