The European nations did not identify as Western Civilization when they were waxing, between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, when they started waning, they formed an association called Western Civilization. Oswald Spengler’s two volume work The Decline of the West, published in 1918 and 1922, has played a significant role in propagating the notion of Western Civilization, although his conception of the West would not be acceptable to the Europeans and North Americans of the post-1950 period, when the term “Western Civilization” became popular.
What is the criteria for being included in this association called Western Civilization? Is race the criteria? Is it religion—most Europeans and North Americans in the twenty-first century are atheist? Is it language—Europe is a Tower of Babel? Is it ideology—the Europeans are divided between the right and the left? Is it geography? Is Russia a part of Western Civilization? What about the people of European origin who have settled in non-European countries—are they included? What about Turkey, which exists on the land that was originally Anatolia, the epicenter of Ancient Greek, Ionian, and the Byzantine cultures? By using various criteria, different maps of what might be Western Civilization can be developed.
The true believers in Western Civilization cannot define it. They cannot even define what they mean by Western culture: is it religious or atheistic? Is it Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? Are non-Christian religions included? Is it woke and liberal or traditionalist and conservative? Is it nihilistic or puritan? Are Nazism, Fascism, and Communism part of Western culture? Whenever the true believers try to define Western Civilization, they decimate it—because they get mired in historical, linguistic, religious, and racial controversies. The true believers treat Western Civilization as a nebulous ideal which is real and unreal at the same time.
The term “Western Civilization'' was first proposed by the French philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment (the eighteenth century). These French philosophers were atheists (some were pro-Jacobin)—they didn’t want to say that theirs was a “Christian Civilization,” and so they used the secular word “Western.” They theorized that human progress must have a single civilization as its goal—to this civilization they gave the name Western Civilization. Western Civilization that they envisioned consisted of countries in Western Europe and North America. Rest of the world, they posited, was populated with barbarians who had to be subdued and forced to accept Western culture (which they believed was best represented by the French and British culture of their time).
History tells us that before 1950, Europe (and not the Middle East) was the most violent place on earth. The European nations have been at war with each other since the Classical Age, which began about 2900 years ago. The crusades of the Middle Ages failed because the European powers were more focused on fighting each other than the Islamic powers. During the heydays of imperialism, the imperialist powers—Spain, Britain, Portugal, the Dutch countries, France, and Germany—stood alone. They did not identify with united Europe. Each one of them was a world power and a civilization in its own right. They were ruthlessly competing with each other. The floors of the seven seas are littered with desideratum of European ships that the Europeans have sunk in the sea battles that they fought during the Age of Imperialism.
In the 20th century, the Europeans fought two great wars—the First and the Second World Wars—in which they slaughtered millions of their own people and reduced large parts of Europe to rubble. It is wrong to see these two wars as world wars—these were first and foremost European wars. These wars were the climax of the political and cultural disputes that had been raging in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. In the bloodbath of these two wars, it was impossible for the European nations to conceive of themselves as a part of Western civilization.
In the aftermath of the two World Wars, the European nations lost their colonies which hitherto had been their primary source of revenue for keeping their economy afloat, and of cheap soldiers and sailors for fighting their land and sea battles. Their economy was gone; their military might was gone. The European nations realized that they could not face the world on their own. To survive in the new world, they had to join hands and they had to force America to become part of their coalition. So they started proclaiming that all nations of Europe and North America were one, that they had always been one, that they were distinct from the rest of the world, that they were the Western Civilization.
The label of Western Civilization has enabled the European powers to project a sense of being united against the rest of the world, but it has not stopped the process of their waning. In the 21st century, their power has waned to a new low and now the common front called Western Civilization does not seem potent enough to defend the borders of their territory and culture. The world is hurtling towards a multipolar order in which the idea of Western Civilization will be irrelevant.
The Europeans became good in metallurgy, ship building, engineering, and technology because they were constantly at war. When a nation is mired in brutal wars, its people will start innovating to develop systems for arming and transporting troops that will give them an advantage over their enemies. People in non-European countries did not develop a culture of innovation because they did not fight so many destructive wars. The notion of being part of Western Civilization might unite Europe and North America, but the problem is where there is unity, there is no possibility of wars, and no possibility of innovation. These nations can either be part of Western Civilization or they can be innovative—they can’t be both.