THE BLOG
02/04/2014 09:42 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

THE WEST AND THE REST

Few things are less clear - or more important - than what the West's attitude should be to the rest of the world. Most of the policies tried in the last few years have been unsuccessful; some of them have been disastrous. We need a new approach.

Every Western policymaker, and every citizen who thinks at all about these issues, tends to operate, whether consciously or not, with one of six mental models.

The first is Western universalism, the view that the West represents modernity and that the nations of the world will, sooner or later, turn to Western-style liberalism and capitalism. The Westernization of the world, this view holds, will happen without the West having to do anything much.

This used to be a popular view, but now it just seems like a delusion. Anyone knows that many cultures around the world - not just Islam - are very resistant to Westernization.

The second model is so-called Liberal Imperialism. The aim of this school is to make the world Western, by force if necessary. The West is justified, according to this view, in imposing its civilization on the rest. But there are three problems with this model. One is that it is not liberal, so it's a contradiction of Western values - you can't impose liberty. Another problem is that it won't work. The more the West tries to impose itself by force, the more resistance there is. And imperialism requires imperialists. Americans in particular don't want to "go there" - you can't run an absentee empire. There is no market for this approach and no supplier either. Being willing to wage war is not a substitute for staying and changing countries. Iraq should have proved this beyond doubt.

The third school I call "World America", which is Liberal Imperialism without the pretence at liberalism. This view holds that the world will be safest if America and her allies impose universal peace and common economic policies. This is not a popular policy, but it based on some kind of reality - America's overwhelming military force. Before invading Iraq, America already had 752 military installations in over 130 countries. If the US were really determined, its military, scientific and business superiority might enable it to rule most of the world, alongside allies in Europe, Japan and Korea. China, Russia and India might stand in the way, of course. But in any case, this policy is not going to happen. Every time the US moves closer to this approach, the reaction from opponents in the West itself - in America and Europe - becomes ever greater.

The fourth concept is "Fortress West". Put simply, this means "Damn the Rest" - isolate the West from the Rest. Stop all immigration. Forget about trying to spread democracy and the free market. Discourage technological diffusion. Abandon all military adventures. Though this strategy has a certain internal coherence, it is hard to imagine it working. There would be a continuing need to engage with the rest of the world for raw materials and resources. And we would probably see growing fear, insecurity and paranoia within, and swelling frustration, envy and anger outside.

The fifth view is cosmopolitan. It holds the pleasing and balanced notion that the world's cultures will intermingle. Eventually East and West will meet, and the world will become one big happy family.

It is true that there are some signs of convergence. Many Westerners are interested in Eastern philosophy, from Zen Buddhism to the Mind, Body, Spirit movement. Concepts such as karma have penetrated the vocabulary of millions in the West, while the Western view of the market has been married successfully to more hierarchical and communitarian societies such as China and Japan. Different cultures have imitated - or perhaps caricatured - each other's cuisine.

Yet the cosmopolitan thesis is basically superficial. Consumerism, Hollywood, Western brands, and popular music have made great strides outside the West, but the appeal is so great precisely because it is skin-deep - a quick fix of modernity requiring no adjustment of fundamental attitudes or actions. The cosmopolitan theory utterly fails to understand the wrenching impact of Western civilization on non-Western societies. To many people outside the West, there is still something alien, even abhorrent, about Western culture, materialism, and individualism. Patterns of thought are deeply rooted in the history, geography, religion, and power structures of particular societies, and cannot be swapped at will through consumerism, cultural exchanges, vacations abroad, or wishful thinking.

So if the five first models are flawed, is there a better one? I think there is - what I call "coexistence and attraction". It should recognize both the stunning triumphs of Western civilization, and also its relentless disruption of tradition, authority, personal and social stability, and the planet's ecology. The West has intruded on other civilizations massively, by force of arms, by economic expansion, and through its unparalleled, relentless, and in many ways unpalatable powers of communication. No civilization has intruded on the West in a comparable way in the last 600 years, and if it had, we would resent it mightily.

We should also realize that in every other civilization there is a minority - sometimes very small, but always an elite - of ambitious individuals who identify with Western values. Many of them spend time in the West, and some emigrate to it. It is to the West's great benefit that these people come, but we should recognize that this process, at least for a time, siphons off the most pro-Western non-Westerners, and makes their societies less pro-Western.

So what should we do? Three things.

First, respect diversity. The world is not going to become Western. Accept it. Diversity is here to stay. We have to tolerate what we abhor, if we expect other civilizations to do the same. Much as some of us would like to, we can't bomb countries that imprison people for being gay.

Second, reinvigorate Western ideals. In the competition between ideas, numbers don't matter. If they did, views would never change. Every dominant religion started as a tiny sect, able to convert through the power of example and persuasion. If we want to convert people to our views, we have to hold them passionately, and live them.

Third, attract the Rest to the West. You don't gain a lover by force, or by importunate wooing. You attract by being friendly, engaging, pleasing, intriguing - by being attractive. Relationships are sought, not sold. So it is with civilizations and societies. Only in the mid-twentieth century did societies stop conquering, and start seducing. And you know what? Once force gave way to attraction, Western ideals - Christianity, optimism, economic growth, science, and liberalism - have steadily made greater inroads in non-Western societies since 1950 than they did in the whole of the nineteenth century. Communism died, not because of conquest, but because Mikhail Gorbachev and others were seduced by Western values. In 1989 he could easily have suppressed the revolts in Western Europe by Stalinist ferocity. The USSR had the troops and the discipline, but not the will. The Soviet Union dismantled itself because it ceased to believe in its own anti-Western values. Perhaps the same thing will eventually happen in China.

We need to be realistic. The process of attraction will not produce quick results. It is hard to see China or Islam adopting Western democracy or individualism. But even with oppressive, nasty regimes - and I am under no illusions, China is a fascist, totalitarian, corrupt state - our best policy is to let the attractiveness of the West slowly influence both ordinary power and reformers in the elite. If the regimes remain anti-Western, that will be ultimately because Western values do not prove attractive enough to non-Westerners. We should accept that with good grace.

The world is not going to become a melting pot. To try to impose Western values by force is illiberal, impractical, futile. The alternative is to stand by what is best in Western civilization, to believe in it, and to practice it. Do Westerners truly believe in liberty and compassion? Will America and Europe unite to put the best of their heritage forward, with eloquence and goodwill, to realize the potential of their common civilization? Or will we continue to blunder in, with a combination of professed good intentions and brutal implementation, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? We need a model which is realistic and ethical, and which stands some chance of winning. Is there really another, apart from coexistence and attraction?