Westphalian sovereignty

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Westphalian sovereignty is the concept of nation-state sovereignty based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures.

Many academics have asserted that the international system of states, multinational corporations and organizations which exists today began in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia.[Global Inc.: An Atlas of the Multinational Corporation|isbn=1-56584-727-X]

Both the basis and the result of this view have been attacked by some revisionist academics and politicians, with revisionists questioning the significance of the Peace, and some commentators and politicians attacking the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states.


Traditional view

Adherents to the concept of a Westphalian system trace it back to the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, in which, it is claimed, the major European powers agreed to abide by the principle of territorial integrity. In the Westphalian system, the interests and goals of nation-states were widely assumed to transcend those of any individual citizen or even any ruler.

The Peace of Westphalia is said to have ended attempts at the imposition of any supranational authority on European states. The "Westphalian" doctrine of states as independent actors was bolstered by the rise in 19th century thought of nationalism, under which legitimate states were assumed to correspond to nations—groups of people united by language and culture. Benedict Anderson refers to these putative nations as "imagined communities."

The Westphalian system reached its apogee in the late 19th century. Although practical considerations still led powerful states to seek to influence the affairs of others, forcible intervention by one country in the domestic affairs of another was less frequent in the period between 1850 and 1900 than in most previous and subsequent periods (Leurdijk 1986).

The Peace of Westphalia is crucially important to modern international relations theory, with the Peace often being defined as the beginning of the international system with which the discipline deals.(Osiander, Andreas, Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth, International Organization, 2001, pages 251–287, volume 55) and (Gross, Leo, The Peace of Westphalia, American Journal of International Law, January, 1948, pages 20–41, volume 42/1) and (Jackson, R.H.; P. Owens (2005) "The Evolution of World Society" in: John Baylis; Steve Smith (eds.). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations., Oxford University Press, p. 53. ISBN 1-56584-727-X.)

International relations theorists have identified the Peace of Westphalia as having several key principles, which explain the Peace's significance and its impact on the world today:

  1. The principle of the sovereignty of states and the fundamental right of political self determination
  2. The principle of (legal) equality between states
  3. The principle of non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another state

These principles are common to the way the "realist" international relations paradigm views the international system today, which explains why the system of states is referred to as "The Westphalian System".

Both the idea of Westphalian sovereignty and its applicability in practice have been questioned from the mid-20th century onwards from a variety of viewpoints. Much of the debate has turned on the ideas of internationalism and globalization which, in various interpretations, appear to conflict with Westphalian sovereignty.

A notable defence of Westphalian sovereignty is to be found in John Rawls 1999 book, A Law of Peoples.

Newer views

The above interpretation of the Peace of Westphalia is not without its critics. Revisionist historians and international relations theorists argue against all of these points.

  1. Neither of the treaties mention sovereignty. Since the three chief participants (France, Sweden and Holy Roman Empire) were all already sovereign, their representatives saw no need to clarify this situation.(Osiander, p. 263.) In any case, the princes of Germany remained subordinate to the Holy Roman Emperor per the constitution.Instrumentum Pacis Monasteriens (IPM, Treaty of Münster), section 23
  2. While each German principality had its own legal system, the final Courts of Appeal applied to the whole of the Holy Roman Empire — the final appellate was the Emperor himself, and his decisions in cases brought to him were final and binding on all subordinates.(Osiander, p. 274) The Emperor could, and did, depose princes when they were found by the courts to be at fault. (Trossbach, Werner, Fürstenabsetzungen im 18. Jahrhundert, Zeitschrift für historische Forschung, 1986, pages 425–454, volume 13)
  3. Both treaties specifically state that should the treaty be broken, France and Sweden held the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the Empire.(Osiander, p. 266)

Rather than cementing sovereignty, revisionists hold that the treaty served to maintain the status quo ante. As such, the treaty cemented the theory of Landeshoheit, in which state-like actors have a certain (usually high) degree of autonomy, but are not sovereign since they are subject to the laws, judiciary, and constitution of a higher body.(Osiander, pp. 270-277.)

Modern views on the 'Westphalian Systems'

The Westphalian System is used as a shorthand by academics to describe the system of states which the world is made up of today.(Osiander, p. 251)

In 1998, at a Symposium on the continuing political Relevance of the Peace of Westphalia, then-NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said that "humanity and democracy [were] two principles essentially irrelevant to the original Westphalian order" and levied a criticism that "the Westphalian system had its limits. For one, the principle of sovereignty it relied on also produced the basis for rivalry, not community of states; exclusion, not integration."[1]

In 2000, then-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer referred to the Peace of Westphalia in his Humboldt University Speech, which argued that the system of European politics set up by Westphalia was obsolete: "The core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the European balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of closer meshing of vital interests and the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions."[2]

Tony Blair has also argued that the Westphalian system has been surpassed.[3]

In the aftermath of the 11 March 2004 Madrid attacks, Lewis ‘Atiyyatullah, who claims to represent the terrorist network al-Qaeda, declared that "the international system built-up by the West since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse; and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state".[4]

It has also been claimed that globalization is bringing an evolution of the international system past the sovereign Westphalian state.(Cutler, A. Claire, Critical Reflections on the Westphalian Assumptions of International Law and Organization: A Crisis of Legitimacy, Review of International Studies, 2001, pages 133–150, volume 27)

However, some others speak favorably of the Westphalian state, notably European nationalists and American conservative Pat Buchanan.[5] [6]

Supporters of the Westphalian state oppose socialism and some forms of capitalism for undermining the nation state. A major theme of Buchanan's political career, for example, has been attacking globalization, critical theory, neoconservatism, and other philosophies he considers detrimental to today's Western nations.

Globalization and Westphalian sovereignty

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the emerging literature on globalization focused primarily on the apparent erosion of interdependence sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty. Much of this literature was primarily concerned to criticize realist models of international politics in which the Westphalian notion of the state as a unitary actor are taken as axiomatic (Camilleri and Falk 1992).

The European Union concept of shared sovereignty is also somewhat contrary to historical views of Westphalian sovereignty.

In a 2008 article Phil Williams[7] links the rise of terrorism and other violent non-state actors (VNSA's), which pose a threat to the Westphalian sovereignty of the state, to globalization.

Military intervention

Since the late 1990s, the idea of Westphalian sovereignty has been brought into further question by a range of actual and proposed military interventions in the former Yugoslavia], Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan among others.

Humanitarian intervention

Some of these, including the interventions in Yugoslavia, have been supported on the basis that they constitute humanitarian intervention, aimed at preventing imminent genocide or large-scale loss of life. Neoconservatism in particular has developed this line of thinking further, to assert that a lack of democracy may foreshadow future humanitarian crises, or that democracy constitutes a human right on its own.

There is, however, debate about whether recent infringements of state sovereignty, such as the 2003 Iraq War, really reflected these higher principles, or whether the real justification was simply that of self-defense or the promotion of political and economic interests, which is more consistent with the traditional view of Westphalian sovereignty. A new notion of contingent sovereignty seems to be emerging in international law, but it has not yet reached the point of legal legitimacy.

Failed states

A further criticism of Westphalian sovereignty arises in relation to allegedly failed states, of which Afghanistan (before the 2001 US-led invasion) is often considered an example. In this case, it is argued that no sovereignty exists and that international intervention is justified on humanitarian grounds and by the threats posed by failed states to neighboring countries and the world as a whole.

Some of the recent debate over Somalia is also being cast in these same terms.


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