Do We Still Need “the West”?

Felix Berenskötter

Senior Lecturer in International Relations, SOAS, University of London

Felix Berenskötter was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in June 2019. He is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Relations at SOAS, University of London. He specializes in international theory; concepts of friendship, identity, power, security, peace, space, and time; European security; and transatlantic relations. Following undergraduate studies in Hamburg, Felix received a Masters Degree from Rutgers University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar, and a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He authored a number of journal articles and, most recently, edited “Concepts in World Politics” (Sage, 2016). From 2017-2019 he received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for a project on friendship and estrangement in international relations.

He was a 2017-2018 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Diagnoses of a “crisis” in transatlantic relations often raise questions about the future of “the West.” Over the last fifteen years, pundits and scholars have discussed a possible “end of the West” in the context of the rifts among NATO allies over the 2003 Iraq war, the financial crisis, challenges to the project of European integration, and a (perceived) decline in American power. Usually the conclusion is that “the West” must get its act together. German-American relations play a particular role here, and following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, a number of commentators declared Angela Merkel as the new leader of “the West.” But the question is: leading what, exactly?

“The West” is an idea with a long history that manifests itself ideologically and materially in different dimensions: cultural (enlightenment philosophy, Christianity), political (liberal democracy), economic (capitalism, social market economy), and security (NATO). But it also is a significant geopolitical category, branded during the Cold War as “the free world,” an identity it maintains to this day. Notwithstanding the variety of more specific readings of the content and boundaries of “the West,” on a more general level this world is understood in three ways:

  1. as a civilizational entity that is fundamentally different from others and under threat by forces seeking to destroy it,
  2. as a space housing a universally attractive model of socio-political order that should be spread across the globe, and
  3. as an intrusive project that challenges and seeks to remake the way of life in other societies.

These images are problematic, as they represent “the West” from a position of assumed European/American superiority, often with a racist subtext, encouraging practices of exclusion, discrimination, and intervention.

Given the persistence of these powerful imaginaries, the question should perhaps not be who should lead “the West,” but do we still need this concept? More precisely, who needs “the West” as a geopolitical category? It seems that the representations outlined above serve as an object of identification primarily for three kinds of actors: those on the “inside” who want to preserve the idea of themselves as a superior civilization, and those on the “outside” who either imagine it as a better place to escape to, or portray it as an entity to fight against. I do not think any of these imageries could or should provide the glue that holds German and American societies together. This leaves two options: if we want to keep “the West” as a broader Gestalt within which transatlantic relations are embedded, then the geopolitical meaning and positioning of this category—its content, character, and how it relates to others—needs to be redefined. The alternative is to rethink transatlantic relations without “the West” as a collective frame. Of course, this is easier said than done, not least because this frame is not “owned” by actors on either side of the Atlantic. Still, we should not be afraid to bring an end to the West as we know it and to imagine something new in its stead.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.