Concern for the sovereignty of nations runs like a drumbeat through almost every debate on foreign policy. Are corporations exerting too much influence on sovereign governments? Is a larger power pulling the strings of a smaller one; are international bankers putting too much outside pressure on some nation’s treasury? Is a humanitarian crisis severe enough to warrant breaching a border?
The idea of the world as a perfect patchwork of self-ruled nations is so essential to our understanding of how the world works that we’re rarely aware of it. When we worry about wars, or trade disputes, or multinational companies throwing their weight around, we’re worried in part because we see these as disruptions of an otherwise neat and stable system of sovereign states.
To experts, this is called the “Westphalian” system, and it has a date of birth: 1648, when a series of treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia transformed an unruly war-torn Europe into a network of cleanly delineated nations. Since that time, the basic notion of Westphalian sovereignty has become an organizing principle for scholars and statesman, policy makers and generals. And as the global map changed in the 20th century from a system of colonies and territories to a world of mutually recognized nations, it is the Westphalian model that prevailed.
But now, in a provocative paper, a young scholar has suggested that it might also be a chimera—that such a cut-and-dried international system has never really existed, and that the normal order of the world looks more like a shifting network of influences that operate across and within borders.
In a paper published in the International Studies Quarterly, Sebastian Schmidt, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in political science, argues that today’s idea of sovereign statehood arose as a convenient fiction after World War II. Under the pressures of that time, he says, scholars looking to build a functional international system following two global wars began to ignore the muddy and complex historical realities of statehood—and instead adopted the Westphalian ideal as a kind of useful shorthand for thinking about the world’s proper order.
The primary target of Schmidt’s work is scholars, who he hopes will acknowledge that modern policy making relies on an oversimplified version of the Westphalian story. But his argument also offers a helpful way to think about the world now. In his conception, much of what worries observers today—globalization, intervention, power plays—is built into the way the world works, and always has been.
“These challenges we face have been around before, in other forms,” Schmidt says. “I want to take a little bit of the bogeyman out of globalization.”
The more consistent version of the world order, which Schmidt describes as a fluid “society of states,” is one in which governments have always jockeyed for power with private interests, outside powers, or meddling clerics; in which borders and lines of influence are much fuzzier than we might like to think.
It is at once messier and more enduring than the static ideal that has driven our understanding of states for centuries. Schmidt’s argument suggests that there is less cause for alarm than we often think in threats to sovereignty, and also that the past may be a richer source than we realize for useful experiments to resolve the problems of today.
The primacy of sovereign nations, in the long view, is a recent development of history. In Europe, before the Peace of Westphalia, the continent’s city-states competed with larger kingdoms and the Holy Roman Empire in a perpetual violent struggle for territory and resources. It was hard to distinguish among different kinds of authority. In some places, the pope held sway; in others, a monarch; in still others, a family or group of families whose power stemmed less from their territory than from the wealth they created through commerce or industry.
In this welter of influence, 1648 undeniably marked a watershed. The Westphalian Peace took shape during four years of negotiations and congresses, culminating in a series of peace treaties that gave states more authority at the expense of the Vatican. It marked the maturation of a method of state-to-state negotiation that already existed in inchoate form then, and which today continues to be the basis of diplomacy.
But, Schmidt points out, that moment did not mark as clear-cut a change as the history books often have it. The Holy Roman Empire, whose influence was rooted in faith rather than territory, persisted as a power in Europe for 150 years afterward. Religious and ethnic strife continued, and Europe hosted a long parade of wars right into the contemporary era. Economically speaking, Schmidt argues, an international gold standard bound the world’s treasuries much more tightly than they are connected today, while in the colonial era joint-stock ventures like the British East India Company had influence that dwarfed that of their descendants such as the contemporary oil giant BP.
Schmidt traces the intellectual history of Westphalia among political philosophers, and argues that until the 20th century, scholars and policy makers retained a much more accurate view of its historical context and ambiguous legacy. Some argued that Westphalia had created the first international order; some that it pioneered a fledgling notion of sovereignty. Some went so far as to claim it was a precursor of the League of Nations. But all of them saw Westphalia as a murky transition point along a continuum, a historical moment as complex and inconclusive as the Treaty of Versailles in 1918.
After World War II, however, the idea of inviolable sovereignty took on new importance because of the imperative to stabilize a deeply shaken international system. In crafting a new world order, it was to the Westphalian ideal that leaders and their advisers turned. A new, almost purist view of Westphalia undergirded the design of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the norms of non-intervention that kept Cold War conflicts from mushrooming.
The world had good reasons to embrace such an ideal. A half century of wanton intervention and blood-letting created a desire for stability; now, only under narrowly defined conditions spelled out in the United Nations charter could nations intervene in the affairs of others—and they could only do so with the blessing of the UN Security Council. The goal was practical: to end a horrific era of wars. The means was abstract: the adoption of an ideal form of national sovereignty.
Even the promoters of this new, ahistorical view of Westphalia noted that it vastly simplified the real history of state-to-state relations. Richard Falk, a giant in the fields of international law and international relations, argued in a seminal 1969 paper about the emerging 20th-century international legal order that is was more “convenient” to refer to the concepts of Westphalia than to its actual history.
During the Cold War and the subsequent surge of “globalization,” Schmidt argues, “Westphalia” and “sovereignty”devolved into lazy placeholders for thinkers struggling to make sense of an economically interconnected world straddled by expansive American and Soviet militaries. And today they represent a simplified view that misleads us into seeing old dynamics—like porous borders, free trade pacts, humanitarian interventions, and failing states—as new bogeymen.
“Especially with globalization, ‘Westphalia’ just got used as a contrast to what people saw as new trends,” Schmidt says.
In part, Schmidt’s argument offers historical comfort. If problems such as international monetary crises and clerical incursions into politics have been around for a half a millennium (or more), and we’ve survived—even prospered—then we’ll probably survive today’s threats as well.
It carries some risk of indifference, of course—of deciding we shouldn’t worry when we see China accumulating US debt, or Iranian clerics trying to pull the strings in Iraq. But his insight also carries the promise that we can mine the past for solutions to today’s problems. If we’re concerned with managing today’s international financial system, for example, we can look at how 19th-century economies weathered fluctuations caused by the international gold standard. If we’re trying to figure out how to manage failing states and the violence they spawn, we can look at the late stages of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. If we want to think realistically about ways to intervene in Syria, or reasons not to, we can look at France’s misadventures in 1860 when it sent its military to defend the Maronite community in Lebanon, then an Ottoman province.
Though Schmidt’s research runs against the grain of the dominant thinking among policy makers and international relations scholars, who often treat sovereignty and the state system as nearly sacrosanct, it echoes the work of other scholars who believe the world needs to be understood in more dynamic terms. The Stanford University political scientist Stephen Krasner, for example, has explored the idea of “shared sovereignty” to promote better governance in poorly ruled or failing states: Arguing that sovereignty can be treated almost as a commodity, he suggests that nations can, and should, be convinced to share sovereignty over some sector when needed, as Europe did with its security when it joined a US-led NATO.
If we grow comfortable with a more realistic image of the world as a “society of states,” rather than the idealized version in which every nation is a separate castle, we will be more adaptable in a multilayered, globalized world. Just as private influence-peddling and transnational insurgencies are less new threats than old phenomena, so contemporary progressive ideas like “shared sovereignty,” “the responsibility to protect,” and the International Criminal Court are simply new incarnations of time-honored practices.
All these things might not be the breakdown in the proper political order of the world that they seem, in other words: They might actually be an integral part of that very order.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at
thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.