The very title of Michael Kimmage’s work of intellectual history—“The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy”—comes with a shock of recognition. Why, yes, who in the realm of foreign policy now speaks of “the West”? It’s gone. Where did it go? Come to think of it, we more or less abandoned it, didn’t we?
Intellectual history is a tricky genre. In addition to describing what human beings have done, it attempts to discern what people have thought about what they were doing as they did it: how their conceptualization of the world around them shaped them. To try to make sense of this, historians examine what people have said. But there’s no escaping the problem of things that go without saying: the unspoken context of the times, often little understood by those operating within its confines.
Mr. Kimmage rightly believes that he has hold of one of the most important concepts of the previous century, the idea of the West, and capably traces its evolution and context. He purports to limit himself to its role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, but in truth he ranges more widely. He writes with keen observation, for example, on the proliferation of neoclassical and neo-Gothic architecture in the United States after the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago—part of America’s renewed involvement with Europe. He also draws on such African-American thinkers as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, not primarily for their critique of American foreign policy but for the insight arising from their sense of being in the West but not entirely of it. The history of the idea of the West is also, as Mr. Kimmage shows, a history of the critique of the West.
Read the full review in _The Wall Street Journal_