The Westphalian Mirage

The Westphalian Mirage

THE SOURCE: “To Order the Minds of Scholars: The Discourse of the Peace of Westphalia in International Relations Literature” by Sebastian Schmidt, in International Studies Quarterly, Sept. 2011.

Read Time:
2m 29sec

Few serious discussions of globalization go very far before sage allusions to "the Westphalian system" start flying. The term is a catchall description for the rules of the game that have prevailed in international politics since the European treaties collectively called the Peace of Westphalia were signed in 1648. Today, we tend to measure the uncertainties created by globalization against the solid foundation established by the Peace.

The only problem, writes Sebastian Schmidt, a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, is that the foundation is a mirage. The Westphalian system that scholars and others confidently cite as a standard was not what it seems. The ructions of our present-day globalization may not be as unprecedented as we think.

The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War, which began as a bloody struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Germany and later drew in other European powers, and the Eighty Years’ War, fought between Spain and the Dutch Republic. That much is beyond dispute. But the Peace is also said to have replaced the unsettled state of international borders and politics with a system of “sovereign, equal territorial states” immune to intervention by outsiders. (No longer, for example, would the Holy Roman emperor meddle in the domains of German princes.)

From that perspective, the 21st century certainly looks very different. Interdependence and integration are the order of the day. The International Monetary Fund routinely tinkers with the affairs of countries that are in economic distress, while nations and international organizations such as the United Nations increasingly intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states in the name of humanitarianism, human rights, the environment, and nuclear nonproliferation. Fierce debates surround all these issues.

But Schmidt says that we have an exaggerated view of how different our own time is. He traces the problem to international relations specialists within political science who virtually stopped thinking about what really happened in the 17th century.

In an influential 1969 essay, Princeton’s Richard Falk essentially argued that it would be more “convenient” to use a fixed conception of the Westphalian system than to continue squabbling over historical details. However, Schmidt thinks there is a lot worth squabbling over. A handful of scholars have soldiered on in the history books, demonstrating, he says, that the Peace “did not establish anything resembling the Westphalia concept.” The Westphalian system’s supposed rule against intervention by outsiders, for example, was not absolute. The Peace protected the rights of religious minorities and barred sovereigns from determining the faith of their subjects, leaving the door open to outside enforcers.

The old notion of proud Westphalian autonomy belongs in the dustbin of history, Schmidt contends. The world is better seen as a “society of states” in which no nation lives in splendid isolation.

Image credit: The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster (1648) by Gerard ter Borch the Younger via Wikimedia commons

More From This Issue