There's been a tremendous amount of argument this week over something that I would never have expected to be a controversial question when I ended my show last Saturday: What, exactly, is "the West"?
The question was raised because the President made comments alluding to defending "the West" during a speech in Poland on his way to the G20 summit. In particular, he said:
...the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.
We used to say that "a great deal of ink has been spilled" over a matter like this, but in the 21st Century, it's really just a matter of pixels. So we'll say that an inordinate number of pixels have been devoted to the debate about whether there was a hidden message in the President's comments -- one that was meant to be a wink and a nod to white supremacists.
I hope not, but I also don't know who wrote the speech. And there are elements within the White House that haven't done enough to renounce their ties, real or perceived, to that movement.
Part of the problem in interpreting the President's comments is that we really don't have a consensus on what "the West" really is. It's shorthand for something -- but what?
If we're only talking about countries with certain religions or ethnic groups, then that definition probably isn't broad enough. They may be "Eastern" in most every geographical, ethnic, or religious way, but Japan and South Korea are part of what most people would define as the Western world. They're liberal democracies with market economies and the rule of law, they participate in constructive international efforts like peacekeeping and trade agreements, and they generally contribute in a very positive way towards upholding the kind of world order which we value so much.
Noah Smith, a writer who has previously made time to join us as a guest on this show, comments that "the West" could pretty easily be defined by which countries meet the standard of being "free", according to observers like Freedom House.
I would submit a slightly different definition: The real definition ought to align mainly with openness versus closedness, where "open" applies to new ideas, technologies, and trading partners. That is to say, I think "the West" is a rough shorthand way to describe countries where openness prevails as often as possible.
And that brings us around to the question of the hour: Are we really doing our part to be an indispensable part of "the West" right now? How open are we, really? A lot of the fights we're duking out in the public arena are about closing ourselves off -- from immigrants, or from trade, or from international cooperation.
That seems like a really ill-advised path to tread down. Conflict between ideas and products and companies and workers and religious ideas, by and large, don't leave us weaker -- instead, they leave us stronger.
I'm not a weaker Catholic because I have friends who are Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and athiest; I think I'm better off for having open and frank interactions with them. It doesn't undermine my attachment to my church to realize that there are other practices out there.
I'm not a weaker Irish or German American because my friends (or their parents) are Japanese and Mexican and Malaysian and Korean and Ghanian and Indian and Filipino; I think I have a better appreciation for my own ethnicity and for the nature of my country because I share it with people who can help remind me that we have many great things that we too often take for granted.
And I'm not a weaker sales engineer because I work with products that are made here or made overseas or made 50/50 here and there, nor because I have competitors here; I think marketplace competition pushes me to do a better job, to innovate, and to learn more -- even if it would seem easier to have a monopoly on everything I do.
The point is: Give me openness. It's never going to be limitless -- open borders, unrestricted free trade, perfect competition. But to the greatest extent practicable, give me "open" instead of "closed". It may be more rough-and-tumble, but the results are usually stronger -- and well worth defending.