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The term Western world can have multiple meanings depending on its context. Originally defined as Europe, most modern uses of the term refer to the societies of Europe and their genealogical, colonial, and philosophical descendants, typically also including those countries whose ethnic identity and dominant culture derive from European culture.
To explain what is typical of Western society and Western culture, we must first define what constitutes the West (also called the Occident). Which countries belong, and which don't? Historically, the definitions have varied.
The Hellenic division between Greeks and "barbarians" (a Greek word), predates the division between East and West. The contrast was between Greek-speaking culture of mainland Greece, the Aegean, the Ionian coast and Magna Graecia in southern Italy, and the surrounding non-Greek cultures of Thrace and Anatolia, the Persian Empire, Phoenicians and Egypt. This contrast can be traced in the Trojan War, which is dated traditionally to 1194 BC - 1184 BC. Presuming it had a historical basis, the conflict was between Achaeans and the non-Greek Trojans in western Anatolia. The Greeks also considered the Persian Wars of the early 5th century BC a conflict of west versus east.
The Mediterranean basin was united by Romans, but distinctions remained between the Empire's mostly Latin-speaking western half and the more urbanized eastern half, where Greek was the lingua franca. The Roman Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two regions, each administered by an Augustus and a Caesar (the Tetrarchy), in 292 A.D.; the eastern part evolved into the Byzantine empire, a Christian theocracy where the emperor was also head of the spiritual life ("caesaropapism"). At the same time, Roman rule in the western half crumbled under pressures from outside the empire, and was slowly rebuilt as a culture divided between two sources of power, the Pope and the Emperor.
The distinctions between the western and eastern parts of the Christian world remained through the Middle Ages, despite a nominal sense of Christian unity (the concept of "Christendom") brought about by the conquests of Christian lands by the Muslim Arabs and Turks. The Franks under Charlemagne established a western empire, which was recognized as the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope, offending the Byzantine Emperor. The Latin Rite church of and central Europe, headed by the Pope (the Patriarch of Rome), split with the eastern, Greek-speaking Patriarchates during the Great Schism. "Latin" and "Frankish" Crusaders sacked the Byzantine capital Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade as ruthlessly as they did the 'infidel' Muslims. With its Byzantine heritage, Orthodox Europe, including Russia, may or may not be considered part of the West.
During the early 16th century, explorers like Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Pedro Álvares Cabral , and Hernán Cortés and others opened up new continents to settlement and conquest by people from Western nations. Thus the term "Western" came to encompass nations and former colonies such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, etc. populated mostly by immigrants from Europe and their descendants.
Japan in 1955 (immediately after its occupation by the US) would be considered by most to be part of the West - while Japan in 1750 would not. Similarly, North America in 1850 would be considered part of the West while it would not be in 1450, or even 1500 - before substantial colonization had occurred.
During the Cold War, a new definition emerged. The Earth was divided into three "worlds". The First World was composed of NATO members and other countries aligned with the United States. The Second World was the Eastern bloc in the Communist sphere of influence, such as the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, etc. The Third World consisted of countries unaligned with either.
There were a number of countries which did not fit comfortably into this neat definition of partition, including Switzerland, Sweden, and the Republic of Ireland, which chose to be neutral. Finland was under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence but was not communist, nor was it a member of the Warsaw Pact. 1955, when Austria again became a fully independent republic, it did so under the condition that it remained neutral, but as a country to the west of the Iron Curtain is was in the the United States sphere of influence. Turkey was a member of NATO but was not usually regarded as either part of the First or Western worlds. Spain did not join NATO until 1982, towards the end of the Cold War and after the death of the authoritarian dictator Franco. The Western world became a synonym for the first world but included the West European exceptions mentioned earlier in this paragraph and excluded Turkey.
After the end of the Cold War, the phrase "second world" fell into disuse, and "first world" came to refer to the democratic, wealthy, industrial, developed nations, most of which had been aligned with the US. The "third world" came to refer to the poor, unindustrialized developing nations. That is, the term "Western" is not so much a geographical definition as it is a cultural and economic one, therefore:
- African history can speak of Western influences by the European countries that lie to its north, as well as by the relatively westernized country of South Africa at its southernmost tip.
- Australia and New Zealand can be considered Westernized countries located in the East.
- International companies founded in America may be considered foreign influences in Europe, but be said to be Western when their presence is seen (and sometimes criticized) in the Orient.
Nowadays, people differ in their definitions of the West, and different definitions overlap only partly. There are certainly non-Western developed nations, not all Western countries are members of NATO, etc.
In 1993, Samuel P. Huntington published the article "The Clash of Civilizations?" in Foreign Affairs, which was later expanded into a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in 1996. Huntington's thesis was that the world can be understood as being made up of several civilizations, and that conflicts between civilizations will be the primary tensions of the post-cold-war world, replacing the ideological conflicts (i.e capitalism vs. communism) that characterized the cold-war world. According to Huntington's thesis, the primarily Roman Catholic and Protestant countries of western and central Europe, together with the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, constitute the "Euro-Atlantic" civilization, which share a common system of values, shaped by the historic influence of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Huntington and his followers understood "The West" to be roughly synonymous with the Euro-Atlantic civilization, although countries with roots in other civilizations, such as Greece, Turkey, or Japan, may choose to ally themselves with the West as a result of having absorbed "Western" ideas and values into their societies. Huntington's thesis was influential, but was by no means universally accepted; its supporters say that it explains modern conflicts, such as those in the former Yugoslavia; the thesis' detractors fear that by equating values like democracy with "Western civilization", it reinforces racist and/or xenophobic notions about "non-Western" societies, as well as blatantly ignoring non-Western democracies (for example India, which holds nearly half of all the people in the world who live under a democratic system).
In Huntington's thesis, the historically Eastern Orthodox nations of southeastern and eastern Europe constitute a distinct "Euro-Asiatic civilization"; although European and Christian, these nations were not, in Huntington's view, shaped by the cultural influences of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, and were not "Western" in the same sense as the Euro-Atlantic civilization. Huntington also considered Latin America to be a separate civilization from the West.
In the Near East or Middle East, (both terms relative to Europe as being in the west), the distinction between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is of less importance; countries that western Europeans might think of as part of Eastern Europe, i.e. Russia, might be counted as Western in the Middle East, in the sense of being both European and Christian.
Depending on context, the Western countries may be restricted to Canada and the United States, the member countries of the European Union, Switzerland and Norway. A broader definition might extend to Australia, New Zealand and the wealthier (per capita) democratic Latin American and Caribbean countries. It is sometimes extended to include South Africa and Israel.
The term The North has in many contexts replaced earlier usage of the term "the west", particularly in the critical sense. It is a little more coherent, because there is some absolute geographical definition of "northern countries", and this distinction statistically happens to capture most wealthy countries (and many wealthy regions within countries). The thirty countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which include the EU countries, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, South Korea and Japan, generally include what used to be called the "first world" or the "developed world", although the OECD includes a few countries, namely Turkey and Mexico, that are not wealthy industrial countries.
More typically, the term "The West" contains a pejorative meaning: simply to describe and delineate the wealthy and dominant societies from the poorer societies - those who are believed to be subjugated economically, miltarily, and otherwise, by deliberate restraints placed on them by the wealthier ones. "The West" then becomes simply a term to mean "Wealthy, Colonial, Europe-descended (or allied) societies".
In the context of increased integration of a growing European Union, and an increased polarity between bellicose religious fundamentalism in the United States and European popular sentiments marked by the recent century's horrors of world wars and totalitarianism, Dmitry Shlapentokh, a professor of history at Indiana University at South Bend, wrote:
- The fact that Europe and the U.S. have the same political/economic systems and emerged from similar-looking phenomena, the American and French Revolutions — emphasizing the liberal tradition of the French Revolution — does not mean much. Instead of a unified "West," one sees at least two "Wests" — the U.S. and Europe.
Western countries have in common a high (relative) standard of living for most citizens - compared to the rest of the world. They may also have democratic, (mostly) secular governments, rule of law and developed bodies of laws that have some expression of rights (for their own citizens) in law. Also, high levels of education, and a similar, "modern" popular culture may reflect the Western or Westernized society. Militarily and diplomatically, these "Western" societies have generally been allied with each other to one degree or another since World War II. In fact, some would argue that this is the definition of the West and explains why Japan is usually considered Western while Ecuador is not.
Western society may be thought of as following an evolution that began with the philosophers of Athens such as Solon and Socrates. It continued through the Roman Empire and, with the addition of Christianity (which had its origins in the East), spread throughout Europe. During the colonial era, it became implanted in the Americas and in Australasia.
In the early 4th century, the Emperor Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Empire included lands east of the Adriatic Sea and bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Black Sea. These two divisions of the Eastern and Western Empires were reflected in the administration of the Christian Church, with Rome and Constantinople debating and arguing over whether either city was the capital of Christianity (see Great Schism). As the eastern and western churches spread their influence, the line between "East" and "West" can be described as moving, but generally followed a cultural divide that was defined by the existence of the Byzantine empire and the fluctuating power and influence of the church in Rome. This cultural division was and is long lasting; it still existed during the Cold War as the approximate western boundary of those countries that were allied with the Soviet Union.
There are ideals that some associate with the West, and there are many who consider Western values to be universally superior. For example, the author Francis Fukuyama argues that Western values are destined to triumph over the entire world.
However, there are many who question the meaning of the notion of Western values and point out that societies such as Japan and the United States are very different. Furthermore, they point out that advocates of Western values are selective in what they include as Western; for example, they usually include concepts of freedom, democracy, and human rights, but not totalitarianism, which was first created in the West, or slavery, which reached massive levels in the West, and whose history in the West goes back millennia. Therefore by selecting what values are part of "Western values", one can tautologically show that they are superior, since any inferior values by definition are not Western. See also: No true Scotsman fallacy
A different attack on the concept of Western values comes from those who advocate Islamic values or Asian values. In this view, there are a coherent set of traits that define the West, but those traits are inferior and are usually associated with moral decline, greed, and decadence. Those who hold this view are concerned about the Westernization of the rest of the world.
Since the countries in the "West" were generally those that explored and colonized outside of Europe, the term Western became, to some people, associated with European colonialism. However, many others have established colonial rules, so it is not uniquely a Western phenomenon.
Historically, one of the most interesting questions is how did the societies associated with "the West" come to dominate the world between 1750 and 1950.
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