The Decline of the West? The Fate of the Atlantic Community after the Cold War

Oct 15, 2009 - Oct 17, 2009

Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia | Conveners: Philipp Gassert (GHI), Ronald Granieri (Penn), Eric Jarosinski (Penn), Frank Trommler (Penn)

Made possible by a grant from the University of Pennsylvania’s University Research Foundation as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s Mellon Cultural Diversity Grant. Participants: Riccardo Bavaj (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), Elizabeth Borgwardt (Washington University), Uta Balbier (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC), Thomas Banchoff (Georgetown University), Volker Berghahn (Columbia University), Stephen Brockmann (Carnegie Mellon University), Lily Gardner Feldman (Johns Hopkins University, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies), Dorothea Fischer-Hornung (University of Heidelberg), Sandeep Gopalan (University of Reading School of Law), William Glenn Gray (Purdue University), Ellen Kennedy (University of Pennsylvania), Martin Klimke (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC), Ariane Leendertz (University of Munich), Thomas W. Maulucci (American International College) Wilfried Mausbach (Heidelberg Center for American Studies), John A. McCarthy (Vanderbilt University), Adam Michnik (Editor in Chief, Gazetta Wyborcza), Samuel Moyn (Columbia University), Ben Nathans (University of Pennsylvania), Simon Richter (University of Pennsylvania), Mary Elise Sarotte (University of Southern California), Bryan van Sweringen (US Army Europe, The Pentagon, Washington, DC), Henry Teune (University of Pennsylvania), Martin Thunert (Heidelberg Center for American Studies), and John C. Torpey (CUNY Graduate Center).

Adam Michnik opened the conference with a keynote speech, “The Decline of the West Seen from Poland,” in which, drawing on his own experiences in the Polish opposition to communism, he linked the concept of the West to democracy and tolerance. Although noting the problems and doubts facing the contemporary West and the United States in particular, Michnik saw no alternative to the Western model, and concluded that critiques drawing on the West’s own intellectual and moral traditions, are proof of its cultural significance, and the need to defend its basic principles. “A sinful democracy,” he declared, “is better than an innocent dictatorship.” His perspective, at the same time knowledgeable, critical, ironic, and hopeful, set the stage for the discussions to follow.

The first full day of the conference analyzed theoretical and cultural foundations of the West in three panels and a roundtable discussion. The opening panel addressed the concept of the West, and the perception among intellectuals of a post-1968 crisis in Western civilization. Riccardo Bavaj’s paper “A Cultural Crisis of the West? Liberal Intellectuals and the Challenges to “Western Civilization” in the 1970s” explored how the student movements of the late 1960s sparked the Left-leaning intellectuals Richard Löwenthal, David Bell, and Raymond Aron to revisit earlier hypotheses about the decline of western civilization. Western culture was closely intertwined with ideals of liberty, progress and stability, and as an intellectual way to negotiate modernization and industrialization. Bavaj proposed that the notion of “western decline” originated in the existential crises of rapidly transforming societies. In her contribution to the panel, “Complex Problems in a Complex World: America, Europe and the Postindustrial Challenge of “the West” in the 1970s,” Ariane Leendertz concurred with Bavaj that the perceived decline of the West and emphasis on conflicts reflected a process of socio-cultural transformation since the late 1960s. Leendertz noted that the cultural differences between the United States and Europe were displaced onto the political arena, and, once the US fulfilled its mission of ushering Europe into the modern industrial era, that Americans lost interest in Europe. As such, she saw the crisis of the West partially as one of the United States. In response to Bavaj and Leendertz, Thomas Maulucci inquired whether or not the political move to the right, especially in the US, Britain, and West Germany in the 1980s was a means to stabilize the cultural crisis or perception thereof.

Shifting the focus from socio-cultural implications of the West, the second panel examined the West at the international level. Sandeep Gopalan’s paper “The Two “Wests”: International Law in the U.S. and Europe” built upon one of the overarching themes of the conference, that multiple “Wests” exist depending on which analytical framework one employs. Gopalan, like Leendertz, saw a clear demarcation of these Wests between the United States and Europe, particularly in the application of international law. He noted that the two “Wests” instrumentalize international law and its applications for their respective needs, perhaps attributable to domestic constitutional cultures. Mary Sarotte used an architectural framework in her examination of the changes in post-1989 international order in her paper titled “1989 and the Architecture of Order: The Competition to lead the Post- Cold War World.” She claimed that while there were various models for post- Cold War order in the aftermath of the 1989 revolutions, that the rapidity of the transition favored pre-existing structures that ultimately prolonged the life of Cold War institutions such as NATO and the European Community. Noting the stark difference in Gopalan and Sarotte’s arguments, William Glenn Gray wondered how the continuation of Cold War institutions impairs the West, and if a combination of the Americans and European perspectives would create a more cooperative model.

The third panel considered how human rights discourse impacted American and Soviet societies during and after the Cold War. Elizabeth Borgwardt examined the genesis of the UN- adopted Nuremberg Principles, which held individual and state actors to international legal statutes, and how conservative American opposition as expressed in the Bricker Amendment attempted to block adoption of these principles. Her paper, “Politics, Culture, and the Limits of Law in Generating Human Rights Norms” suggested that Cold War fears fed concerns about international meddling in American domestic affairs. Although the amendment ultimately failed because President Eisenhower saw it as curtailing American foreign policy, Borgwardt nonetheless illustrated the primacy of domestic politics in determining the acceptance of international legislation. Benjamin Nathans’ paper “Soviet Rights Talk,” for its part, traced human rights discourse and practice in the Soviet Union to the “strange” emergence of Russia in the European human rights system. He used the “all people’s discussion” that accompanied each successive version of the Soviet constitution in the post-Stalinist era as a lens through which to view shifting notions of rights among Soviet public and government. He concluded that, stretching forward to contemporary international legal precedents, Russia, in contrast to the United States, consistently embraces international human rights and legal decisions, rhetorically if not always in practice.

The day ended with a roundtable discussion on approaches for studying the evolving definition of the West. Lily Gardner Feldman discussed how German foreign relations repaired Western Realpolitik in its pursuit of reconciliation for the Nazi past and Holocaust. She outlined Germany’s quadripartite model for redefining the West’s international relations as exemplified through its rehabilitative foreign policy towards France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic. Philipp Gassert, reflecting earlier papers by Leendertz and Bavaj, examined the West as an intellectual framework through the role of scholars, American Studies programs and institutions such as the Ford Foundation in shaping of the West. He noted that the “transnational project” of American studies is a clear indicator for American sentiment. Thus, the critical turn in American Studies in the late 1960s reflected growing anti-Americanism, just as the influx of American capital to Eastern Europe after 1989 marked a shift from the US as the model for Westernization to a more multinational standard. John McCarthy continued the discussion about post-1989 implications on perceptions of the West. He noted that the onetime bipolar world became a multipolar and, though that, soft power became multiculturalism. McCarthy called for the incorporation of “European Studies” into academic programs and further noted that the reconceptualization of the national “self” as European has challenged the notion of sovereignty on the continent as well as views of the United States.

The third and final day of the conference looked at cultural bonds that bridge the Atlantic divide. The first panel approached the West as experience. Stephen Brockmann’s paper “The Cultural Paradox of Atlanticism” investigated popular culture as the binding element of the West that even transcends German-American political and economic disagreement. In regard to the German 1968 critique of American popular culture, Brockmann suggested considering this criticism as proof of successful German democratization. Continued enthusiasm for American values such as democracy and human rights, he concluded could prevent a decline of the cultural West. In Dorothea Fischer-Hornung’s talk “(Re) Making the East and West in Film,” on American Cold War movies and their less successful remakes after the end of the Cold War, Fischer-Hornung argued that Hollywood utilized American anxieties about loss of individuality, domestic communism (The Manchurian Candidate, 1963, 2004) and internal subversion (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, 1993, 2007) as vehicles to complicate East-West binaries. The remakes paid tribute to the ongoing fear of subversion, yet shifted their focus to North-South binaries: corporatism has replaced communism and American economic interests are linked to global issues. In his comments, Frank Trommler underlined that American popular culture, rather than European high culture, provided a common point of reference for Euro-American civilization: consumption. Though the discussion was marked by differing views on Americanization, Anti-Americanism, and Hollywood’s overbearing tendency to conflate the United States and the West, participants agreed that American cultural exports formulated a language of performance in imagery and plot that has indeed become global.

During the second panel, John C. Torpey and Uta A. Balbier agreed that the religious divergence between North America and Europe tends to be overstated; both continents are foundationally Christian, which provides common ground, even if differences have become more apparent of late. Torpey presented a sociological analysis of statistical data on European and American secularism in his paper “The Return of God and the Decline of ‘the West.’” Both continents experienced secularization during the Cold War, yet to different degrees and with different outcomes. The emerging Cold War culture of disbelief has triggered a backlash in the United States, however, which overemphasizes the role of religion in public affairs today. Balbier’s paper set a different tone with the case study “Crusading against Secularization – Billy Graham in Germany.” Balbier investigated Evangelical missionary Billy Graham’s appeal to German audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. Public viewings of Graham’s services bridged the divide across the Atlantic by making Germans part of a growing global media society. This sense of belonging to a transnational community and a Wirtschaftswunder search for values beyond materialism, Balbier argued, attracted Germans to Graham’s religious spectacle.

Volker Berghahn’s public lecture on “The Fallacy of Triumphalism” that afternoon attracted a broad audience apart from the conference participants. Reflecting on the lessons American intellectuals learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union – leaving the United States as the “victor” of the Cold War – Berghahn claimed that triumphalist attitudes among American elites hurt domestic and international policy making. These sentiments found expression in post-Cold War unilateralism, which failed under the second Bush administration as the United States approached an economic and political state that is best described by Paul Kennedy’s concept of imperial overstretch. Berghahn criticized American elites for failing to learn the right lessons from the end of the Cold War, missing the opportunity to promote lower military expenditure and invest money in reforms of American social institutions as well as the economic system. The current economic crisis is both the result of that failure and an indication of the problems to come. In one of two responses to the speech, Henry Teune responded to the speech with his own critique of American post-Cold War policy, emphasizing the short-term strengths and long-term weaknesses of many decisions. Ronald Granieri used his response to argue that only an equal partnership with the European Union and a renewed sense of shared responsibility within the transatlantic community would save the United States from collapsing under the burden of an overstretched empire.

The concluding roundtable discussion was driven by two presentations. Martin Thunert extracted three concepts of the West from western and non-western literature: the territorial West marked by NATO, EU, and EFTA; the material West, driven by interests rather than values; and the philosophical West based on the equality of men and anchored in modern science. Challenged by the Afrocentrism, Asian values, anti-modern radical Islam, all part of the “Rise of the Rest” in a post-American World, and the possibility of chaos that Niall Ferguson has called the “Dark Age,” the West has lost its monopoly in interpreting the world. While today’s West is open to everybody, Thunert argued, it faces a paradox: How can a democratic minority sustain a predominantly undemocratic world while maintaining its support for democracy? Thunert’s presentation suggested that one fruitful way of thinking about “the West” is to look through the eyes of the “Other.” Bryan van Sweringen picked up Volker Berghahn’s discussion of American imperial overstretch. With the double-involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq the United States has made a precarious move. These operations have defined the limits of US military power, as guerilla fighters and terrorists undermine US strategic efforts. What should be essential to the West is to think more about allocation of resources and to worry about defending what it has achieved. Otherwise the West will have to face an exhaustion of resources.

The lively and controversial discussions after each panel and at the conclusion left participants with a productive uneasiness over a simplified concept of “the West.” The multiplicity of definitions, such as Western civilization, Western values, the Cold War West confirms a need for more research on the West and its possible decline. Despite grim outlooks predicting a “decline of the West,” Thunert suggested that we should rather see this process as a normalization of relations. The postwar 1940s and 1950s had posed an exceptional situation in Europe, a vacuum that Americans were ready to fill. What we see happening in transatlantic relations today, he concluded, is a rebirth of “the West.”

Jennifer Rodgers and Katrin Schreiter (University of Pennsylvania)

Call for Papers

Two decades after the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War it is timely and necessary to assess the historical impact of these momentous developments on the West. Victory can be as unsettling in its own way as defeat, and recent events have shown that the West's "victory" in the Cold War has raised important questions about the nature and future of the West as a political, cultural, and economic space in a world where older divisions have passed away.
This conference aims to consider those questions and to contribute to the historicizing of the European and German re-unification process by mapping the North American, European, and global intellectual responses to the events of the past three decades. It will ask how the end of the Cold War changed European and North American as well as non-Western perceptions of the West. By attempting to place the end of the Cold War and European unification within a larger historical context, the conference will examine the extent to which the tectonic shifts that have occurred since the 1970s contributed to rethinking of the West and to what extent the events of 1989/90 advanced and transformed that rethinking. This should help to historically contextualize more recent transatlantic rifts, and contemporary discussions about the relationship between "the West and the Rest."
Throughout the twentieth century European and North American, as well as non-European intellectuals struggled over what exactly constituted "The West." As an ideological construct, the idea was continuously revised even before it became enshrined as an intellectual orthodoxy underpinning the Cold War Atlantic community. In recent years political scientists and historians have made considerable progress in understanding how the idea of a Western community of shared values and a shared political culture emerged during and after World War II. This recent historical research argues that the modern idea of the West is a relatively recent phenomenon. In part it re-appropriated older European concepts of otherness that seemed to go back to antiquity (such as a supposed age-old East/West divide). As a political term, the modern West first came into existence after 1914, used both to highlight the antagonistic goals of the warring European parties and to help overcome the deep divisions between the allied and associated powers of Britain, France, and the United States.
It was after World War II and the defeat of Fascism, National Socialism, and Japanese Imperialism that this concept of the modern West reached its zenith. In the 1950s European and North American "consensus" intellectuals further refined  "the West" by contrasting it with competing Fascist and Communist modernities. This also meant that as an intellectual concept, the West was now more narrowly defined. It was frequently used synonymously with the Western alliance (NATO). At the same time the anti-Communist version of the West helped to wed sceptical, post-fascist continental European intellectuals and politicians to the notion of an Atlantic community. In the United States it undercut long-standing claims of exceptionalism. Liberal America (to which anti-Nazi European émigrés had made important contributions) redefined itself as Western, whereas the exceptionalist tradition became now more pronounced on the right, mostly among non-traditional conservatives. In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other former colonial powers, notions of the West helped overcome imperial self-definitions.
This (liberal) Cold War narrative of an Atlantic or Western community was often constructed around universalizing social science notions, such as modernization and secularization, that were grounded in the works of Max Weber and others. In the postwar period this refined idea of a single (liberal) West gradually overwhelmed and pushed aside older competing models such as Anglo-Saxon (ethnic or racial) solidarity, (Catholic) continental European Occidentalism, Protestant ideas of religious mission, secular European civilizing colonialism, Socialist and Communist internationalism, Fascist autarchy, and national isolationism.
Although competing "Western" visions never totally vanished after World War II, the West was being cast in highly monolithic terms. It denoted the liberal capitalist democratic order, whose emergence was retroactively tied to the eighteenth century Atlantic revolutions. During the 1960s this idea of the West came under pressure from strong intellectual counter-currents. In the U.S., the old isolationist cultural streak gained new currency with the rise of a new Right, which fused anticommunism with a preference for unilateral American action. In Western Europe, neutralism and anti-Americanism remained a concern for pro-American intellectuals and decision-makers. Within the context of the decolonization of European empires and the American civil rights movement, a powerful anti-imperialist critique emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. It was soon picked up by the 1960s student movement, which developed one of the most successful intellectual critiques of the West as a modernizing project. Pointing to perceived injustices and inconsistencies (most prominently the US intervention in Vietnam), the New Left questioned the ideological underpinnings of the Atlantic alliance and radically challenged the idea of a Western ideological unity.
Against this historical background of Western cohesion and consent, the conference attempts to pick up the story in the 1970s and 1980s and take it to the present. It will examine how hegemonic ideas of a liberal West lost their attractiveness during the second half of the 1970s, and to what extent they could be maintained and revived.
Some of the questions conference presentations should address could include:

  • How did detente and the deflation of the East-West antagonism influence ideas about the West in the 1970s?
  • To what extent did the shifting domestic paradigms in the late 1970s, such as concerns about the future of the welfare state, prepare the ground for competing Western visions? In both North America and Western Europe the Keynesian growth model was strained, although it was only in Britain and the US that the libertarian critique gained considerable political ground.
  • How did Western concerns with human rights and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lead to different reactions on both sides of the Atlantic?
  • How did the peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s, or their precursors in the student protest movements of the 1960s, encourage competing visions of how the West should deal with its antagonists?
  • How did non-political networks-business connections, academic and cultural exchanges, tourism-reinforce or challenge notions of a coherent West?
  • How and for how long did the revolutions of 1989/90 reinforce the idea of a Western community? What other developments worked against the unity of the West?
  • Where do regional concerns, such as American impulses toward the Pacific Rim or European attempts to establish an ever-closer supra-national European Union, fit into larger conceptions of the West?

To keep the conference focused, paper proposals (2 pages maximum, plus CV) are invited that concentrate on intellectual efforts to make sense of "The West." Contributions may cover parts or all of the period from the mid-1970s onwards, with the high tide of detente and the oil price crisis as chronological and conceptual points of departure. Proposals are welcome which address developments after 9/11, when the soul-searching about what distinguished the West from "The Rest" became more urgent. Contributors should make an effort to frame their questions within a longue-dureé context and locate them within transnational contexts. Papers should focus on intellectual debates, which are by definition distinct from specific policy initiatives but often intersect with debates within government circles. For the purpose of this conference, the "intellectual" is being used as an analytical concept, and does not necessarily mean "outsiders" or "critical voices" (as older definitions of "the intellectual" often had it). Contributions may focus on a wide range of members of cultural elites, who see their purpose in creating meaning through public discourse.
Please send paper proposals (2 pages, plus CV) by November 30, 2008 to Philipp Gassert.
CfP as PDF