The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


December 7, 2005

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been doing exploratory research for a possible blog piece on the general vapidness of the “network” metaphor in a great many popular writings on terrorism and global change. In the process, I stumbled upon a Belmont Club post containing this gem:

However perfectly networked the US military battlespace ever becomes, it is still an instrumentality of a state, an organizational type that took form in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

To which I say: No!

Academics still debate the precise influence of the Peace of Westphalia (comprised of the Treaty of Münster and the Treaty of Osnabrück) on the evolution of the European state and state system. Some do make the case that Westphalia helped to consolidate state sovereignty, transformed the European political order into a sovereign state system, or otherwise shaped the development of the modern state.

But I am not aware of any remotely sustainable interpretation of the significance of the Peace of Wetphalia which supports Wretched’s claim that the “state [is] an organizational type that took form in the Treaty of Westphalia.”

Daniel Philpott, in his book Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations, makes the best recent defense, that I am aware of, for the significance of Westphalia. Here’s what Philpott writes:

It was not until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648… that virtually all of Europe’s rulers enjoyed the sovereignty of Shakespeare’s English kings and recognized the sovereignty of one another. In the generations after Westphalia, only the state would effectively command political loyalty in Europe. Not only the ideal, but any substantive reality, of united Christendom was gone. Europe was by then an assemblage of sovereign states—an anarchical “system of states—fighting, allying, trading, negotiating, making peace, without yielding or genuflecting to a higher power (p. 76). [emphasis added]

Philpott’s argument is not that Westphalia gave the state its form as an organizational type, because he well knows that Westphalia made no difference whatsoever to the institutional structure of the western European monarchies. Instead, he argues that it extended sovereignty to all of the princes who might reasonably be thought of as heads of state, i.e., the German princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite Philpott’s strident language, his argument about the impact of Westphalia on the state as an organizational type is actually fairly modest.

With all due respect to Philpott (who is a wonderful and brilliant guy), he’s also wrong. Here’s what I wrote in a review essay (“Zeitgeist? Neo-idealism and International Political Change,” Review of International Political Economy, 12,4 [2005], pp. 700-719):

What principles, then, were established at Westphalia? First, Philpott argues that the Holy Roman Empire ceased to be a major contender for authority in Europe, as the German principalities were granted their ‘ancient rights’, the ‘free exercise of their territorial rights’, and the juridical prerogative to make alliances outside of the Empire without the consent of the Emperor. Equally important, Westphalia codified the right of princes – laid down at Agusburg in 1555 and subject to Imperial arbitration – to determine the religion of their territory. Second, Westphalia established the basic equality of all sovereigns, as represented by the fact that the Emperor gained no special status as a negotiator at Münster and Osnabrück. Third, after Westphalia, religion ceased to a major factor in interstate wars. Westphalia thus, more or less, ended Christian universalism as a justification for intervention in the affairs of other states. Fourth, dynastic claims lost their central character in European warfare as calculations of power and diplomatic efficacy came to supplant marriage and inheritance as a prime mover in interstate relations (Philpott, 2001: 84-96).

Showing that Westphalia contained principles that cohere with modern notions of sovereignty, or that practices altered in the decades following Westphalia, begs the question of how a set of treaties could instantiate such profound alterations in European political relations. Most of the changes associated with Westphalia were either already underway before the Peace or did not take hold until much later. For example, dynasticism remained central to European politics well into the eighteenth century. Bukavonsky, for her part, argues persuasively that the emergence of popular sovereignty as a basis of legitimacy in the latter part of the eighteenth century is what ultimately eroded dynasticism (Bukovansky, 2002), while Hall (1999) points to national collective identity.

It is certainly true that, after Westphalia, religion ceased to be a source of warfare within the Empire. We find fewer obvious instances of interstate conflict justified primarily on religious grounds after 1648 then during the reign of Philip II of Spain (1556-1598) or during the Thirty Years’ War (1608-1648). Yet religion played important roles in William of Orange’s invasion of England in 1688, his campaigns in Ireland, the various attempts at Jacobite restorations in which France was implicated, and in the English struggles with France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Israel, 1991; Lenman, 2001)…. It may be the case that the Reformation created an aberration in a general trend towards [intra-European] warfare motivated primarily by ‘secular’ concerns.

Regardless, it was only long after the fact that Westphalia was seen as a significant treaty vis-à-vis sovereignty (Osiander, 2001). And for good reason: the princes and towns of Germany were already territorializing their authority and engaging in extra-Imperial alliances well before Westphalia (Wilson, 1999). Westphalia itself was understood by most contemporaries, accurately enough, as a revision of the constitutional order of the Empire, not a generalized order of sovereign states. Nor did it lead to an era of sovereign equality: the terms of the debate over Louis XIV’s bid for European primacy are startling similar to those of Charles’ and Philip II’s era (Bosbach, 1998).

I had a lot more to say, but not enough space to say it in.

UPDATE: I deleted my commentary on Wretched’s motives. As Tom points out, there’s a simpler explanation than my concern about including irrelevant points to be lend authority to a post. On further reflection, though, there is something important at stake here: (incorrect) claims about Westphalia do have a certain status in long durée arguments about the divergence between Latin Christendom and the Islamic World. I’ll probably post something about this eventually.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.