East vs. West: The Ukrainian War and the Curse of Political Geography
The “West” is not only a term, but also a concept that acquires new meanings over time. For its proponents, it may be analogous to civilization and benevolent power; to its detractors, primarily in the “East” and “South”, it is associated with colonialism, disorderly violence and underserved wealth.
However, the current seismic changes in world affairs – namely the Russo-Ukrainian war and the emerging conflict in the Taiwan Strait – compel us to re-examine the “West”, not only as a historical concept, but also as a than a current and future idea.
Whichever direction the West takes, there is no doubt that the East is finally rising, a momentous historical event that could reinforce a whole new political geography and likely alliances as well.
The ancient Greek historian and geographer Herodotus is often credited with coining the term “West” in the 5th century BC. The root causes of this currency might have been primarily geographical. However, in the 11th century, the division between West and East became decidedly geopolitical, when the center of power in the Catholic Church began to shift eastward, from Rome to Byzantium. While the Catholic Church represented the West, the Orthodox Church embodied the East.
Of course, historical realities are never that simple, as history and its interpretations are written by individuals, with their own religious, nationalist and regional biases. Those who lived in the “East” obviously had no choice in the matter, in the same way as those who live in the “Middle East” today, for example, were hardly consulted before Western colonial powers do not adapt the geography of the world to represent “regions of influence”. , and the proximity of these regions to the centers of Western empires – London, Paris, Madrid and so on.
In the ‘Global South’, the West is hardly geography, but an idea and, very often, a bad idea. For the South, the West is synonymous with economic exploitation, political interference and, at times, military intervention. Southern intelligentsia are often torn between the need for “Westernization” and their justified fear of “Westernization”. In countries like Nigeria, the “discussion” often turns violent. The name of the militant group Boko Haram translates to something like “Western education is prohibited”.
Of course, the West is much more encompassing than geography. Sometimes the connotation seems purely political. Australia and New Zealand, for example, are “Western countries”, even though they are located in the geographical region of Oceania.
The United States and NATO
In the past, Washington has even altered the very meaning of the West to suit its pure military interests. In January 2003, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used the term “old Europe” as opposed to “new Europe”, in reference to the newly incorporated NATO members from Eastern Europe. Is who conveniently supported his country’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
At times, the United States was ready to quash the very idea of the West and draw entirely new geopolitical lines. When, in 2009, US President George W. Bush told Congress: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, he had, albeit temporarily, moved away from the West towards new uncharted geopolitical territories.
This designation did not last long, as the “war on terror” gave way to supposedly more imminent threats, China’s economic rise and Russia’s growing military power. For Washington, “the West” now simply means NATO, and nothing else.
US President Joe Biden’s eagerness was palpable on August 9 when he ratified the US government’s decision to approve Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership applications. “Our alliance is closer than ever. He’s more united than ever and…we’ll be stronger than ever,” Biden said. Ironically, only four years ago it was Washington that appeared to be waging a political war on NATO, with then US President Donald Trump warning US allies of ‘serious consequences’ if they did not increase not their spending, and threatening that the United States might “go our own way.”
Despite the emphasis on proximity, unity and strength by the United States, not all Western members of NATO participate in the American euphoria. Cracks of disunity between European countries – both Western and Eastern – continue to make daily headlines. And while US arms manufacturers and energy exporters are making outrageous profits as a direct result of the war in Ukraine, other Western economies are suffering.
Germany, for example, is heading into a recession as its economy is expected to contract by around 1% in 2023. In Italy, the energy crisis has worsened, with diesel and other fuel prices soaring, affecting sectors important to the Italian economy. Other countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe, such as Estonia and Lithuania, face a worse fate than their western and wealthier counterparts.
It is obvious that not all Western countries share the burden of war or its astronomical profits, a reality that could potentially completely redefine the geopolitics of the West. Yet no matter which direction the West takes, there is no doubt that the East is finally rising, a momentous historical event that could reinforce a whole new political geography, as well as likely alliances. It could also be an opportunity for the South to finally escape the West and its inflexible hegemony.
— Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Committed Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out.” His other books include ‘My Dad Was a Freedom Fighter’ and ‘The Last Earth’. Baroud is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net