Defending Liberal Democracy Is Not the Same as Defending 'the West'

If “Western” is synonymous with “democratic” or “free,” then you don’t need the term at all.

A person holding a "Trump, Pence" support sign and a poster reading "Build the Wall" stands in front of rafts meant to display opposition to the U.S. refugee ban in New York City.
A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump disrupts a protest against America's refugee ban at Foley Square in New York City on March 29, 2017. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

The most telling feature of Daniel Foster’s response to my article on Donald Trump’s Warsaw speech is that, while he dislikes my definition of “the West,” he never offers one of his own. I argued that, in the United States today, the best predictor of whether a country is considered “Western” is whether it is primarily white and primarily Christian. (With Protestant and Catholic countries considered more Western than Orthodox ones, and Israel tossed in to buttress the “Judeo” part of “Judeo-Christian.”) I noted that non-white or non-Christian countries aren’t generally considered Western even when they are further west geographically than Christian, white ones (Morocco v. Poland, Haiti v. France, Egypt v. Australia). And that non-white, non-Christian countries aren’t generally considered Western even when they are economically developed (Japan) or robustly democratic (India).

Foster responds that “Morocco was jostled about by Spanish and French empires for a few hundred years” and that “Western ideals were kind of a big thing in the Haiti of Toussaint Louverture” and that “Japan enjoys the sponsorship of a demure American empire” and that “India’s in the frigging British Commonwealth.” Sure. Countries that Americans today consider Western and countries that they consider non-Western have interacted for a long time, and shaped each other in profound ways. So have white and black Americans. Yet Americans still distinguish between the two.

Foster is trying to have it both ways. He says that India, Morocco, Japan, Haiti, Egypt, “and many other non-white, non-Christian places are right well tangled up in the West.” Notice the slippery language. Are they Western or not? Saying no would require Foster to explain what excludes them from the club. Saying yes would render the term meaningless. Yes, India is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. (It’s not called the British Commonwealth anymore.) So are frigging Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. If being influenced by (and influencing) the West makes you part of the West, then the West is everything.

Like other critics of my piece, Foster wants to associate the West with principles like democracy, freedom, tolerance, and equality. Thus, he says the Haitian revolution was fought for “Western ideals.” But if the real test of a country’s “Westernness” is its government’s fidelity to liberal democratic ideals, then Japan, Botswana, and India are three of the most Western countries on Earth, Spain didn’t become Western until it embraced democracy in 1975, and Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism means it is significantly less Western than it was a few years ago. Almost no one, including Foster, uses the term that way. And for good reason. If “Western” is synonymous with “democratic” or “free,” then you don’t need the term at all.

What Foster is actually doing is linking these ideals to a particular religious (“Judeo-Christian”) identity. (Other conservatives—Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter, for instance—explicitly link them to a racial identity as well. And in America today, “Muslim” virtually functions as a racial category anyway. The Tsarnaev brothers, of Boston bombing fame, literally hailed from the Caucuses yet were not described as white.) Foster gives it away with this line: “The West is the only civilization that blushes.” Really? Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arabian, and African civilizations have no traditions of self-criticism or shame? It’s telling that Foster sees the Haitian revolution simply as a struggle for “Western ideals.” Of course, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American revolutionaries turned the ideals of their oppressors against them. But they also drew on non-Western, pre-colonial traditions. During the struggle against apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu popularized the term Ubuntu, a Bantu word meaning “common humanity.” In his 2005 book, The Argumentative Indian, Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen argues that Indian liberal democracy owes its robustness in part to the legacies of “a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who, in the third century BCE … laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations” and to “a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar,” who in the 16th century, “when the Inquisition was in full swing,” outlined “principles of religious toleration.”

Near the heart of the immigration debate in America and Europe today is the question of whether non-white, non-Christian immigrants will embrace values like tolerance, reason, and women’s rights. Conservatives tend to be more pessimistic. Liberals—remembering that, in many countries, such principles were once considered alien to Catholics and Jews—are more optimistic. That’s fine.

The problem is when conservatives ask not whether immigrants will embrace democratic or liberal values, but rather “Western” values. In so doing, they’re conflating the universal and the particular. They’re implying that being Muslim itself is incompatible with good citizenship. Foster himself may not believe that. But if he thinks it’s a marginal view—divorced from mainstream conservatism in America today—he’s nuts. According to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll, three-quarters of Republicans say Islam is incompatible with American values.

Donald Trump is not a to-be-sure paragraph. On the subject of Islam and the West, he reflects what most American conservatives believe. And defending his speech without acknowledging its context, as Foster’s magazine, National Review, did is willfully naïve. When Trump talked in Poland about defending “our civilization” from threats from the “south” and “east,” he was not talking entirely, or even mostly, about defending liberal democracy. How could he have been? He fawns over authoritarian leaders. He attacks judges for their ethnicity and tweets images of himself physically attacking a man with CNN’s logo superimposed on his face. No president in modern American history has cherished liberal democracy less.

Trump arrived in Poland as the man who, during the campaign, said, “Islam hates us,” and called for banning Muslim immigration. And he gave his speech about the survival of the West in a country whose government is itself undermining liberal democracy (without the gentlest chiding from Trump), and will not admit a single Muslim refugee.

In contemporary political discourse, defending liberal democracy and defending “the West” are very different things. In fact, from Trump to Marine Le Pen to the leaders of Poland and Hungary, many of the people most loudly defending the latter represent the greatest threat to the former. It’s reminiscent of Gandhi’s famous line: Asked “What do you think of western civilization?” he answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”