On January 22, 1948, Britain’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, got to his feet in the House of Commons to lay the foundations of the Western world’s postwar order. Bevin—a working-class titan, trade-union leader, and fierce critic of Communism—set out the urgent need to “organise the kindred souls of the West” in the face of the emerging totalitarian reality of the Soviet Union.
Addressing his fellow members of Parliament—some of whom remained sympathetic to Moscow, Britain’s wartime ally, and its philosophy—Bevin said the British government wished to see the “spiritual unity of Europe,” but had been dealt a fait accompli in the East, which had fallen into Soviet domination. “No one there is free to speak or think or to enter into trade or other arrangements of his own free will,” Bevin said. “Neither we, the United States nor France is going to approach Western Europe on that basis. It is not in keeping with the spirit of Western civilisation.” Bevin declared that if the West was to come together, “it must be a spiritual union.” While there would be treaties and agreements to make it real, ultimately, he added, “it cannot be written down in a rigid thesis or in a directive. It is more of a brotherhood and less of a rigid system.”
NATO, which formed the following year, is the physical embodiment of this idea of the West. Yet as the leaders of the world’s most enduring military alliance have gathered in London these past two days, amid petty rows and great philosophical disputes, the very notion of this spiritual union is being called into question. In the 21st century, with the Soviet Union long gone and new existential threats to Western values emerging—from the strategic challenge posed by China, to the totalitarian ideology of Islamist jihadism, to even the “illiberal democratic” model now on display in Hungary and Turkey—the idea of the West embodied by NATO appears as incoherent as at any time in its 70-year history.
What can possibly be said to connect Viktor Orbán to Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson to Angela Merkel? In just the past two days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has questioned Turkey’s commitment to the alliance’s principle of collective defense, Macron has attacked Turkey’s intervention in Syria, and Trump has suggested that the U.S. will impose tariffs on NATO allies. Here is a spiritual union that no longer appears spiritually connected, its members unable to agree on who they are, what they stand for, or even their principal enemy. Does the West, as Bevin described it, still even exist? [Continue reading…]