The Consummation - a painting by Thomas Cole 1836 in The Course of the Empir series

What is the West?

The West is an idea...

By: Matthew S Cwihun

The term 'the west' is used in many different contexts. For some, 'the west' is a place, or a collection of different places. For others, 'the west' is an idea, or rather more accurately: an ideology. Since the purpose of WeternCrisis.com is to report on the 'the west' amidst 'the clash of civilizations', it is important to analyze the concept of 'the west' in order to arrive at a basic understanding of how the term is applied within the context of this website. Although it may take a multi-volume book series to accurately analyze 'the west', the purpose of this essay is to provide a general outline of the concept of 'the west' thereby providing you with the criteria required to understand how 'the west' is applied throughout the writings of westerncrisis.com. Therefore, this essay will briefly discuss 'the west' in its various forms while arguing that the west is both a place and an ideology. Or more appropriately: the west refers to those geopolitical places, those societies, which share a common foundation on the 'western idea'.


While the term 'the west' has an obvious geographic reference, the exact definition of 'the west' is not so entirely obvious. For instance, some argue (myself included) that 'the west' generally refers to the human communities which have been influenced by 'western ideas', such as liberal-democratic government; justice by the rule of law; a capitalist-type economy based on the principle of private property, and; a progressive human rights regime. Most importantly the one defining characteristic of 'the west' in this context is the emphasis on individual rights: where the organization of society is premised on the recognition of individual liberty, rather than collective subjectivity. Nevertheless, though this concept of 'the west as an idea' may satisfy some of our geopolitical opinions, it is not entirely satisfactory.

"The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac" (Huntington 2003 p. 58).

Throughout the history of geopolitics 'the west' has been variously defined, however with each reference the concept of 'the west' becomes better understood as a place in opposition to something else. This 'western opposition' characteristic extends as far back in history as the Peloponnesian Wars. During this conflict the Greek city states were west of their eastern enemy: the Persian empire. Following the Greeks, the concept of the west obtains an attribute more relevant to the modern era and was formed when the Roman Empire split into two entities: The Eastern Roman Empire (also known as The Byzantine Empire), and the Western Roman Empire. Significantly, within the Western Roman Empire the Latin world developed - with guidance from the Catholic Church - into modern Europe. Conversely, in the Eastern Roman Empire the seeds were sewn for what eventfully became the Orthodox World of which Russia was - and is - the prominent nation-state. In the modern era the characteristic of 'the west' as being in opposition to 'the east' was arguably most apparent during the Cold War.

Yet without getting too caught up with the geopolitical east-west debate, the notion of what constitutes 'the western idea' is most important. Aside from the geopolitical aspects, an ideological tension has accompanied the growth of 'the west', often leading to conflict with neighbours who oppose the idea. This ideological conflict has occurred between 'the individual rights and collective rights and is thoroughly expressed throughout the millennia of western philosophic thought. This ideological conflict was perhaps most evident in the twentieth century as the great struggle between the supporters of socialist political-economy and the defenders of traditional western liberal political-economy. In our modern era this conflict is once again emerging in the context of a new conflict: the struggle between freedom of thought and expression versus collective rights, social conformity.

Therefore, the concept of the West is not simply restricted to a geopolitical location. Instead, the term 'the west' also represents the liberal democratic tradition which champions the individual over the collective. However, in accordance with Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis, the term 'the west' will be used at westerneriris.com to refer to the countries of Western Europe, North America, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). The West is understood as being a concept which is outdated and requires revision, especially given the current geopolitical order. More importantly, the West is an ideal, it is a way of life-and the very traits which gave birth to the western ideal, such as liberty, and individual rights, is threatened in our Modern era.