Sunday, November 26, 2017

Westphalia to Communicate

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.

To read more, check out the full article here