The Duck of Minerva

Westphalian Illusions

23 August 2009

Mark Safranski has a useful post up at Zenpundit critiquing LTC P. Michael Phillips’ Parameters article Deconstructing our Dark Age Future.”(I cannot remember the last time I saw an article written by a military officer, rather than a civilian post-modernist, whose title began with the word “Deconstructing.”)

Phillips argues (like many before him, not least Yahya Sadowski) that:

The Westphalian state system is not in fact in decline; this arrange-
ment, as we have imagined it, never really existed beyond a proposed
behavioral model exemplifying the American experience. Instead, territori-
ality, sovereignty, and equality, the guiding principles of that ideal system,
have always been transactional, if not entirely illusory, because effective
global enforcement mechanisms simply do not exist.

Safranski replies (in part):

While definitely fuzzy and spottily adhered to in practice international law is not entirely “illusory”, nor is it a byproduct of 20th century Wilsonian American exceptionalism as Phillips argued. Perhaps Hugo Grotius rings a bell? Or Alberico Gentili? Or the long history of admirality courts? Like common law or an unwritten tribal code, international law has evolved over a very long period of time and does exert some constraint upon the behavior of sovereigns. Statesmen and diplomats think about policy in terms of the impression it will make on other sovereigns, and international law is one of the yardsticks they contemplate. Admittedly, at times the constraint of international law is quite feeble but in other contexts it is strong. An American military officer, who can see firsthand the effect of creeping JAG lawyerism on command decisions on the battlefield ( in my view, greatly excessive and harmful ) and in the drafting of byzantine ROE, should know better than to make such a silly statement.

My skim of Phillips’ article makes me wonder at the point of his “deconstruction,” since how ever valid it may be the latter part of his article would seem to be arguing for a retrenching of those illusory practices of sovereign statecraft (like monopolizing the use of force rather than bleeding it out to PMCs). But if the monopoly on force was always a Westphalian illusion, what is at stake, exactly, with behaving as if the illusion doesn’t matter?

The fact is, illusions are powerful, for good or ill. Anyway, read and draw your own conclusions; the rest of my rainy Sunday will be spent playing Risk with my seven-year-old son. Is the geography of the board we’re using an illusion? Yes. Could I publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal proving this? Probably. How much does that fact matter in the conduct of either the game itself or the meta-experience between us that is constituted by the playing of the game? I’m not sure.