Wall painting on a brick wall: A person with a bird's face sings into a microphone

‘We Cannot Talk a Good Game, But Then Not Put Our Money Where Our Collective Mouth Is’

The withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan and the debacle that followed raise questions: Why did the nation-building project fail? What does Europe mean by 'exporting values'? And can Europe create new trust?

Mr. Hellyer, does the debacle of Kabul mark the ‘end of the export of values’ for the West, to quote the headline in one German newspaper?

As a scholar who looks at these questions conceptually, but also as someone who inhabits both the ‘Western world’ and ‘the Muslim world’, these are questions I experience and live on a daily basis. I appreciate the inclination to consider these questions in a comprehensive and open manner. Inbuilt into your question are the assumptions that the West has a set of values that it holds dear; and that it seeks to export these values as being universally applicable. I think those two assumptions are somewhat contested, and I’d like to explore a little bit as to why.

For example, the West, as a category of enquiry, is somewhat nebulous and generalising. We have Western societies that exist in North America; in Europe; and in Australasia. Between these continents, there are huge differences in how they philosophically and conceptually view the world. Compare how the people in the United States, generally speaking, debate the issue of gun control, for example, with how societies elsewhere in the Western world do. Beyond that, consider different debates within national societies – the topic of multiculturalism in Canada, for example. So, it becomes rather difficult to talk about ‘Western values’ without going into a lot of detail about what we’re precisely talking about. Moreover, we also can talk about ‘Westernisation’, which happens outside of these continents, and how they are impacting societies in Africa and Asia, for example – usually among socioeconomic elites, and particularly via Westernised education. The situation is rather complex, and I think we need to complicate our assumptions regarding what we’re talking about.

The second assumption relates to whether or not we’re actually trying to export these ‘Western values’, and again, I would suggest this is contested. I think where we find evidence for that supposition – for example, in the Iraq War of 2003 – we find at least as much evidence to suggest that the whole claim about ‘exporting Western values’ was more about real politik ideas around deriving the most national interest for this country or that country. The whole discussion about ‘exporting Western values’ was also interwoven with a militarism and a variety of material and commercial concerns. Now, one could argue that all of that is also very much about ‘Western values’ – and there’s certainly an argument for that.

That’s probably not quite what we are imagining – but that is precisely what I am trying to get at. What do we really mean by ‘Western values’, and what are we trying to say we’re doing here or there? And isn’t the idea that we are doing all these kinds of moves as a result of a moralistic internationalism at least contested for some people?

There’s a somewhat apocryphal quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that goes along the lines of this: Journalist: What do you think of Western civilisation? Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

In that vein, I wonder if the idea that the West was ever trying to really ‘export’ any kind of values is somewhat dubious. More often than not, it’s been used as a rhetorical tool. What I do think is more valid is the idea that many Western states have pushed – somewhat haphazardly, and not consistently – for a politically liberal international order, that is at least rhetorically underpinned by international law, via international institutions like the United Nations and so forth. I do say this has been haphazard and has not been consistent.

We can look at how, for example, the most powerful Western nation, the United States, has engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and frequently uses its veto at the United Nations Security Council to take apart resolutions aimed at condemning Israel for its breaking of international law. Nevertheless, the overriding narrative is that the liberal international order is supposedly underpinned by international law, and it is that order that we promote in the West. Of course, many states will object to that being really sincere. After all, what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, or in Syria during the 2010s, and of course the Iraq War of 2003, brings all that into question. And this is my basic criticism of the narrative – that even while we might hope that international law was the basis of international order, it’s not really. And I’m not sure when it really was.

In that vein, then has the idea of the West failed?

I’m not sure what we really mean by that. In the most chauvinistic reading, ‘the idea of the West’ is a type of exceptionalism, that designates the West as the paragon of civilisational advancement, that should be able to be a beacon to the rest of the world. In the most charitable reading, we still consider the West as some kind of unitary entity. In both cases, I think the reality is that the West has a lot going for it, and still does – particularly in terms of the idea of the rule of law and accountable government, at least in comparison to everywhere else – but it still has huge problems within, which we have to be serious about.

Should the West and Europe continue to advocate for the spread of democracy in the world while China increasingly propagates its counter-model?

I’d amend that slightly, in that I would argue that everywhere – the West and Europeans included – should be promoting fundamental rights and freedoms, accountable government that is consented to by the governed, and a system of international order that is underpinned by international law. Otherwise, a vacuum arises, and in that vacuum, it is clear that China is promoting its own counter-model, which has at its core a type of authoritarianism that is most evident in how it relates to its own Uyghur Muslim population.

I’m very keen that even while we continue to be self-critical about our own flaws and faults in the West, we recognise that politics is the art of the possible, and what is practical out there. The West may not be perfect, but would one rather have a hypocritical, blighted international order that is at least partially underpinned by international law – or a China-led one? Because right now, I am not sure there are many alternatives that are reasonable or plausible.

Illustration: Two people. One looks through a hole in the other's chest and sees the universe.
Politics is the art of the possible, © CDD20 via pixabay



I’m very keen that even while we continue to be self-critical about our own flaws and faults in the West, we recognise that politics is the art of the possible, and what is practical out there.

How can this be done in order to continue to promote multilateralism, human rights and peaceful coexistence?

Multilateralism is, in theory, precisely what I would argue is the way forward, in terms of promoting fundamental freedoms and fundamental rights. Part of the problem for us in the West, however, is that we are seldom particularly serious about doing that. We have our human rights departments in foreign ministries and so forth, but their concerns and reports are nearly always treated at much lower level priorities than commercial and security interests. We’ve seen this multiple times over the past decade, for example, in how we’ve engaged with various countries in the wider MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region.

We talk a good game about their human rights records – but when all is said and done, we prioritise our concerns about refugee flows and radical extremism. Everything else is much less important when it comes to policy, and we normalise authoritarianism and autocracy quite easily as a result. I’m not remotely arguing that we should repeat anything similar to the debacle that was the Iraq War – but if we are serious about international law and fundamental rights, that should have much more of an impact in terms of how we engage within our societies, and in terms of how we engage internationally as well. Unfortunately, I am seeing less, not more, of that seriousness.

What role can cultural dialogue play in the future and how can Europe exploit its potential?

This is a very interesting question, and I think hits to a real concern that Europe has today, and really should have today. We have a very substantial history on our continent, and there is value in that history for the world. But, and this is a big but, while I do believe that kind of cultural dialogue is deeply important, there are two significant provisos that need to be kept in mind.

The first is that we, as Europeans, do not know our own history. Our educational systems are poor at teaching it to our own children; and we are loathe to admit a good deal of the warts of it. Even today, there are huge debates underway in terms of how much – or even if we should – teach our children about the history of different European colonialisms in Africa and Asia; this is also part of our history. Colonialism did not simply end in the 20th century – it has ongoing repercussions within our societies to this day, and it’s very difficult for us to understand those repercussions without being open about our past. As we engage in cultural dialogue abroad, it’s important for us to be honest about our own past, and to be honest with others as well that we struggle with that.

Having said all of that – we do have much to be proud of, and much to be aware of. We shouldn’t try to deny that in the hope of somehow being ‘understanding’ or ‘sensitive’ – it is very easy to be aware and grateful of being English, German, French, European and so forth, and not be arrogant about other people’s cultures, or denigrate them. This isn’t a difficult thing to achieve. As a European and an Englishman, I am grateful – I am grateful for the good things that the English have done, the good things that Europe has done – and I try to be aware of all the shortcomings. I think that makes someone a better citizen and gives them the ability to be a more genuine and sincere patriot. If we keep that kind of sentiment in mind, I think there is much for us to offer in terms of intercultural dialogue beyond our continent.

What foreign cultural policy initiatives does the continent need?

There are two things that I think are most pertinent against the challenges of the 21st century. The first is that we all learn that there is more that binds us than divides us in the world, as human beings. Intercultural initiatives need to be looking for the commonalities, as well as informing about the different perspectives we might have.

But then there is an overarching universal value that I hope we in Europe are trying to encourage, alongside others in the world – which is an international order underpinned by international law, and the notion that right, not might, is the basis of international (and even national) relations. I’m not interested in compromising on that or pretending that it is not under attack right now. Yes, it has been under attack by many within our own societies, against more vulnerable sections of our societies. But I think about what has happened in Syria under Bashar al-Assad; what has happened to the Uyghurs in China; to the Rohingya in Myanmar; to the Yazidis in Iraq; and we need to be clear.

And when we are clear, we need to be so in a way that is not two-faced – if we seriously consider these values to be worth upholding, we cannot sabotage our own efforts by talking a good game, but then not putting our money where our collective mouth is.



Colonialism did not simply end in the 20th century – it has ongoing repercussions within our societies to this day, and it’s very difficult for us to understand those repercussions without being open about our past. As we engage in cultural dialogue abroad, it’s important for us to be honest about our own past, and to be honest with others as well that we struggle with that.

Illustration: A person pulls a mask off his face.
We need to be honest about our own past, © CDD20 via pixabay

The Interview was conducted by William Billows from the Culture Report editorial team.

About H.A. Hellyer
Portrait of H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
Scholar and analyst

H.A. Hellyer is a fellow at Cambridge University, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A prominent public intellectual of English and mixed Arab heritage raised on three continents, he has been clarifying the geopolitics of the Middle East, the West, and Southeast Asia to publics and governments globally for more than two decades. In 2020, he was elected to be a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Arts, in recognition of his scholarship and analysis in international relations, security, and belief.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.