This is a day for celebration, so let me start with some good news. The West is back.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is an abomination, but it has also brought the West back to the top of the news — mentioned with approval in almost every bulletin. In the most terrible circumstances, we have been reminded – and so have our enemies — that for all its divisions and failures, the West has deep reservoirs of strength and moral character. Putin believed that the West was decadent and weak, but his actions have revealed instead the corruption, weakness and moral vacuum at the heart of his attempt at an alternative.
But of course, the West never went away.
It is always in decline, and always rising to new heights at the same time. In the twelfth century, contemporaries looked about them in despair and prepared for the coming doom. “The world is very evil; the times are waxing late,” wrote Bernard of Morlais. But this was also the golden age of mediaeval Catholicism — the age of new cathedrals and religious orders. Of St Anselm of Canterbury, declaring credo ut intelligam: I believe, in order to understand.
This open system releases energy from below
In the sixteenth century, the Turkish advance claimed Belgrade and Budapest. The universal Church was torn by the Reformation. It was in an apocalyptic mood that Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel an image of the Last Judgement. But of course we now see that era too as beginning a new period of greatness for the West.
From the fall of Rome’s western empire at the end of the Classical era came something very peculiar: what we now call the West, a distributed, multi-headed, half-barbarian civilisation. Moralised in revolutionary ways by Christianity but never trapped in theocracy or under any single authority. Fiercely competitive, endlessly inventive, the West has never stopped evolving. In the face of crisis, its plural and open nature allows it to self-correct, and reinvent itself better than before. It is because the individualistic West is never entirely happy with the status quo, that it constantly bubbles with creativity from unexpected directions.
Our greatest threat comes from those, without and within, who think that the West’s strangely divided nature is too weak to survive, or that its day is done. Those who dismiss the West always believe they are opening the door to something new, a better alternative. More stable, or more efficient, or more socially just. Or perhaps, even, more like the past. Instead, as it always turns out, they are letting back in what Kipling called the “old king”, imperial despotism.
He shall break his judges if they cross his word;/He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.
Because at the centre of the West sits not a God-King or an Emperor, but a set of overlapping legal orders that share a common principle: one law for all and liberty under it. This open system releases energy from below, rather than imposing it from a strongman who sets himself above the law.
The twentieth century was a long, brutal lesson in the dangers of giving up on the Western experiment. After World War One, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West announced that the game was up: we were already living in the land of sunset. And, in his despair he helped open the gates to terrible, anti-Western alternatives. Germany may not be able to produce new Goethes, he wrote, “but it can produce new Caesars.” The West carried on, proving him wrong, and ultimately defeating the anti-Western horror of Nazism, before turning successfully to the task of recovering from that devastating war and confronting Soviet tyranny.
Toynbee was part of a defeatist culture
In 1952, with the West gripped by the Cold War, the BBC invited Arnold Toynbee to give its Reith Lectures. Unfortunately Toynbee was a disciple of Spengler, though of a new kind, a true believer in what Hugh Trevor-Roper called “messianic defeatism”. And characteristically, Toynbee used his lectures to denounce the West as “the arch-aggressor of modern times”.
It is, incidentally, not well enough understood how much the anti-Western intellectual culture which has developed since the Fifties and Sixties depends on ideas of Western decline. In the notorious essay where Susan Sontag called the West the “cancer of human history” in 1967, she too quoted Spengler and went on to say she believed America was doomed. Others looked to communism and saw its inevitable victory over the West. Even Whittaker Chambers, when he went from communist spy to staunch anti-communist, thought he was joining the losing side. And our delusions over China and Russia until very recently have been infused with Toynbee’s idea that the West’s time was over and every power would modernise, democratise and blend into one global order.
Toynbee was part of a defeatist culture that continues to embolden our enemies and weaken the West from within. But the West is strong enough to survive such folly and he did not, of course, have the last word. Even at the time, there was a furious response to his lectures. The West’s leaders may sometimes try to surrender, but our lack of deference to central authority means that any such surrender will never be final.
Seven years after Toynbee’s lectures, America too seemed to be grovelling before Nikita Khrushchev as he toured the United States at the invitation of President Eisenhower. But during that trip William Buckley, the editor of National Review, gave a speech where he reminded his audience that, for the West: “the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep… in the West there lie, however encysted, the ultimate resources, which are moral in nature… we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope. In the end, we will bury him.”
It was a long struggle, but already in Buckley’s defiant confidence you can hear the germ of the movement that would lead to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. And forty years ago this June, President Reagan came to Westminster to give an even more remarkable speech, rallying the West to celebrate its values on the world stage.
“All the democracies paid a terrible price,” he said, “for allowing the dictators to underestimate us. We dare not make that mistake again. So, let us ask ourselves, ‘What kind of people do we think we are?’ And let us answer, ‘Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.’”
We are at another inflection point today. The present direction of China and Russia makes the alternative to the West clear, as it has not been for a generation. That vision cannot be allowed to prevail, and nor can a defeatist, anti-Western culture at home.
Our enemies believe that the freedom we cherish is weak and decadent
It is our task to resist both. But we must do so like Reagan: with confidence in the West. Because there are always those on every side whispering stories of the West’s decline, and its inevitable failure. Servants of the old king, who tell us to give up who we are to save what we love. To prefer the firm, efficient hand of central control. But that way lies Putin’s so-called based autocracy, in all its horror, and weakness.
The West is easy to underestimate, partly because it is so much more transparent, but it is stronger.
If you want proof of that, look to Ukraine. Against the overwhelming forces of despotism, free people fighting for a country they love is still the side to bet on. It is this unexpected truth that underpins the West’s success. It always has.
“freedom is an excellent thing,” wrote Herodotus in his Histories. “[T]he Athenians… while they continued under the rule of tyrants, were not a whit more valiant than any of their neighbours. No sooner had they shook off the yoke than they became the first of all. …[W]hile undergoing oppression, they let themselves be beaten, since then they worked for a master; … so soon as they got their freedom, each man was eager to do the best he could for himself.”
Two and a half millennia later, this is still the West’s secret strength. Our enemies believe that the freedom we cherish is weak and decadent. They are wrong. So long as we remember that, we cannot fail. That is why fighting against the loss of memory is the first and most vital task in revitalising the West. And that’s why I’m so grateful for Peter’s vision and support in backing the series we’re working on now. I can’t wait to share it with you all later this year.
Let me end with some words from Mrs Thatcher, in a speech she gave in 1997, looking back to the Cold War and forward as well:
The West is after all not just some ephemeral Cold War construct: It is the core of a civilization which has carried all before it, transforming the outlook and pattern of life of every continent. It is time to proclaim our beliefs in the wonderful creativity of the human spirit, in the rights of property and the rule of law, in the extraordinary fecundity of enterprise and trade, and in the Western cultural heritage without which our liberty would long ago have degenerated into licence or collapsed into tyranny.
These are as much the tasks of today as they were of yesterday, as much the duty of conservative believers now as they were when Ronald Reagan and I refused to accept the decline of the West as our ineluctable destiny.
As the poet Goethe said: That which thy fathers bequeathed thee/ Earn it anew if thou would’st possess it.
The world may be very evil; but the times are not waxing late. The great adventure of the West has barely begun.
Republished with kind permission from a St George’s Day speech given at the New Culture Forum
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