What is the West and why is it good to be part of it?

Being a part of the West is our free choice.

(Source: Sme archive)

Ivan Korčok is the outgoing state secretary of the Foreign Ministry and the newly-appointed Slovak Ambassador to the US.

Looking back on my three years in office, many interesting moments come to mind, such as when I served as plenipotentiary for the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the EU and when I deputised for the Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who was the President of the United Nations General Assembly.

There were hundreds of talks abroad. But the most important discussions took place in several Slovak cities, where I talked with young people about Europe and its future. These meetings were vivid and fresh with spontaneous responses, forcing me to speak a completely different language than the diplomatic one I use routinely. Young people don’t see the European Union just through specific benefits. In fact, many of them stress that the EU is about much more than roaming or funds, as it is a project based on values. It was so nice to hear that.

The best way of governance

When travelling around Slovakia and discussing the EU, I was also aware of public opinion polls, according to which many citizens see Slovakia as a country somewhere between the East and the West. These findings come 25 years after the establishment of Slovakia as independent state. We have also been members of the EU and NATO, institutions personifying the West, for almost 15 years.

This perception of Slovakia has been sufficiently publicised with reminders of how our history and culture has been influenced by the West. It seems to me, however, that many Slovaks define “West” as a geographic category rather than a community based on clear values and principles.

The West, for all its flaws, differs from other groupings or individual states mostly in the way it governs society, the role rule of law has in its core, its power distribution and political culture.

In fact, no one claims it works perfectly. Some countries that are part of western institutions have serious problems with this type of governance but it should not go unnoticed that these very principles offer conditions for the western states to provide their citizens the best alternative of governance available.

Where our self-determination came from

Yes, I hear arguments about how the West is decadent and that economically, other players that operate on different principles are catching up with it. This is exactly why protagonists of an alternative, non-western Slovakia should consider why quality of life in the West is still diametrically opposed and available to much a wider circle of people.

The reason is obvious: they are the dull and hard-to-communicate values and principles that the West has been built upon. These principles are behind our ability to generate sources and provide state services for them.

We should not forget this when encountering emotions like those linked to the Night Wolves or to people who travel to Crimea as private persons and don’t understand that just as Crimea was always Russian, Slovakia was – for centuries – part of another power establishment. We must admit that our self-determination was supported by the West rather than the East.

Why they nag with their rules

To understand the West, it is also important to know that it can build coalitions of states voluntarily – quite the opposite of the Warsaw Pact or The Council of Mutual Economic Help (RVHP). Could these institutions have been entered and left easily, as we are witnessing with Brexit? We tend to forget that no one forced us to enter EU or NATO.

“The more we know the West, the more we delve into disillusion, and the more we are communicated a romantic illusion of the things we hardly know.”

That same illusion has been used to lure Western Balkan countries or our neighbour, Ukraine, which is at war because it wanted to get closer to the West. It’s completely different in the West when membership in its institutions is concerned.

We create enormous obstacles for those who want to become members, we give conditions, and often do a lot to discourage them, “nag” them with principles of rule of law, etc. Despite all of this, someone is still knocking on the West’s door.

Why don’t they flock elsewhere where these oh-so-important values and principles are not so insisted upon? Perhaps, in part, because in the EU, which personifies the West, one principle is solidarity, which is also demonstrated in the economy.

Again, I hear objections that “from every single euro we get through EU-funds, western companies profit anyway”. Yes, they do. But our country has visibly changed for the better in the past decades, because we voluntarily decided to build up our society in a way common in the West.

Let us not forget this when we are “nagged” by EU institutions to respect the environment or reprimanded “for destroying competitiveness” with measures against climatic changes, or when we are dictated the rules of state aid or pushed to handle the state budget responsibly.

This, too, is what the West is about, its institutions and principles, which determine how we govern today.

Being a part of the West is our free choice, gained through key jiggling in the street protests of 1989, the biggest plebiscite in our modern history. Then, everybody looked to the West, excluding a brief period after 1993, when a few political adventurers played with the idea of being somewhere in the middle.

Visegrad is not an alternative to the EU

It is strange how quickly we tend to forget where we were, where we are today, and why it is so. With EU and NATO membership, we are a definite part of the West, which means we notice its imperfections, problems and failings, such as the current issue of migration.

The more we know the West, the more we delve into disillusion, and the more we buy into a romantic illusion of the things we hardly ever know.

This is to belong to the community which provably offers more prosperity and security for most of its citizens than any other concept offered in various attractive packages.

What I wish for the most is that central Europe is defined only geographically, and we resist the illusion that we can find an alternative to the West. This is crucial both in the present and near future.

Therefore, I thank all those whom I was lucky to have met in Nitra, Trnava, Banská Bystrica, Košice, Bratislava, and other cities, for inspiring me to think about what the West is and why it is good for us to be a part of it.

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