The West and the Rest – by Imad Moosa

World map (Wikicommons)

I am bewildered by the meaning of the widely-used terms “West”, “Western” and “Westerner”, hence by Niall Ferguson’s The West and the Rest. I am yet to find anyone who can tell me, with any degree of confidence, what the “West” really means, which countries can be classified as “Western” and who is eligible to be called “Westerner”. I would imagine that this would be a formidable task, even for Niall Ferguson. The criteria used to designate countries as Western and non-Western produce vastly different classifications.

Historically, the West was anything west of Istanbul. The modern equivalent of this criterion is religion, which makes the Western World equivalent to the Christian World. Why is it then that Ecuador, a Christian country, is not part of the West while Israel is a Western country according to some classifications? And why is it that the predominantly Christian countries in Africa and Asia are not part of the West (Lebanon is a predominantly Christian country but it is an Arab, not a Western, country).

In another sense the West encompasses European countries as well as countries of European origin in the New World. In this sense, the West includes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But if this is the case then Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and perhaps all countries in the Western hemisphere should be part of the West.

In yet another sense, the West comprises English speaking countries, a concept that is definitely rejected by French Canadians (an eminent American economist once told me that he got himself in trouble by calling Canada an English speaking country in a public lecture in Montreal). The criterion of language means that Germany, France, Sweden and Norway are not Western countries, while Singapore should be a Western country (perhaps the Philippines as well).

The economic criterion used to distinguish between the West and the Rest is membership of the OECD, which makes Japan a Western country—never mind that it is located in the Far East. Sometimes the designation does not require membership of the OECD, just being a developed country would suffice. Hence, Taiwan, and South Korea should be part of the Western world, now that they are classified as developed countries. If the level of development is measured by GDP per capita or by one of the wellbeing indices, then Kuwait, Qatar and perhaps Libya (at least prior to the NATO bombing campaign) should be classified as Western countries.

Interestingly, whenever there is a bombing campaign of a sovereign nation by NATO (to protect civilians, of course), the West becomes NATO, which makes Turkey (but not Sweden) a Western country. Sometimes this criterion is extended so that the West encompasses countries that have close relations with NATO or with a member of NATO. This is perhaps why Japan and Israel are Western countries, but what about Mubarak’s Egypt and the Philippines?

During the Cold War the West was the First World—that is, NATO plus. This is why Hungary and Romania were not Western countries, but now that they are part of the European Union, they are Western countries—or are they? But why is it that Russia is not a Western country, even though it has adopted capitalism?

Then we have (ludicrous) expressions like “Western cooking” and “Western landscape”. These expressions make me wonder which set of countries share cooking and landscape. What is common among Cornish pasty, Huggies, Blanquette de Veau, Emilia-Romagna and Pa amb tomaquet (assuming of course that France, Italy and Spain are Western countries)? Is Western landscape like the English countryside, the Canadian Rockies or the Australian desert?

As an economist I was rather amused to read what someone wrote to complain about China refusing to adopt a “Western exchange rate system” in reference, I presume, to free floating. I thought it was disingenuous to complain about an Eastern country not adopting a Western system that makes the West different from the Rest. But then there is nothing Western about free floating, as countries like Japan and Korea use this system (unless of course Japan and Korea are part of the West or at least they are “honourary” Western countries). In the 1950s Canada was the only country using free floating while the rest of the world was on fixed exchange rates. Canada therefore must have been the only Western country at that time (a nice example for Niall Ferguson’s The West and the Rest).

But it gets even better. We all know that America is a Western country, but America is also a melting pot comprising WASPs, non-WASPs, African Americans and Hispanics. These people must be, by definition, Westerners. However, I am yet to meet any Hispanic or African American who is referred to as “Westerner”.

It seems to me at least that the West is the World minus Latin America, Africa, Russia, the Middle East and most of Asia (not sure about Antarctica, but it is at least partially Western). I would however suggest a better definition of the West with reference to the United Nations. A Working definition is that the West is the Security Council minus the non-permanent members, China and Russia. A more precise definition is that minus France. Irrespective of whether we use the working definition or the precise definition, the “international community” is that part of the General Assembly that agrees with the West.

The term “West” is at best a relic of the Cold War era, and at worst it has strong racist connotations (I have heard that the West encompasses predominantly white countries). It serves no meaningful purpose, so is it not about time it is relegated to the bin of history?

Dr. Imad Moosa is Professor of Finance at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is the author of “The US-China Trade Dispute: Facts Figures and Myths” and “The Myth of too Big to Fail”.




See also: ‘In Defence of China (and Truth and Justice)‘ by the same author.



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2 Comments on “The West and the Rest – by Imad Moosa”

  1. Matthew Toro Says:

    Dr. Moosa:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking essay. I have not read Ferguson’s book, but your essay has (perhaps inadvertently) prompted me to go do so!

    I understand your politically progressive intention to relegate use of the sociocultural classifiers “West”/”Western”/”Westerners” to historical bin of the obsolete. I agree with your underlying argument that use of those terms do — as their very worst — suggest a certain degree or racism.

    However, I’m not so confident that the applicability of these terms exists solely in the bipolar Cold War era. Quite the contrary, I increasingly see/hear/feel their applicability in daily life.

    It should be noted also that I myself am “Hispanic” (a term that has it’s own racial implications and is itself subject to contention and deconstruction). I live in Miami, Florida — a world-city, but a truly “Western” world-city.

    I personally consider myself very much a “Westerner”. My “Western-ness” was made abundantly clear during my time living in Asia. For most of my time in the “East”, I lived in another, world-city, Hong Kong. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is often regarded as a place where “East meets West”, as a self-described “Westerner”, I can assure you that Hong Kong is far more “Eastern” than it is “Western”. Truly, Hong Kong is a truly “Eastern” world-city.

    At the tremendous risk of being accused of over-generalization and over-simplification, I dare posit that there are certain elements that make the West a coherent geographical-sociocultural construct.

    For one, the West is relatively limited in terms of the religious and linguistic diversity — the two fundamental components of cultural coherence. The West is predominantly Judeo-Christian and speaks predominantly Romance and Germanic languages (which came form north and western Europe). Of course, we’re seeing the increased Islamization of Europe, but the overarching religious-ideological forces are undeniably Catholic and Protestant in the Western Hemisphere, where the vast majority of “Westerners” reside.

    While the Occidental world is certainly not monolithic, it is certainly more socioculturally coherent than the Oriental one.

    I think a more appropriate task would be to deconstruct the false perception held my many Westerners that the East is coherent. For I see much more sociocultural diversity and fragmentation in the Eastern world than the Western one. Again, I’ve never read Ferguson’s book, but I would imagine that that’s the reason he (in an admittedly Euro-/Western-centric way) titled his book, “The West and the Rest” . . .

    Thank you again, Dr. Moosa!



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