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April 26, 2004

I'd buy a beer for anybody that could recommend, for instance, some interesting commentary about the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin or the non-capture of Ayman Al-Zawahiri or the non-killing of Herat's Ismail Khan. I'd buy a whole dinner for somebody who can link it all to the Peace of Westphalia.

--scottymac, found via Political Animal

I’ll skip the beer and go right for the dinner, since linking anything to the Peace of Westphalia is like the Kevin Bacon Game of international relations. And, for IR fiends like me, what could be better than a Kevin Bacon Game of international relations?

First, a little background on the Peace of Westphalia, which was signed in 1648. The first half of the 17th Century in Europe had been a tumultuous time. The Netherlands had been fighting the Spanish for their independence for eighty years (The Eighty Years’ War), and the religious factions within the Holy Roman Empire in Central Europe had been going at it to establish the Empire's "true" faith in what would come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War.

The parties finally got together and hammered out an agreement that gave Spain her independence from the Netherlands. Additionally, the Peace of Westphalia worked out the religious sparring via the recognition that the three denominations (Roman Catholic, Protestant Lutheran and Protestant Reformed) were entitled to equal rights within the Empire. In the beginning only the rulers of the territories within the Empire were granted this freedom, while their subjects were obliged to conform their religious affiliations to their leaders’. This prerogative of the sovereign to decide the religious character of his domain in the 17th century evolved into the modern concept of sovereignty, that is, a state’s right to govern itself free from the interference of an external power. (More detailed definitions here and here.) Put more simply, the Peace of Westphalia gave birth to the modern nation-state and defined the rules by which these states would interact. In many important ways, the rules remain the same even today.

The modern nation-state as it emerged from Westphalia continues to be the primary player in the international arena. This makes statehood the ultimate aspiration of many groups, and makes conflicts over statehood (or lack thereof) some of the most intense and violent in the world. According to the State Department's description of HAMAS as a foreign terrorist organization, "various HAMAS elements have used both political and violent means, including terrorism, to pursue the goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel." (emphasis added) The killing of the founder and spiritual leader of HAMAS, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, by Israel is the latest round in a age-old battle over who gets to have a state in the Holy Land.

But are Westphalian nation-states still the primary actors in the international arena? Some would say no, and would support that assertion with contemporary goings-on. The news was recently dominated by the fact that the Pakistani army almost caught Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command. Al-Zawahiri is one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, but the fact that he is an Egyptian national is irrelevant (in fact, he opposes the current secular government in Egypt). He's a target because he's a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda, a non-state organization with as much or more influence than some nation-states in the world.

Finally, sovereignty is assumed to work in both directions -- Restatement of the Law Third (cited above) defines sovereignty as "a state's lawful control over it's territory generally to the exclusion of other states, authority to govern in that territory, and authority to apply law there." (emphasis added) In other words, sovereignty assumes the capacity to govern. When that capacity slips, what does that mean for a state's sovereignty? For example, what does the killing of Ismail Khan's son mean for Afghanistan's sovereignty? Mirwais Sadiq, who was the Civil Aviation Minister in addition to being the progeny of the powerful governor of Herat, was killed "in a clash with a commander recently put in place by [President] Karzai" in the latest indication that tensions between Khan, who has his own militia, and the central government are explosively high. A related question -- are states where nobody rules ("failed states") nation-states at all since nobody has the "authority to govern in that territory"?


This entry has been sitting in draft mode for several weeks as I debated whether or not I was confident enough on the final point connecting sovereignty with legitimacy and authority. Last week, Senator John Warner (R-VA) read the dictionary definition of the word sovereignty ("a supreme and independent power or authority in a state") when Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. That same afternoon, Hurst Hannum, Professor of International Law at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy was asked by NPR's Robert Siegel if he Sen. Warner had the right definition. His response:

I think that definition is pretty close. Sovereignty, in a way, has two meanings. The international law meaning is when a state is fully independent, and is not subjected to the control of any other state. Then there's also the internal meaning, that is, the independence of the government or the legitimacy of the government within a state. (emphasis added, listen to the whole segment here)

I'm still a grad student at heart. Any anxiety I had about hitting the publish button dissipated when a professor made a point similar to mine.

(Information on the Treaty (or Peace) of Westphalia found here, here, and here)

Posted by shannon at April 26, 2004 11:09 PM | For related posts:


This isn't really on-topic, but I have to say that's just about the best geeked-out return from a six month blogging hiatus that I've ever seen. One minute it's all knittin' and mittens and then BOOM! IR fiending all over the place.

Posted by: Anil at April 27, 2004 12:49 AM

When you stay gone that long, you gotta come back big, right? Here's hoping I can keep up with it...

Posted by: shannon at April 27, 2004 10:09 AM

I miss the knitting.... sniff sniff sniff

Posted by: Ñaña at May 24, 2004 4:09 PM

Your explanation of the implications of the Peace of Westphalia is quite good, but the link you try to make to Islamic terrorism is wrong. It's not that they want states, but that they reject the concept of secular statehood and want to establish universal religious totalitarianism such as the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation. Al Qaeda renounced the Peace of Westphalia in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings, European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer have already declared the Peace of Westphalia obsolete in 1998 and 2000, see Wikipedia

Posted by: leo (dissident view from Berlin) at July 15, 2004 9:04 AM


You and I don't fundamentally disagree, though I think you misunderstand me. As you recall, the link I was trying to make was between the killing of Sheik Yassin and the Treaty of Westphalia. Hamas was mentioned in this context because it is a state-seeking organization NOT because it is an Islamic terrorist group (though it is clearly both).

I didn't assert (nor did I mean to imply) that all Islamic terrorists want modern nation-states -- clearly, that's not true. This does not diminish the fact that the value of statehood is still considerable and -- as a result -- conflicts about the rights to statehood are particularly intense.

I also address the issue of the waning power of sovereignty in my post when I talk about the influence of non-state actors. For the record, Fischer and Solana are both correct in what they say but neither of them are announcing the death of the Westphalian system in sweeping terms. Solana states that the system the treaty created "had its limits" and that "the Westphalian Peace remains a strong inspiration" for those involved in creating international systems today. Fischer is only referring to the Treaty's obsolesence in Europe.

Thanks for your comment!

Posted by: shannon at July 15, 2004 9:43 AM

The Palestinian state the terrorists want is NOT an Westphalian state which would accept that other states have other state religions (or none at all), it would be a Sharia state incompatible with the Peace of Westphalia.

Yes they don't use sweeping terms, but what matters here is that you'll find a revisionist interpretation of the Peace of Westphalia at both Solana and Fischer. They blame the political competition and religious pluralism that is the historical innovation of 1648 as a source of instability and war, and argue that the previous totalitarian unity cult was better even though it has produced way more instability and war in its era. You see that the Peace of Westphalia is like any other point in history - one can either go forward or backward from it.

If the Westphalian concept of national sovereignity is renounced in the place where it originated, can it survive in other parts of the world that copied it in the centuries after 1648? Lee Harris wrote an excellent article on this subject: http://www.techcentralstation.com/031103A.html

Posted by: leo (dissident view from Berlin) at July 16, 2004 6:58 AM