Beyond Plato to NATO: Rethinking ‘The West’

Review of The Abandonment of the West 
by Michael Kimmage (Basic Books, 2020)

In recent years, certain national security officials have criticized the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations for upholding a “liberal international order” that “enabled the rise of illiberal powers that seek to exploit that order to their advantage.”[1] Historian and former State Department official Michael Kimmage concurs with this assessment in his book, The Abandonment of the West, but argues that American strategic failures stem from deeper shifts in the nation’s cultural imagination. Rather than dwell upon economic or military developments, he draws out the oft-overlooked connections between key decisions and the history of ideas. President Woodrow Wilson first articulated the aspiration of a “liberal international order,” underpinned by “open covenants of peace,” “absolute freedom of navigation,” and “equality of trade conditions” between sovereign nation-states, at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. [2] Although Congress rebuffed Wilson’s ambitions, nearly every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt publicly embraced these ideals. Why then, did the United States fail to build such a world after the Cold War, when we were at the height of our power?

The Restoration of “The West”

Kimmage argues that, during the Cold War, policymakers identified the aspiration of a liberal international order with the geopolitical concept of “the West” rather than the world at large. At the time, the main objective of American foreign policy was to defend a liberal Euro-American “West” from the communist “East.” While the United States refused to commit to the defense of allies’ colonial holdings in the North Atlantic Treaty, this signified only a begrudging acceptance of Wilsonian norms between Western states. [3] Liberal values were only ever of aspirational relevance in relations with the decolonizing states of the “third world.”

Meanwhile, American universities incubated a strong sense of Western cultural identity. Starting in the early 1900s, educators like Jacques Barzun at Columbia University and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago began teaching courses in “Western Civilization.” This cultural “West” was an assimilative ideal meant to induct diverse students (of European descent) into a shared transatlantic heritage. Whereas colleges once required knowledge of Greek and Latin, these new courses taught Greco-Roman, Christian, and modern European texts in English translation so that more Americans could learn to appreciate the “great conversation” of Western ideas.

Kimmage believes that this cultural backdrop provided both the will and inspiration for geostrategic feats like the reconstruction of West Germany. After the Second World War, policymakers were forced to choose between deindustrializing the country so that it could never challenge the Western allies again, or rebuilding it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The perception of belonging to a shared “Western” community convinced American leaders like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower that West Germany could be rebuilt as a healthy liberal society. John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech resonated precisely because of this context.

Nowadays, however, few colleges continue to offer “Western Civilization” courses that trace the development of ideas “from Plato to NATO.” Since the mid-20th century, conservatives began to refer to “Western Civilization” in a more narrow sense. They began to view narratives of progress (Marxist ones in particular) with suspicion and redefined the cultural “West” in terms of “Judeo-Christian values.” In contrast, left-liberals denounced Western identity as inextricably complicit in racism and colonialism. They jettisoned Western identity in favor of a more inclusive but culturally-deracinated cosmopolitanism rooted in universal human rights.

In Kimmage’s view, this “abandonment of the West” – the dissociation of liberal values from the transatlantic cultural community – blinded liberal internationalists to the historical and cultural realities of the post-Cold War era. He singles out George Bush’s remark referring to the War on Terror as a “crusade” as an exemplary case. It was likely said without much thought, but his words nonetheless recalled a legacy of Euro-Christian imperialism (which Islamists inflamed) and foreshadowed the violence of later efforts at democracy promotion.

Readers of a more “realist” bent may find Kimmage’s emphasis on cultural narratives overwrought, but elected officials, opinion leaders, and the voting public are rarely able to navigate international affairs without simplified maps of community in the world. These maps are drawn from underlying assumptions about how culture connects to politics, such as the relationship between “Western Civilization” and liberal ideals. They suggest natural allies, adversaries, and challenges to watch out for. It is at this subterranean level of thought – the imagination – that Kimmage aims to intervene. 

The book hopes to recover a shared language of transnational belonging that can reorient liberal internationalists to a world of new dangers and opportunities. Specifically, Kimmage wants to restore Western identity as a cultural concept that more prudently invests Americans in the fate of liberalism in Europe and the wider world. No matter how much some Americans have wanted to redefine or abandon it, he argues that “the West” continues to exist as a geopolitical reality through alliances like NATO and persists in the global cultural imagination through literature and other forms of media. Hence, we would do well not to forget this.

Still, Kimmage recognizes that the cultural “West” originally failed to unite Americans because of its ideological breadth and history of racial exclusion. Hence, he proposes reviving a liberal understanding of “the West,” rooted in the ideals of the American founding, but informed by Lincoln’s refounding and the Civil Rights Era. Such an ideal would recognize both the legacy of Christian-Enlightenment traditions and the contributions of minorities like the Black diaspora, warning against adventurism by fostering an awareness of our own struggles with liberty.

His proposal for rebuilding Western cultural identity centers on introducing a civics requirement for college students. They would read foundational texts like The Federalist and the Gettysburg Address, etc. alongside relevant Western classics to engage with American ideals. He also believes that international relations programs should teach key American presidencies, foreign policy documents, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, so that aspiring policymakers may govern with a better appreciation of America’s role in the world. 

Kimmage also recommends that policymakers engage in “dual-track diplomacy.” He calls for shoring up the transatlantic alliance with Europe against illiberal tendencies by building upon a shared cultural inheritance. At the same time, the United States would engage with other countries on a “second track” through more basic appeals to liberal norms. This transatlantic focus is born of restraint rather than myopia. He hopes that other peoples (especially in Eastern Europe) will freely “join” the liberal community of “the West” if they admire our way of life, but cautions against treating such developments as inevitable. 

The Tyranny of “The West”

While I understand Kimmage’s desire to put liberal internationalism in historical and cultural perspective, I worry that his proposal for “dual-track diplomacy” unwittingly reproduces the Cold War picture of “the West and the rest.” Although he recognizes that liberal values are not limited to the nations of the cultural “West,” the book still implies that they stem principally from the Euro-American political tradition and that international solidarity requires a strong sense of shared cultural inheritance. But if we only maintain deep cultural engagement with European nations, will they not take undue precedence over our other allies?

For example, Japan ought to be the candidate par excellence for full inclusion into a more global community of liberal powers, especially as Asia grows in strategic importance. But Japan will never become fully Western in cultural inheritance. One could argue that the MacArthur Constitution and other aspects of Japanese society attest to its “Westernization,” but Japan’s own classical traditions and history are equally constitutive of its modern identity. An expanded liberal community that continues to elevate “core” Euro-American cultural discourses over others will not provide Japan or other societies with the mutual recognition that allies deserve. 

Returning to a primarily Western orientation will also tempt revisionist powers to organize revolts from the margins. Failing to confer equal respect to powerful states can thus be deadly. During the Second World War, Japan turned to Pan-Asianism to imagine itself as the center of a new regional order rather than remain at the margins of “the West.” And as American and Soviet power dictated the norms of the Cold War world, similar anti-Western movements emerged again from the margins, such as Iranian Islamism (“Neither East nor West, Islamic Republic”) and Chinese third-worldism, which continue to haunt us today.

As recently as the U.S.-China Summit in Anchorage, Alaska, Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi declared: “The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world […]  I do not think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would […] recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.” [4] Yang taps precisely into resentment toward the perceived imperiousness of “the West” to make his revisionist case. While Kimmage is right that the idea of a liberal “West” endures in the global imagination, it also remains tarred by a history of imperialism.

Framing the embrace of liberal values in terms of Westernization or any other notion of one-way assimilation is therefore fraught. Even traditional “allies” of the United States, such as the Philippines, have found it beneficial to describe “the West” as a foreign and paternalistic racial bloc to deflect criticisms over human rights. [5] Strongly associating liberal norms with Western culture may suggest that they are no more than a cultural preference and enable autocrats to resist reforms through claims to cultural authenticity.

Rhetorical moves targeting “the West” have also been a persistent feature of Chinese efforts to articulate an alternative vision of global integration. To European nations, China presents the “silk road” as a “win-win” model of cooperation free of American influence. [6] These efforts are mirrored in the Pacific, where appeals to “Asian values” aim to isolate Australia and the United States culturally from Asian partners. [7] Unlike in Kimmage’s proposed “dual-track diplomacy,” the Chinese Communists wisely avoid characterizing their own values as stemming from a cultural “core,” but instead present China as merely a major interlocutor in diverse regional contexts.

The United States may profit from similarly framing relationships with non-Western nations in more collaborative terms, but this will require us to reimagine how “the West” fits into the wider world. When defined in contrast to a vast, nondescript “Non-West,” Western identity cannot help but suggest that some loyalties matter more than others, such that the fiercest advocate for a liberal rules-based order in Asia remains on a different tier than smaller European countries. To defuse this outdated 20th-century dichotomy, we need to draw upon other communal ideals. 

Thinking Beyond “The West”

Fortunately, Kimmage’s historical excavations demonstrate that thinking beyond “the West” is possible, for communities have never been so much as found as forged. [8] The history of the creation and recreation of Western identity suggests that Americans can achieve cultural solidarity with more than just European or Europeanized nations. Without papering over or rejecting our distinctive Euro-American traditions, we can nonetheless build up a cultural ideal of a wider “free world” from other histories of commerce and intellectual exchange.

If we examine the civilizations that preceded the Euro-American “West,” all of them reforged their communal ideals as they encountered more of the world. The cosmos of Ancient Greece transformed as Alexander marched into Persia. Rome continuously reintegrated itself as the empire expanded, divided into “West” and “East,” and became Christian in the end. And what is modern Europe but an idea invented by descendants of Eurasian migrants, who after centuries of fighting produced an international state system that now covers the Earth? Our ideas about community may change slowly, but they do change.

The history of the United States itself offers countless examples of this pattern. Over just two short centuries, we grew from a colonial backwater on the Atlantic to the foremost power in the Pacific, forged one nation from a divided confederation, and helped transform a world of empires into a world of independent states. From holding the “old world” in contempt to fighting for the future of “the West” and then recognizing the dignity of “the rest” in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, America reimagines the world in every generation. [9] 

As the former “third world” rises, the United States is well-positioned to consolidate the liberal world order by drawing in sympathetic powers from beyond “the West.” But diplomats, both official and unofficial, will have to preemptively engage with these other societies. We must learn not only how liberal norms might accommodate indigenous experiences, but also how indigenous experiences may inform liberal values. This requires an uncomfortable mix of both humility and confidence. One must accept genuine criticism to pursue honest dialogue, but also sustain a powerful faith in liberal values so as not to prematurely surrender the argument. 

I realize that this attitude contradicts two dominant pictures of progress that have shaped the post-Cold War world. In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy is simply the best regime type. His world is one big lecture hall, with the United States (or maybe, Denmark) as the authoritative lecturer. In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington divides the world into different cultural blocs where every country can modernize, but liberal values are merely a Western cultural preference. His world is a classroom where students still learn from lecturers, but they each understand different languages.

From Sea to Shining Sea

A better map to help us unite the “free world” might depict the Euro-American “West” as one of several crucial “flows” of mutual exchange that the United States participates in across the seas, rather than as a one-way transmission belt or bounded collection of territories. Thinking oceanically emphasizes the fluidity and artifice of communal boundaries, while also reflecting our unique relationship to the world as a maritime superpower. A communal outlook consciously open to cultural exchange would neatly parallel our basic geostrategic objective of ensuring that the “sea lines of communication” remain open and unrestricted.

This outlook also suggests that diplomats should act more like leaders of American liberal arts seminars than lecturers. The leader sets an agenda, but students may propose their own topics to investigate and make up their own minds. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and must learn about, with, and from each other. Kimmage aims to encourage something similar, but a cohort of dogmatic graduate students dominates his “dual-track” world seminar. The undergraduates may learn from them, but their own contributions are likely to be ignored. This is a problem. Arriving at something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires that everyone be heard. 

At the macro-level, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an excellent example of how such an outlook can help forge new security architectures. Japan, India, and Australia took the lead to establish interlocking ties by independently assessing their own national interests, rather than rushing toward a preconfigured communal idea without historical precedent. While the forum has still yet to define its precise character, members have jointly affirmed a commitment to liberal principles, offering an alternative communal vision to Chinese Pan-Asianism. [10] 

If regional associations like the “Quad” represent efforts toward a Pacific “NATO,” where might we find our Pacific “Plato?” As Kimmage suggests, universities are particularly well-positioned to carry out the work of cultural exchange. Comparative literature and language departments having done so for decades. Several young American institutions are also of note, such as Dharma Realm Buddhist University, Zaytuna College, and Yale-NUS (in Singapore). All attempt to foster intercultural dialogue through the parallel study of Western and (respectively) Buddhist, Islamic, and East Asian classics. [11] [12] [13] 

Skeptics may wonder whether the gulf between the history of the “West” and “other cultures” may be too vast for there to exist common unifying experiences. But such reservations reveal a deep ignorance of global history. For example, the ideal of a meritocratic governing class selected through examinations, so fundamental to modern European and American society, is not only something Plato imagined but the subject of centuries of concrete policy debates by Confucian luminaries like Zhu Xi and Wang Anshi. Ongoing disputes about the value of cultural knowledge, liberal versus technical education, and social mobility, are old problems in Asia. 

In fact, these affinities often stem from forgotten histories of exchange and emulation. Civil service examinations are a particularly good example. Jesuit scholars engaging in “great conversations” with the Ming and Qing empires transmitted knowledge of the practice to Europe, where thinkers like Voltaire championed them as a symbol of enlightenment. Western “meritocratic” institutions thus take inspiration from “flows” from the “rest” to the “West.” [14] Recovering these histories is no different from tracing similar “flows” from Athens to Rome. They are an opportunity to learn about ourselves as much as others.

Furthermore, every society by now has had to contend with the shock of globalization and industrial power. Contemporary conservatives, fearful of cosmopolitanism and the decline of religion, might learn something from Zhang Zhidong, Ziya Gökalp, or Fukuzawa Yukichi, who sought to preserve traditional values while embracing modern technologies. Contemporary liberals might better identify potential points of international solidarity by learning about Kang Youwei’s Confucian-liberal visions of world order, or the Islamic feminism of Qasim Amin. 

The fundamental weakness of the contemporary American imagination is not a matter of Right or Left, but a collective superstition that communal identities are “given” and unmalleable. The truth is that we do not yet know what communities we may forge beyond the “West,” for we have forgotten the encounters of our predecessors and hesitate to set sail again. Perhaps we fear that others may change us if we meet them where they are, but to fear this is to fear the entirety of American history. The United States has always stood to benefit from commerce. 

E Pluribus Unum

  Throughout The Abandonment of the West, Kimmage often meditates upon the architecture of the National Mall as a visual representation of American aspirations. He points out that the neoclassical and international styles correspond to the rise and abandonment of the Western idea, and identifies the recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture as a symbol of the inclusive future he strives to bring about. Shaped like a Yoruba crown, the building reflects a richer understanding of the national community as it sits in conversation with other museums and monuments.

Using architecture as an allegorical language myself, I agree that the time has come to extirpate both the chauvinistic undercurrents of neoclassicism and the universalist pretensions of modernism from the American imagination. The best way to do this is neither to destroy what we have nor sink into nostalgia, but to enlarge our field of vision so that we may gain a better view of how American aspirations actually fit into the wider world. Surprising links abound when we look beyond the lenses of “Western Civilization” and become more attentive to forgotten histories.

The nation’s capital, for example, already suggests a more global vision of liberal order than Kimmage describes. One need not even look very hard. I write this as the National Cherry Blossom Festival is being held in Washington, commemorating a 1912 gift of cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo that now stand blooming along the Potomac waterfront. Behind beaux-arts and modern facades, the National Mall is also home to the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art (c.1923) and the National Museum of African Art (c.1964). These deep wells of culture represent traditions that have long inspired the American imagination. 

After all, the wide span of the Pacific did not stop Ralph Waldo Emerson from learning from the wisdom of India nearly a century ago, nor did the expanse of the Atlantic stop W.E.B. Du Bois from studying in Europe or settling in Africa. Kimmage nobly aspires to forge a truly global liberal international order without presuming that everyone will inevitably share our liberal values. But anchoring the future of the “free world” to the heritage of the transatlantic “West” is insufficient. That ship has already sailed for the Pacific and beyond. 

If we can hold onto Athens and Jerusalem (and all those other far-off cities) in our modern imagination, what prevents us from including all the other places that we have been to and come from? America has always been home to local, national, and transnational identities that overlap and intersect in bewildering ways. Our democratic literature warns us that good ideas do not all come from a single “great conversation” across European capitals, but also in small towns, frontiers, and other unfamiliar and wayward places. This is the essence of America. 

As revisionist powers reject the ideal of a liberal international order, the United States should certainly rebuild transatlantic ties. But we should also fuse our cultural horizons with those further afield to build a broader network of alliances in an increasingly multipolar world. Just as the cultural ideal of “the West” was necessary to wed Americans to Europe, new ideals must emerge to unite America with “the rest.” Better strategic thinking will flow from an awareness of this basic fact: The 21st century, the Pacific century, the global century, has begun.

Alex Hu is President of the AHS Chapter at Yale University, where he is majoring in Humanities. He previously worked as a research intern at the Hudson Institute.


[1] Nadia Schadlow, “The Conservative Realism of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy,” (Washington, DC: Hudson Institute, 2018), 

[2] Woodrow Wilson, “Fourteen Points,” 8 January 1918,

[3] “The North Atlantic Treaty,” 1 April 2009,

[4] Xi Jinping, “President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum,” May 14, 2017,

[5] Xi Jinping, “Xi Jinping’s Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations-Edited Excerpt,” 15 May 2019, 

[6] “How It Happened: Transcript of the US-China Opening Remarks in Alaska.” Nikkei Asia, 19 March 2021. 

[7] Sofia Tomacruz, “Locsin on Myanmar Coup: ‘The West Destroyed Suu Kyi’,” Rappler, 4 February 2021.

[8] This formulation comes from philosopher Lorenzo Simpson’s The Unfinished Project: Toward a Postmetaphysical Humanism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001).

[9] Stephen James, Universal Human Rights: Origins and Development (El Paso: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2007), 126-128.

[10] “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad’,” The White House, 12 March 2021. 

[11] “Program Description,” Dharma Realm Buddhist University,

[12] “Bachelors Degree: Islamic Law & Theology,” Zaytuna College,

[13] “Common Curriculum,” Yale-NUS College, 

[14] Têng Ssu-yü, “Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System: I. Introduction,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 7, No. 4, (September 1943), 267-312.  

Image: “‘A BALL GAME. Attic b.-f. lekythos. About 500 B. C. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 260.” by RickyBeninson, retrieved from, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 1.0 Generic license (

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