Benutzer:Nils Simon/Studien/2006-Westphalia

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This essay is part of my "Foundations of World Politics" class which I'm taking during my 2006-2007 MA International Relations course in Brighton, UK.

What is meant by the 'Westphalian System', and has it ever existed?


In modern International Relations theory, it is commonplace that the Peace of Westphalia not only ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, but also opened the gate to the development of our modern state system, based on the independent sovereignty of all nation states. Nearly none contemporary textbook on IR theory spares the notion of the 'Westphalian system' as the foundation of modern statehood. For example, the recently published Third Edition of the editors John Baylis' and Steve Smith's “Globalization of World Politics” offers a good example for the standard view on 'Westphalia'. According to McGrew (2005 pp. 29), in “codifying and legitimating the principle of sovereign statehood the Westphalian constitution gave birth to the modern states-system.”

How does McGrew define this system of world order? He names territoriality, sovereignty and autonomy as the three principles of the so-called 'Westphalian system'. These three pillars should, consequentially, be findable in the post-Westphalian world. How are they exactly defined? Territoriality in McGrew's words means “exclusive territorial (political) communities with fixed borders”, sovereignty means that “within its borders the state or government has an entitlement to supreme, unqualified, and exclusive political and legal authority”, and autonomy means that “countries appear as autonomous containers of political, social, and economic activity in that fixed borders separate the domestic sphere from the world outside”.

In the same volume, Jackson and Owens (2005: pp. 52) also refer to the peace treaty of Westphalia and claim that it “would eventually evolve into the Charter of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and other contemporary bodies of international law.” This short overview could be expanded easily by additional authors claiming the same important role for the Peace of Westphalia (Osiander 2001, p. 252, p. 261).

The idea of the 1648 peace treaties as a gate into the modern state system is thus a very broadly accepted one. But does it also stick to the historical facts? Did the sovereignty of nation-states truly rise out of the ashes of the Thirty Years' War? Or is the Westphalian system not rather a notion born out of convenience, an easy way to conceptualise 'standard' modern statehood?

Historic existence of the 'Westphalian' system[Bearbeiten]

In pursuing a possible answer to when the Westphalian system should have existed, a first striking point is the arbitrariness that its proponents put into the exact timing of both its starting and especially its finalizing point. When do mainstream IR authors find the modern state-system actually emerging? If 'Westphalia' really contributed significantly to this new order, one would assume that some time around 1648, but at least before severe later incidents took place, more than a glimpse of the modern state system should visibly emerge. But proponents of the classical viewpoint freely admit that it took not decades, but rather centuries before the Westphalian system was actually established. Miller (1994, p. 20) says that, like “all historical benchmarks, Westphalia is in some respects a convenient reference point more than the source of a new, fully formed, normative system. Some elements that characterize the modern world and distinguish it from the Middle Ages were well established long before 1648. Others did not emerge until many years later.” But strangely enough, even this introduction to his text does not hinder Miller in any way to continuously refer to the Westphalian system.

McGrew offers at least a distinct century in which this system allegedly was fully established: “It was only in the twentieth century, as global empires collapsed, that sovereign statehood and with it international self-determination finally acquired the status of universal organizing principles of world politics.” (2005, p. 29) This very late timing does not only mean that it would have had taken nearly three hundred years for the Westphalian system to establish itself. Even more disturbing, it does not offer an exact timing about when this system had actually existed. By guess, one has to assume it was only between 1918 and 1939. Before the First World War, the mentioned empires without doubt still existed. After the Second World War, a bipolar world order emerged, and with it the Cold War took place during which the so-called third world countries' sovereignty did not actually enjoy much credit, so that they were even called “quasi-states” (Jackson 1990). Also, the European Communities were founded to which the European states freely gave parts of their sovereignty.

What for the time between the two world wars, into which McGrew then obviously puts the full emergence of the Westphalian system, and which Carr explicitly calls the “Twenty Years' Crisis”? Is this time convincing? After the First World War, Germany had to pay severe reparation costs to the war-winning nations. The Ruhrgebiet was a very contested area, and although it remained German, it was again occupied by France in the winter of 1922/23. Austria-Hungary, Germany's war ally, had lost control over large parts of its former territory, and subsequently founded nation states there were anything but stable, and thus hardly sovereign.1 In 1919, the League of Nations was founded. Its very idea was, next to others, and to some extent like the reason for establishing its successor the United Nations, to overcome war by establishing a system of collective security, whose very nature demands from states to give however small parts of their sovereignty away. The German ex-colonies were under mandate control by the League of Nations – and not sovereign. All this would imply that real-existing sovereignty closest to its ideal form was in place some time earlier than McGrew suggested, if at all. But how much earlier?

Before and after 1648[Bearbeiten]

Going all the way back to 1648, Knutsen argues that the “Treaty of Westphalia gave sovereignty to the small states in the heart of Europe. Thus it rendered the Holy Roman Emperor politically impotent.” (1997, p. 85) But sovereign states had existed as autonomous entities already centuries before the Peace of Westphalia. Between the 10th and 13th century, Britain gained practically everything it takes to be defined as a sovereign state – according to Georg Jellinek's 19th century definition this comprises Staatsgebiet (state territory), Staatsvolk (state population), and Staatsgewalt (state force). And also did lots of Italian cities between the 11th and 12th century (Krasner 1993, p. 253).

Furthermore, the rising independence of German princes came only at the cost of the Empire, which nevertheless remained a relevant political actor for the next 150 years. The German Emperor had lost control over religious issues in his realm roughly one hundred years before the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, when Protestant princes had successfully claimed their right to independently decide upon their domestic religious matters (Teschke 2003, p. 240), was only extended towards the so far uncovered Calvinists by the Peace of Westphalia. In this regard, “Westphalia was but one step in the long-term erosion of the position of the emperor” (Krasner 1993, p. 246), and not a complete and sudden breakdown of his power.

Looking a bit further into time brings us to the beginning of the 18th century, where a distinct non-modern war took place, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). After the death of the heirless Spanish king, Habsburg Charles II., German emperor Leopold I claimed the throne for himself, while it was designated (and later given) to the afterwards Philip V of Spain, whose grandfather was the French Louis XIV. In this regard, the war was fought over basically internal matters of the kingdom of Spain and can thus hardly be seen as a war in which already modern, sovereign states are fighting. But in fact the monarchic system of the 17th and early 18th century in Europe did not distinguish clearly between domestic and foreign matters. To further broaden this argument, the whole monarchic system of absolutist European states does violate the idea of sovereignty. Krasner notes that “European rulers continued to hold multiple titles after Westphalia.” (1993, p. 257) Deeply internal matters, like the voting of a German emperor through the Kurfürsten, laid in the hands not only of German princes, but also of foreign kings. 'Westphalia' did nothing to change this institutional arrangement. William III of 'England', who was actually Dutch, “became English King in 1689 only by exploiting (indeed, promoting) a revolution in Britain”. (Schroeder 1994, p. 135) Even the earliest 'sovereign' country was therefore bound to the structure of the not-so-sovereign European state-environment.

Continuing this tour through Europe's history, a next milestone in time worth analysing would be the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), a war that closely followed the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). As is pointed out elsewhere, 'Westphalia' did not reduce the occurrence of war in central Europe. To the contrary, it lead to immensely growing numbers of conflict until the 19th century brought with it a “significant reduction” (Teschke 2003, p. 2213). The Holy Roman Empire was not abolished before 1806, and it remains a mystery why the Peace of Westphalia, agreed upon in 1648, should by any means be seen more important than the abolishment of the remnants of this deeply not-sovereign empire. Miller (1994, p. 21) states that “the Westphalia treaties created the basis for decentralized system of sovereign and equal nation-states.” And right in the centre of Europe remained dozens of small semi-independent Fürstentümer, each of them no match for the bigger forces of the continent, as Napoleon convincingly showed.

Dominating Europe?[Bearbeiten]

Let us once go back in time to look whether this attempt to dominate Europe is seen as a unique event. Was there not a similar situation in history, when a major force wanted to dominate the continent? According to the conventional view, the Thirty Years' War was fought to keep hegemonial ambitions of the Spanish Habsburg king under control.

Osiander offers an innovative view on how this argument came up in the first place. According to him, if “the war continued [in the 1630s], it was because the Swedish and French crowns saw it as a means to enhance their own positions in Europe by eroding the position of the Habsburgs.” (2001, p. 258) They were not fighting for defensive reasons, since especially Sweden was, neither in territorial nor in military terms, threatened by the Habsburgs in any serious way. Consequentially, Sweden needed a good cause to intervene in this war and to justify its planned territorial expansion, “an official motive for waging war that was not merely self-seeking – hence the importance of accusing the Habsburg dynasty of abusing its position to oppress everybody else” (ibid., p. 263). To create the appearance of a just cause, Sweden came up with a propaganda that all free nations of Europe were under threat of being dominated by the Habsburgs. Osiander continues from this point and explains that especially 19th and 20th century German historians continuously referred to this Swedish war propaganda and discussed on its basis the reason why Germany had not become a nation-state yet (ibid., p. 264).

The Deutsche Frage was throughout the 19th century not only to the German nations central, but also to its already nationalised neighbours. The real emergence of a “decentralized system of sovereign and equal nation-states” (Miller 1994, p. 21) is thus much better placed with the unification of Germany in 1871. At least, this date brings us closer to the point in time McGrew suggests for when the full emergence of the 'Westphalian' system should be observable. Going with this date, Europe sees the last of its many national unification wars. The Franco-Prussian War, the third and last of the Reichseinigungskriege, unified Germany. The following 40 years saw a constant battle for power within Europe between its five major powers, finally leading to the devastating World War I.

During these 40 years, one might place the best estimate towards a system of modern, sovereign nation-states existing within Europe. It was still far from the ideal picture painted by proponents of the 'Westphalian' order, but it's the point in time in which a small geographic area seems to fit best. It was this the time which draws the best pattern for the IR theory of realism, which emerged through Edward H. Carr's “The Twenty Years' Crisis” in 1939 and was consolidated by Hans J. Morgenthau's “Politics Among Nations” in 1948. Only this time had seen merely atomistic states, even if it were only five major ones, trying to forge changing alliances, always preventing any one power or alliance to dominate the others. It was a highly vulnerable and violent system, leading directly to two world wars. It was this time, not the distant and poorly understood real post-Westphalian system what obviously really impressed theorists in the aftermath of 1945.

The myth's invention[Bearbeiten]

And who, really, “invented” (or at least popularized) the IR myth that 'Westphalia' created modern sovereignty “and all that” (Krasner 1993)? Both MacRae (2005) and Osiander (2001, pp. 264) attribute this to Leo Gross, who, in January 1948 (!), published a since then widely circulated article. In it, he presents everything which can until today be found in the conventional view of the Westphalian system. Gross is also the father of the above mentioned, wild comparison between the peace treaties of 1648 and the United Nations, claiming that the “acceptance of the United Nations Charter [...] brings to mind the first great European or world charter, the Peace of Westphalia.” (Gross 1948, p. 20) Gross' article influenced Morgenthau, who in the very same year said that the “rules of international law were securely established in 1648.” (quoted from Osiander 2001, p. 261). The realist view on the interstate system and the wrongly conceptualised 'Westphalian' system are thus deeply intertwined – together dominating the history of IR theory for the last 60 years, and based on a flawed concept of a system that became called 'Westphalian'.

“Gross after all was an expert on international law, not history (I know of no other work of his that deals with a pre-twentieth century topic).” (Osiander 2001, p. 265). Out of nothing, it appears, Gross claims to be familiar with historic details – and fails to present a proper view of them. Few authors put is as clearly as MacRae (2005), who strongly states: “Westphalia is no more. This is not the result of any one particular cause, but an acknowledgement that the conceptualization of 'the Westphalian state system' is a pedagogical oversimplification that is based on flawed assumptions.” Sadly, to say that 'Westphalia' was no more is scientifically correct, but factually wrong. Until today the conventional, more to say convenient notion of 'Westphalia' remains in use, though it can no longer be held valid. It is therefore time to replace this myth by better suited approaches towards the history of International Relations.


  • Baylis, John and Steve Smith (2005): The Globalization of World Politics. Third Edition, Oxford University Press.
  • Carr, Edward H. (1939): The Twenty Years' Crisis. Reprint 1981, MacMillan.
  • Gross, Leo (1948): The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948, in: The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 20-41.
  • Jackson, Robert H. and Patricia Owens (2005): The Evolution of International Society, in: Baylis/Smith 2005, pp. 45-62.
  • Jackson, Robert H. (1990): Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World. Cambridge University Press.
  • Krasner, Stephen D. (1993): Westphalia and All That, in: Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane (eds.): Ideas and Foreign Policy. Cornell University Press.
  • Knutsen, Torbjørn L. (1997): A History of International Relations Theory. Second Edition, Manchester University Press.
  • MacRae, Andrew (2005): Counterpoint: the Westphalia overstatement, in: International Social Science Review.
  • McGrew, Anthony (2005): Globalization and Global Politics, in: Baylis/Smith 2005, pp. 19-40.
  • Miller, Lynn H. (1994): Global Order. Fourth Edition, Westview Press.
  • Morgenthau, Hans J. (1948): Politics Among Nations. Reprinted 1967, Alfread A. Knopf.
  • Osiander, Andreas (2001): Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth, in: International Organization, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, pp. 251-287.
  • Schroeder, Paul (1994): Historical Reality vs. Neo-Realist Theory, in: International Security, Vol 19, No.1, pp. 108-148.
  • Teschke, Benno (2003): The Myth of 1648. Verso / New Left Books.