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The concept of "The West" is mentioned frequently on this forum, but often runs into the problem of ambiguous definition.

While most people have a rough idea of what is considered "western" and "non-western", the boundary between these two concepts is very subjective.

What are the different ways to define the concept of "The West"?

PS: Would prefer answers to be based on published academic work rather than personal opinion.

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    It seems like any full answer is just going to be a summary of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_world
    – prosfilaes
    Sep 7, 2022 at 3:26
  • @Obie2.0 I changed it to forum. That was a reflexive use of term. Sep 7, 2022 at 5:17
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    Isn't "the West" just a synonym for all liberal democracies? Even Japan is part of the "the West" although they are located in the East (and sometimes not very liberal). Sep 7, 2022 at 7:30
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    @uberhaxed A google search on Clashes between the east and the west brings up a list of clashes starting with the "The Greco-Persian Wars", long before the US. Other pages bring up the West versus Islam, which isn't about US aligned. There's nothing unambiguous about it.
    – prosfilaes
    Sep 7, 2022 at 16:52
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    For instance, people have described the following categories (non-exhaustive) as the West: wealthy countries, countries that are actually to the west of (Greece, Turkey, India, Russia), countries with largely European-derived populations, countries with largely European-derived cultures, and countries that voted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These are completely different sets!
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 8, 2022 at 4:29

5 Answers 5

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"The West" means those peoples and nations at the center of the Liberal Enlightenment (16th-17th centuries) that led through colonialism to the modern capitalist system. That usually includes most European and Anglophone nations, and is (sometimes) extended to other highly industrialized capitalist nations. Depending on the speaker it can take on positive or negative connotations: it's tied to colonialism and racism in many third world locales and within minority groups; it takes on tones of Christian aggression in the Muslim world; it's considered oppressive and exploitive in socialist regimes. It's usually tied to technological development, though that does put the cart before the horse; technological development is what allowed Liberalism to flourish and expand, not the other way around.

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Nassim Taleb has a simple concept that he often mentions, for example in this article:

What we call “the West” is not a spiritual entity, but an administrative system first and last. Is is not an ethno-geographical ensemble, but a legal and institutional system: it includes Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan...

According to him the "The West" is defined by institutions and principles like the rule of law, individual rights, free trade and social progress.
I find this definition to be more useful than historical, cultural or geographic definitions. Consider for example Turkey:
Kemalist Turkey was almost considered a western country. Even a membership in the EU was in the discussion. Since Erdogan's rise to power however and especially after his full consolidation of power that is out of the question, since its trajectory has reversed into the opposite direction, away from the aformentioned principles.

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The term which covers it best is

"Liberal Democracies"

The 1st paragraph of the Wikipedia page gives the general description of this social arrangement:

Liberal democracy is the combination of a liberal political ideology that operates under an indirect democratic form of government. It is characterized by elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, a market economy with private property, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either codified (such as in the United States) or uncodified (such as in the United Kingdom), to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract.

The Wikipedia page also mentions that despite limited restrictions on various individual rights and freedoms, these are countries with governments structured to promote (as their primary goal)

  1. Freedom to form and join organizations.
  2. Freedom of expression.
  3. Right to vote.
  4. Right to run for public office.
  5. Right of political leaders to compete for support and votes.
  6. Freedom of alternative sources of information.
  7. Free and fair elections.
  8. Right to control government policy through votes and other expressions of preference.
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  • Why not calling it simply liberal democracies then? The West is shorter but also invokes an unnecessary and confusing geographical element. There are liberal democracies in the south, east, north and center too. Sep 8, 2022 at 5:43
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    @Trilarion you won't get an argument from me. The term has disappeared for a while. But I think the term has been brought back by the Russian propagandists to create the illusion of "otherness" of anything that's not Russia.
    – wrod
    Sep 8, 2022 at 12:00
  • @wrod, I'm not sure "the West" is a term that has ever gone out of use or even out of favour. It is not a term with a fixed definition, but is broadly used to mean the US and its allies. It is not inherently disparaging.
    – Steve
    Sep 10, 2022 at 21:30
  • @Steve no, it certainly hasn't disappeared. But its use has gone down so much that until a few year back (4-5) its use seemed almost comical. See, for example, the 1st comment to this question. It starts by saying "the West is a big place." I would say that's still a common reaction to its use for anyone who doesn't spend most of their life on the Internet.
    – wrod
    Sep 10, 2022 at 23:05
  • @wrod, yes the West is a big place, most obviously stretching from the USA, across Western Europe, and to Australia and Japan. The connection is not geography but that they are all first-world countries dominated by capitalist liberals with shared political sympathies. Even though a fully consistent definition is elusive, in context it is invariably clear what the term means by contrast to what else is being mentioned, or because it suggests reference to familiar groupings (such as "Western intelligence" meaning the intelligence agencies of Anglophone nations).
    – Steve
    Sep 10, 2022 at 23:48
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Generally The East/West divide was centered on the lineages of nations from the side of Imperial Rome they fell under when it went the two empires system to better manage the large territory the empire held occuring sometime around 395 AD. This split largely was divided on the common languages spoken by the citizens. West of the Adriatic was Latin dominated, while East of the Adriatic was largely Greek. Both Empires were called the "Roman Empire." The Western Roman Empire fell shortly after this split, the Eastern Roman Empire endured for sometime (for the sake of my sanity, I'll be referring to this half of the Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire, even though until the very dying days of Byzantium, they still thought themselves as Romans.). It's from here the earliest East/West divide of Europe came into being and was largely seen as "The West" to mean west of the Adriatic sea and "The East" (Orient) is east of the Adriatic. Byzantium would endure for almost a millennium longer than the Roman Empire thanks to the strategic location of Constantinople. Which is now Istanbul, not Constantinople. When it was suddenly gone, the name Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? In 1453 it was captured by the Turks.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

At either rate, when Istanbul became nobody's business but the Turks, it cut of Western Europe from trade to the east (Eastern Europe, the "middle east" and the "Far East" via loss the world's only Trans-continental city, which sat on the Bosphorus straits, the connection between the Mediterranean and Black Seas.). Because of this new problem, many Western Europeans began looking for ways to continue trade with Asia but not have to deal with the Turks. This gave way to a man for Geona getting financed to Sail West to Go East, and thus Christopher Columbus became the most famous man in history who's notable achievement was not going to where he wanted to go... which lead to new riches for the west as "The New World" did not have people living there... well... no Catholic people... but when you're a Western Europe power in the 16th century, if you're not some kind of Christian, are you really a person?!

With that said, who is "West" and who is not "West" has generally fallen into this catagory. If you have cultural ties to Western Roman Europe (This includes the Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo nations) or are/were a colony there of (all of the Americas... including LATIN America, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand) than you're generally "West". If you don't, than your the rest.

That said, it's not entirely clear as it also tends to be drawn on political lines. Generally, the West today includes Eurasian and American powers that are either in NATO or really want to be part of NATO (not Turkey, which is only there because it allowed the U.S. to have a place to stage attacks against the Soviet Union. As a whole, Turkey desperately wants to be considered European... east or west... but Europe generally doesn't want them to be considered European) or EU. This does encompass a lot of Non-Europe and Non-Americas into it (such as Singapore, Oceania, various British or formerly British holdings (the Empire that the sun never sat on), though generally not India/Pakistan or South Asian powers. South Korea and Japan are "Western" unless Statistically Convenient (i.e. European nations looking to shame the U.S. by pointing out all "Developed Western Nations but the U.S. have abolished capital punishment" and over look that Japan, Korea, and Singapore are also considered developed nations and retain the death penalty. But they're not Western... despite Singapore being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations! Geography won't save you here either, as Austrailia and New Zealand (which both abolished capital punishment) are considered "Western".). Ukraine of late tends to fall into the Western when coinvent camp.

Other nations vehemently oppose consideration as a Western Power. Despite Russia having far more cultural ties to Europe, they almost always insist they are not "Western" (as does Belarus, which tends to side with Russia a great deal in international politics with exception to the "Belarus is Russian debate" (surprisingly, Belarus supports this position. Russia does not... it's at times adorable.). Historically, Russia's capital has always been West of the Urials a generally considered boundary between Europe and Asia) and generally has been so centralized that at times, Russia east of the capital is considered forgotten by Russians... as is anything west of the Capital... or north... or south... Unless the Capital is St. Petersburg, in which case Moscow is still important. When Moscow is the Capital, St. Petersburg will be important only in that it used to be the capital... or it's current name might be problematic.

In religous matters, "The West" involves Juedo-Christian nations that were Roman Catholic following the Great Schism between but prior to the Protestant Reformation. This generally falls on the same "Two Romes" East/West divide as most of those nations are East Orthodox Catholicism (the big difference between the sects is that 1.) Eastern Orthodox masses are said in Greek while Roman Catholic are said in Latin/Vernacular, save for a tiny portion which is said in Greek. 2.) Roman Catholics have a supreme pontiff (the pope) for leadership while Eastern Orthodox's leadership is a patriarch for each nation, with the patriarch of Constantinople being the "First among equals" leader for the faith as a whole... and they historically had less political power than the Pope had in their own faith. 3.) Statues of Jesus and the Saints: Roman Catholics have no problem with this while Eastern Orthodox sees statues as false idols and it's taboo to make them of holy people. Interestingly enough, modern Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Catholics have less problems with each other than Roman Catholics do with Protestants, to the point that Roman Catholics may receive communion from Easter Orthodox Ministers (however, attending Eastern Orthodox liturgies do not meet mass requirements, so it's generally advised to abstain from Eucharist during Orthodox Churches if one can attend a Latin Right Sunday mass... however in an emergency, the communion is still valid).

In Linguistics, the East/West split is generally based on alphabets used for languages. The Latin alphabet is used by "Western" European Language families even if the language is not a Latin language. Greek or Cyrillic alphabets are used by Eastern European Languages.

Because of the colonial period being participated in by Western nations, the use of the Latin alphabet by non-European languages for it's written form (such as Hawaiian, Quechan, Navajo, to name a few) does not make it a western language, as they are not from remotely close families and only use the Latin alphabet because that was the alphabet of the speakers who turned the formally verbal only languages into written languages.

Edit: Almost forgot, though clearly not what the question was about, in the United States, "The West" generally refers to a region of U.S. territorial holdings in the Continental U.S. that were obtained through expansion and generally considered wild when compared to the Eastern Seaboard. Generally the barrier of "The West" is the Mississippi River in the Modern U.S. and is likely to remain there, with states on the west of the line considered "Western States", though as mentioned this was historically fluid and prior to the final territorial acquisition in Mainland U.S. following the Mexican-American war, the east/west divide tended to be the Appalachian Mountain range which runs through most states that boarder the Atlantic (Florida, being a sandbar with delusions of grandeur, is the only Atlantic coast state that this feature is not in) with the West being territory gained in the Louisiana purchase. Prior to that, the Western border was much closer to shore line. In fact, the reason that the attempt by the British to disarm the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts was the inciting incident of the Revolutionary War was because at the time, Concord was the last bastion of civilization before the lawless west... essentially the British Army was going to disarm the citizens on the threshold of the wild west and return to Boston without any means for them to protect themselves. Lexington is about 19.5 miles from Boston Harbor... with modern transport, it's less than a 45 minute drive and in 1775, the British Army were able to march there and back, while getting hit by guerilla fighters the entire way home, and managed to be back in Boston later that day... just in time time for some 7,000-16,000 strong militia men to lay siege to the city and blocking all egress by land for British forces for 11 monthes.

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It really depends on the context of the discussion.

Depending on the context, there could be three definitions of the West:

  1. Countries that make up the so-called Free World and consider the USA as their de facto leader and ally
  2. Countries that follow the Western lifestyle and culture (i.e., the high practice of science & technology, availability of quality higher education, alcohol, free sex, minimal family bond, etc.)
  3. Countries composed of primarily white Europeans and/or their descendants

According to definition #1, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore are part of the West, even though they are located in Asia.

According to definition #2, Russian Federation is a part of the West, even though they are not part of the Free World.

According to definition #3, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, etc., are part of the West.

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  • "Free World" is literally cold War propaganda terminology (so by definition excludes soviet aligned countries). It's kind of strange to use it unironically decades after the end of the cold war. 2. Western culture is heavily centered around Christianity (and is based in Europe). "Minimal or no religion" is just dishonest. Every country in the west still closes all government offices on Christian holidays.
    – uberhaxed
    Sep 7, 2022 at 16:48
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    @uberhaxed, "Minimal or no religion" is just dishonest. --- absolutely not. Every country in the west still closes all government offices on Christian holidays. --- but they allow defaming of Christianity, Christian figures, and scriptures in the name of free speech.
    – user366312
    Sep 7, 2022 at 16:51
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    @uberhaxed, why do these countries label themselves as secular, then? Also, I said, "minimal or no religion."
    – user366312
    Sep 7, 2022 at 16:57
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    @prosfilaes, which is not necessarily the same as the populace not being religious. --- this is actually contrary to what you are trying to imply. Most citizens in the white sphere are either religion agnostics or atheists. Christianity exists nowadays only as a legacy of their political and/or cultural history.
    – user366312
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:17
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    @prosfilaes, This is not about per capita, this is about total R&D and higher education budget.
    – user366312
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:58

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