In This Review

From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents
From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents
By David Gress
Free Press, 1998, 624 pp.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the question of the future of the "West" has become part of the recent political debate over the course of "macrohistory." The West has variously been described as the only available and therefore inevitable model by conservatives, denounced as the source of a unique evil by many on the left, or else relegated to the status of just another (and not necessarily the best) civilization by spokesmen like Lee Kuan Yew and Samuel Huntington. The author of this massive, insightful volume argues that even the West's staunchest defenders do not really understand what the West is. They have, he argues, bought into what he calls the "grand narrative" by which the idea of freedom was born in Greece, nurtured by Roman law, and implemented in the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment such that it could eventually become the political basis legitimating NATO's self-defense against communism.

In a serious and thought-provoking book, Gress points out that this narrative reduces the West to a lowest common denominator by stripping it of its historical cultural content so as to be palatable to modern liberal sensibilities. Thus religion, and specifically Christianity, was a key element of the Western synthesis, but had to be downplayed because of the West's many non-Christians. Basing contemporary Western identity on relatively thin notions of democracy and market capitalism give it universalist pretensions but rob it of its affective core. The problem with the thin version, Gress points out, is that it is ultimately vulnerable to self-undermining because its universalism begets multiculturalism and moral relativism. Those who hope to defend the West against its rivals would do well to consider the ideas presented here.