The shadow of Westphalia

Sovereignty and suzerainty in Europe and beyond

The shadow of Westphalia
In 1648, The Treaty of Westphalia ended 30 years of religious conflict that had exhausted and brutalized most of Western Europe. The “Peace of Westphalia” that followed is often called “The Peace of Exhaustion,” although in fact, the treaty did not bring peace. For Western Europe, peace had to await the apocalyptic destruction of the 20th century. With that came a new level of understanding among European states. But while the Westphalia Treaty did not succeed in ending war, it introduced principles of international law and comity that reduced the political space for war, and which now serve as bedrock principles of international relations—however more honored they are in theory than in practice.

The treaty negotiations went on for 5 years, from 1644 to 1648 in the German cities of Osnabruck and Munster. The war carried on at the same time as belligerents tried to gain advantage before final agreement froze the situation. Over those 5 years, 109 delegations from 16 Western European nations, 66 imperial states (of the Holy Roman Empire) and 27 interest groups (representing various interests such as cities and transnational organizations) came and went. This amounted to almost every political entity of Western Europe. But England, Poland, Russia (then called Muscovy), and Turkey, none of which had participated in the Thirty Years War, were not represented at the conference.
Countries in a union have a right to expect each member to live up to the code

This 1648 treaty produced “Westphalian Sovereignty,” a new system of political order based on sovereign states held in check by a balance of power. While the balance of power part didn’t keep the peace because of shifting interests, alliances, and ideologies, the sovereignty principles remained at the core of relations between European states. The principle that nations should not interfere in the affairs of others took hold and, over time, it became a principle of international law that each state has complete sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs. The Westphalian principle of sovereignty spread with the expansion of Western influence throughout the world and has become central to international law in the post-World War 2 system of world order.

Interstate wars continued to blight Europe especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, proving that shifting balances of power are unlikely stabilizers, and that sovereignty by itself will not eliminate the incentives for states to make war on one another. After 1945, Europe, on its own, modified the definition of Westphalian Sovereignty to something that might be termed “shared sovereignty” by creating the European Union. The EU’s members remain sovereign but have shared some of that sovereignty with each other in the interest of political, economic, and monetary cooperation that ultimately is aimed at a larger role and voice in world affairs than any one country could have on its own. In other words, each member country has given up strict Westphalian sovereignty for the political and economic benefits of union; of course, the original motivation for this was to meld the interests of the larger members and avoid war between them.

The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, Gerard Ter Borch (1648)
The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, Gerard Ter Borch (1648)

But now we see that Westphalian sovereignty concept has come back to haunt Western Europe. The shadow of Westphalia hovers over the Eurozone crisis with Greece and is probably at the bottom of its currently roiled relations with Russia. Greece asserts, correctly I think if one were to follow the letter and spirit of Westphalian Sovereignty principles, that in insisting that Greece run its economy more conservatively (eg like Germany) the EU is infringing on Greek sovereignty. On the other hand, the stronger countries of the Eurozone are realistically right to insist that Greece must begin to live within its means to be a viable member of an economic union and a single currency zone. This is not a zero-sum issue; the other members of the Eurozone will give up something too to keep the monetary union together. (Readers may recall that I have little patience with countries which continually live beyond their means and depend on bailouts, and have written about Pakistan’s tendencies in this regard.)

The Eurozone crisis will probably be resolved after a lot more hand wringing and cliff hanging when all sides come to recognize that shared sovereignty means exactly that—countries in a union have a right to expect each member to live up to the code, but that they all have a certain duty of care if the union is to hold together. I am not so optimistic about the roiled relations with Russia.

The Westphalian Sovereignty concepts are, after all, peculiar to Western Europe. Russia was not a participant and did not sign the treaty. But that is a minor point. The major point is that Russia, according to experts, has always had a different view of sovereignty. For Russia, only a few powerful states in the world are truly sovereign. The rest, situated around and near one of these powerful states, exist as suzerains (in other words vassals) of the powerful state. Russia, according to experts, refers to the states and territories in its vicinity as “the near abroad,” and considers that these states’ sovereignty is limited to policies and behavior that does not threaten Russia. Russian ability to enforce this concept has varied over the centuries, but the concept remains firmly embedded in the Russian psyche.

This has been especially sensitive since about 2000, as the NATO alliance has incorporated countries bordering Russia, and the EU has seemed to be recruiting these countries into its system of shared sovereignty. In effect, the Western concept of sovereignty – Westphalian shared sovereignty – came to clash with the Russian concept of near abroad suzerainty. The result we know: substantial death (around 5000) and damage in Eastern Ukraine, and a not insubstantial chance of another European war. I fear that EU countries, understanding this now, will come to the worst possible conclusion – that Ukraine must be partitioned. There are better ways out, but they require an acceptance of the idea that Westphalian sovereignty may need to be melded with some parts of suzerainty in the near abroad.
For Russia, only a few powerful states in the world are truly sovereign

Readers are certain to point out that the suzerainty mindset has not, historically, been limited to Russia. The few states that have been or are regional superpowers appear have similar mindsets. As far as I can tell, China and India see their immediate regions in the same way, but China, after several hundred years of passive behavior, is beginning to get aggressive in the Far East, while the new government of India seems to be on a charm offensive in South Asia, except where Pakistan is concerned. I would have hoped for more attention in India to the rising instability in its eastern neighbor and more openness with its western neighbor.

And the Western Hemisphere? Well, the Monroe Doctrine, which was originally announced by the US in 1823, but enforced by the British navy for the next 40 or so years, was meant to be an anti-colonialist doctrine—no European colonial ventures allowed in our patch. It turned slowly and erratically into a suzerainty system after the Civil War and in mid-20th century narrowed its focus almost solely to an ideological anti-communist doctrine— Westphalian Sovereignty is fine, except where pernicious foreign ideologies are concerned.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.