Do nations and cultures have to make a necessarily choice between East and West? Is it not possible to have normal relations with both the East and the West, without necessarily becoming part of one?
The West, a product of European civilization, seems to have a more clear identity. For century the East, the Orient, Asia have been everything that the West was not. In this sense “the East” has been a Western mental creation, the Other, a form of Orientalism, to use Edward Said’s expression. The Orient was mystical and seductive, but deadly, weak and decadent at the same time.
Today it would be absurd to characterize the East as stagnant and decadent; in many ways the East today is more futuristic than the West. The West, that for century felt as if it had a monopoly of progress and of the future and on this based its triumphant historical teleology, is seeing its future “being stolen” by someone else.
The West, ostensibly regarding itself as the culmination point of a never ending trajectory of progress towards a perfect state of civilization, does not seem to be open to the idea that a country could be part of the West and at the same time even only in part deviate from the Western consensus. It may sound an outdated perspective and the product of a couple of century of European domination and colonialism, but it is still an unquestionable default assumption, even if it would be of course extremely offensive and impolite to openly admit so. The West is good and humane: the rest not so much. The West does not it see possible to be part of the West and at the same time not part of it. Being Western is naturally incompatible to being anything else.
To go back to the original question: can countries be Western, that is, receptive to the modern world and modern ideas of, to put it very simple, freedom, democracy and shared prosperity, and at the same time avoid being entirely integrated into the Western world? What directions should countries between the East and the West? For the West the answer is clear: be with us. Be like us. And you if you are not with us, you are against us.
Take for example Belarus. In 2020 there have been large protests against its in general Russian-oriented President. The revolution failed, yet many who wish for a closer integration between Belarus and the West have not gone anywhere. Yet, like with Russia or Ukraine it is hard to say that Belarusian society is very close to the contemporary West mentality. Everyone abstractly loves the notions of freedom, democracy and prosperity, but today the West is more than just about these three very generic ideals.
The very idea of the West is a simplification too: there are no Europeans; there are Germans, Italians, Bulgarians, Norwegians, Spaniards, and they are all different, very different, these Europeans… Europeans as people imagine them in Ukraine, in Belarus or in Russia exists only in the minds of Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians. Every European country has very different people, just like every Eastern country has unique people. Indians have practically nothing to do with the Chinese, the Arab has nothing to do with the Japanese. Yet they are all regarded, from the Western vantage point, as “Asian”, “Eastern”, “Oriental”.
In Russia, in Belarus and in Ukraine, Europeans are perceived as strangers; and in Europe Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians are perceived as strangers, although less so than a European in Ukraine or Russia.
One does not have to choose between Europe and Asia. Europe is declining, it is a fact of life acknowledged by many and self-confidence is growing in Asia. And self-confidence is a very important thing. It should be regarded as below one’s dignity to have to conform to someone else’s expectations or prejudices. It is not necessary to make a choice between East or West. The most important thing is to be oneself.