Westphalia to Communicate: Sovereignty, Confusion, and the International Order


In responding to the rise of ISIL, many observers focused on the most obvious causes for alarm: sadistic violence, high-profile terror attacks and the destabilization of the Middle East. But some observers identified a more profound threat: that ISIL, like other Islamist movements, was seeking to overturn the Westphalian order.

A little over three and a half centuries ago, representatives of the Holy Roman Empire formally agreed to let German princes force their subjects to be Protestant – and in doing so made the principle of state sovereignty a bedrock of the international system. Now, by trying to create a global caliphate (with no local princes left to impose Protestantism, presumably), ISIL puts this vital principle at risk.

If this weren’t bad enough, ISIL’s anti-Westphalian crusade has an unexpected ally: the Chinese. “In stark contrast to the Westphalian system,” one international relations expert writes, “Confucian China regarded itself as the sole and central world order” leading modern China to become “a bitter adversary of the international state system for much of the 20th century.” As a result, commentators worry, Beijing might be crafting a “new hegemony” that replaces “the principles of the Westphalian treaties” with an antiquated, Chinese-led tribute system.

The good news, though, is that apparently China is also one of the last remaining defenders of the Westphalian order. Actually, China loves Westphalian sovereignty so much that the real problem might be Beijing’s efforts to “restore a neo-Westphalian order” in which everyone has too much sovereignty.

Confused? The point is that whatever exactly China is doing Westphalia-wise, it’s not good.

To make matters more confusing, everyone seems to agree that the European Union, built around the idea of countries pooling their sovereignty to become something else, is fundamentally at odds with the Westphalian order. But no one seems the least bit worried about it.

Amid all these conflicting uses of the term, it sometimes seems that pundits’ enthusiasm for describing the global order as Westphalian is little more than a pedantic tic — like saying “whom” instead of “who,” maybe, or pronouncing foreign places’ names with accents that aren’t your own. International relations theorists would point out that the idea remains valuable when used in a more precise and theoretical manner. But for anyone interested in discussing the international order, its challenges, or its future, there is meaning in Westphalia’s misuse as well.

When invoked casually, the Westphalian order misrepresents both the past and the present, distorting history to dodge hard questions about America’s role in the world today. At worst, the conventional version of Westphalian punditry posits the existence of some centuries-old order based on sovereignty and secularism, suggests that America is merely trying to uphold these time-tested principles, and then berates other countries who don’t immediately want in.

It’s an elegant narrative, but one that is hard to reconcile with the fact that Western states spent much of the past few hundred years systematically violating the sovereignty of non-Western polities. What’s more, for members of a supposedly secular state system, they were remarkably quick to fall back on religious justifications for doing so. By ignoring this history, the idea of the Westphalian order presents Western hegemony in in the guise of a neutral, rule-based order. The implication is that when other countries object, their issue must be with the rules, not the West’s consistent flaunting of them.

Admittedly, much of the contemporary confusion over Westphalia starts with the confusing history of the treaty itself. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying, the Treaty of Westphalia transformed one incredibly complicated European political order into a different but still incredibly complicated one. Indeed, a look at the map of central Europe after the treaty reveals the extent of this complexity. Searching amidst the sometimes overlapping Bishoprics, Archbishoprics, Duchies, Archduchies, Free Towns, Principalities, Lordships, Counties, Ladgraviates, Margraviates, Kingdoms, Electorates, and Ecclesiastical Lands, it is hard to find evidence of state sovereignty or secularism — particularly as all these entities would remain under the ultimate authority of something called the Holy Roman Empire.

If no recognizably modern order was present immediately after Westphalia, though, by the 19th century something much more similar to our present-day state system was emerging in Europe. Under this system, countries, for the most part, drew clear borders, engaged in formalized diplomatic relations, and offered nominal deference to each other’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, these same states also set about denying sovereignty to much of the world through their colonial empires. In short, a few centuries after the Peace of Westphalia one version of the “Westphalian order” developed within Europe, and a very different order developed on a global scale.

The discrepancy was not lost on non-European states. During the late 19th century, for example, the Ottoman government adopted the trappings of the European state system in a desperate effort to legitimize its sovereignty. For a moment, when the Ottoman Empire was briefly accepted into the Concert of Europe, it seemed to have succeeded. But it soon became clear that in the eyes of most Europeans, Ottomans still did not qualify for sovereignty on either religious or civilizational grounds. Instead, many European statesmen continued to hope the Ottoman Empire would eventually be dismembered and Muslim rule eliminated from the continent — a goal they came close to achieving at the end of World War I.

The question of who qualifies for sovereignty, and how much, went on to bedevil efforts to institutionalize the international order throughout the 20th century. The Versailles Conference, for example, made it clear that some were entitled to benefit from President Woodrow Wilson’s principles of self-determination and some were not. Eastern Europeans qualified, and the Poles, Hungarians, and others all emerged from the conference with their own states. Non-European subjects of the victorious powers, however, did not qualify, and the Egyptians and Vietnamese who showed up at Versailles to press their claims left emptyhanded. Indeed, the League of Nations mandate system codified the relationship between civilizational status and sovereignty: “Advanced nations” were formally entrusted to rule over those deemed unable “to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”

Today, when countries like China stand accused of challenging the international order, the implication is always that America’s rivals reject the U.S. commitment to playing by the rules. Yet many foreign leaders would insist that they are not pushing back against the international order – Westphalian or otherwise – but rather against America’s disproportionate power within that order and its ability to act independently of the rules.

For an elegant encapsulation of why these rival views might arise, consider how Charles Hill, Yale’s Diplomat in Residence and an enthusiastic advocate of the Westphalian order, describes China’s initial experience of it. He argues that Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars, and subsequent seizure of several Chinese treaty ports, was not a violation of Chinese sovereignty but instead a crucial victory for Westphalian ideals. When Chinese leaders continued to cling to their non-Westphalian worldview after the Taiping Rebellion, it again fell to Britain to show them what respecting sovereignty was all about. Thus, in 1860, British forces “marched north-west of [Peking] to pillage and burn the summer palace. Britain, on behalf of the international state system, had dragged China into it…”

The purpose of all this is not simply to revisit the sins of Western imperialism. Rather, it is to say that invoking Westphalia as some kind of politically neutral model confuses, rather than clarifies, one of the biggest challenges for anyone trying to envision a viable international order: who gets to make the rules and decide how they are enforced. The tension, inevitably, is between an egalitarian process and one in which more powerful states exercise more power. The founders of the United Nations, for example, tried to overcome this tension by creating both a General Assembly in which every state has an equal vote and a Security Council in which powerful nations could exercise their veto. Their approach has won both praise and criticism, but, because of the UN’s limited power, has never really been put to the test. The European Union has struggled more meaningfully with the same challenge. Giving every EU member veto power over key decisions helped alleviate states’ concerns about surrendering their sovereignty, but has also been a source of frustration for stronger states like Germany seeking to exercise effective leadership in the Union.

If American foreign policy experts prefer a U.S.-dominated international order to, say, a Chinese one, that’s certainly understandable. And if they want to convince the world this will be better for everyone, they have a decent case and should make it candidly. Alternatively, if America wants to invest in an international order where it plays by the same set of rules as the Chinese, whether based on shared liberal norms or a shared respect for each other’s sovereignty, that could work too. The best and most likely option may well be some kind of awkward but workable middle ground between these approaches. But finding compromise begins with acknowledging that one is needed. In extolling an idealized, ahistorical Westphalian model, Americans won’t fool anyone but themselves. The resulting confusion will make the already considerable task of building of viable international order all the more difficult.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.

Image: H.F. Helmolt, History of the World, Volume VII/Wikimedia Commons