The west and the rest

"The west": we say it all the time. "What will the west do to combat this hardline Russian regime, about Georgia?" Nothing actually, apart from froth and affirmation at the Nato meeting where Miliband sounded like Gulliver in Brobdingnag.

This foxed and worn-down term, "the west", is itself at issue. It has been used so often with so little thought by so many not-very-resourceful journalists that it comes out tired. There is often a hint of self-pity about it. Oswald Spengler wrote Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a book I am happy to know only by report. Hans Carossa, a pretty fair German poet, wrote, in 1945, a long lament beginning "O Abendland".

In darker moments, contemplating the American vice-president who recently compared that rough but rational Vladimir Putin with "A-dolf Hitler", I reckon that the fearful American right, which has so many 1913 impulses, thinks in translation. There used to be a phrase, not much used now, but familiar down in Dixie: "White, western, Christian civilisation." Well nothing wrong with shorthand. For along with the self-pity, there is triumphalism. No inconsistency there. In the world of geopolitics, bang and whimper march arm-in-arm.

Today, "the west" means the US and those who follow it. Yet the expression had an innocent, honourable descent. In 1948, when Jan Masaryk, foreign minister of what was trying to be a pluralist Czechoslovakia, was found dead, "suicidé", candidly murdered beneath a ministry window, "the west" meant something.

The Soviet Union and its roll-call of quite horrible minions, Gottwald, Rakosi, Fierlinger, Ulbricht, actually was a great alien darkness rolling toward us. Getting on a bit, but, precocious in our infancy, some of us had our politics defined then. In the same way, the US of Ike and for that matter, Lucille Ball, seemed a pretty good place. But as Tony Blair likes to say, "We must move on" – and Russia has! Vladimir Putin is the leader whom humiliated Russians chose in order to stop being humiliated. Destituted under an abject Americanising drunkard, that country is clenched with resentment.

In the longer term, fear of Stalin and distrust of his successors produced an idle cliché, certainly, in Britain's consciousness. Our governments and press have done the trudging good soldier deep into the era of white phosphorus over Fallujah.

But "the west" needs more than the British, and the impression forms that, tentatively, the platoon is malingering. Consider those European nations not reporting a couple of soldiers dead every week in Afghanistan. "They are," says the plucky, scornful British voice, "back at base." What a sensible place to be!

When the Americans occupied (active verb) Afghanistan, they created a country which is "occupied" (past participle). Valiant, decisive action, initially approved in Europe and, for a few months, accepted by Afghans, has been replaced by a state of promiscuous war, generating resentment then hatred by the occupied for the occupiers. National leaders keeping their troops back at base are letting Gordon Brown down. They put far too high a value on their soldiers' lives.

In Spain four years ago, a hideous al-Qaida explosion killed scores of innocent people. There was an election due – remember. The outgoing premier, José-María Aznar, (former Franquista), was very loyal to America, so, Spanish soldiers were serving in the "coalition". Whom to blame for the bomb? Anybody except al-Qaida, anything but revenge for Iraq. It was intolerable for the deaths to have been triggered by "western solidarity". Nobody believed Aznar. Previous polls had put him ahead. The election threw him out.

What anyway was the American sense in nodding through a mini-Aznar to attack the Russian minority and lose that province for ever? Incidentally, Putin's brief incursion makes an interesting contrast with the long defile through which "the west" trudges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Angela Merkel may have been pulled into line over Georgia, but she had made her point. Nato is "the west" in military form, the toy of some increasingly frightening, mostly southern-states, politicians. If its purpose has been to nudge against resentful borders, what good, decent, civilised purpose does it serve?

[Source: The Guardian, London, Uk, 27Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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