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What is meant by the ‘Westphalian System’ – And has it ever existed?

17. Mai 2012


The ‘Westphalian System’ is a result of the Peace Treaties of Westphalia and Osnabruck in 1648 which formally marked an end to the ‘Thirty Years War’ that devastated massive parts of Europe between 1618 and 1648. The conventional view records, that the content of the Peace Treaties not only ended the war but also initiated the beginning of a new international system which is commonly considered, particularly in the discipline of international relations (IR), as the basis for the contemporary modern nation-state system based on sovereignty. This modern sovereign state system is often called the ‘Westphalian System’.

Due to the common claim that the Peace of Westphalia symbolizes decisive changes and upheavals in various aspects for the state system at that time which still influence modern and contemporary political occurrences, the ‘Westphalian System’, “along with the concept of sovereignty at its core, has been a subject of debate” (Osiander, 2001, 251) that clearly polarizes the opinions. McGrew claims that the Peace Treaties of 1648 established the “legal basis of modern statehood and […] the fundamental rules or constitution of modern world politics” (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2011, 23) for instance. Miller emphasizes McGrew’s point of view by saying that the Peace of Westphalia “created at least the foundations of a new European system” and that “nothing quite like it had ever existed before” (Miller, 1994, 21). Krasner, however, challenges this conventional view that the Peace of Westphalia led to a significant transformation (Krasner, 1993) as well as Teschke who rejects the belief that 1648 marks a transition to modernity (Teschke, 2002).

Therefore, it might be important to ask whether 1648 indeed resulted in the ‘Westphalian System’ and whether it brought about decisive changes for the modern global political system that were ever fully implemented. In short, the essay aims at answering the question whether the ‘Westphalian System’ ever existed at all. In doing so, it is firstly explained what is actually meant by the term ‘Westphalian System’. In this context, the Westphalian Peace and its determinate core principles – sovereignty, territoriality, and autonomy – are presented. However, as these core principles of Westphalia are often challenged the main part provides arguments against the conventional view that the Peace Treaties initiated the ‘Westphalian System’ and thus profoundly changed the system of states until today. With respect to this, argumentations of both Krasner and Teschke are presented in order to disprove Miller’s claim that 1648 demarked the decisive breaking point from the medieval towards the modern age.  It is argued that 1648 is a myth and that states never have been sovereign and exclusively territorially separated entities. Also the principle of self-determination remains an illusion even today. The contemporary examples of the European Union and humanitarian interventions are used to support Krasner’s argumentation. Moreover, it is then shown that the transition from a medieval to a modern state system is not based on one single event – rather the transition was a mixed case that dragged on for two centuries. In a final step, Teschke’s social property relations theory is presented and applied to the situation before and after 1648 in order to proof, that Miller’s claim of a decentralized state system due to the Peace Treaties is a myth. Based on these argumentations, the essay will conclude that the idealistic notion of the ‘Westphalian System’ has never actually existed as there were and still are many challenges to it. However, its core principles can be considered as the idealistic founding idea that influenced the modern world order.

The ‘Westphalian System’

The Thirty Years War was an unusual cruel and devastating war, motivated both by religious conflict, where “catholic leaders sought to defeat Protestant states to restore the “true faith” (D’Anieri, 2010, 22), and a political contest of control over European territory. Finally, the European Powers, exhausted by the long war which saw an enormous death rate gathered in Westphalia and Osnabruck in 1648 which represents the first modern diplomatic congress. The resulting Peace of Westphalia is usually considered as the start of a new order in central Europe mainly based on the state theory of Jean Bodin and the idea of the natural right of Hugo Grotius.

Sovereignty and other Core Principles of the ‘Westphalian System’

The Peace Treaties led to the first acknowledgement of European rulers that Europe was “a system of multiple states” (D’Anieri, 2010, 28). The official recognition of each other’s rule evoked the question how these states should now relate to one another which was solved by the principle of sovereignty – the heart of the Westphalian achievements. It was further determined that such sovereign states enjoyed a legal equality between them. State sovereignty had external and internal dimensions: The external dimension defined that within its borders “the state or government has an entitlement to supreme, unqualified, and exclusive political and legal authority” (McGrew, 2011, 23), ultimately meaning that it is not righteous to challenge the rule of an (legitimated) authority in a state. The internal dimension aimed at the “principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states” (D’Anieri, 2010, 28) which is an important contemporary issue, too. Especially in this latter dimension, two other important achievements for the ‘Westphalian System’ came into effect, namely the principles of territoriality and autonomy. Regarding territoriality it was determined that humankind is organized “into exclusive territorial communities with fixed borders” (McGrew, 2011, 23). The principle of autonomy aimed at the emerging notion of self-determination so that countries were regarded as autonomous “containers of political, social and economic activity” (McGrew, 2011, 23) within fixed borders, separating the domestic from the international sphere. Moreover, the treaty also acknowledged pluralism in religious terms. It was stipulated that multiple religions exist and thus the medieval concept of determining and enforcing “a single “true” religion” (D’Anieri, 2010, 28) was abolished. Based on such principles – recognition, equality, sovereignty, territoriality, autonomy and pluralism – the system that emerged from that time is commonly known as the ‘Westphalian System’.

Has the ‘Westphalian System’ ever existed?

The true realization of these principles and the claim that Westphalia provided the basis for a major legal codification and territorial settlement of European geopolitics under a new organization principle of the states-system which still counts today and thus represented a decisive turning point in world history is often contested. Mainly by those who claim that “medieval practices lived on after and in spite of Westphalia” and by those who argue that the “modern conception of sovereignty differs fundamentally from the later, capitalist form which characterizes the world of today” (Rosenberg, 2000, 29). Moreover, modern globalization and its interconnecting effects are often used as an argument to deny the existence of effects of the ‘Westphalian System’.

The Myth of Sovereignty, Territoriality and Self-Determination

The sovereign right of a state to have full command over a distinctive territory can be regarded as a myth since 1648 according to Krasner. He claims that the movement of “people, goods, finance, ideas, and information” (Krasner, 1993, 236) have always been present and thus the idea of sovereign boundaries in which a state determines what external influences to block and what not is doubtful. While such claim seems to be relatively harmless regarding the break of sovereign principles, European colonialism and imperialism which experienced a massive drive in the 17th century and later in the 19th century again when e.g. whole Africa was completely divided by European powers (Punter, 2000, 1), emphasizes Krasner’s argumentation. The principles of sovereign borders and the right of self-determination were severely broken by conquering such new lands. The problem of sovereignty was and still is that the more powerful nations do not necessarily adhere(d) to it. Similar examples can be found in contemporary political actions such as recently the intervention in Libya, acting with the objective to stop the severe human rights violations which have been committed by a dictatorial regime and in order to support the democratic movement (Western/Goldstein, 2011). Already in 1998, the NATO Secretary-General at that time, Solana, argued that “humanity and democracy [were] two principles essentially irrelevant to the original Westphalian order” (Solana, 1998) and thus the system had its limits. Also Krasner argues that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights has provisions “outlining the appropriate array of rights, referred to as human rights that should be accorded to individuals regardless of the policies of their governments” (Krasner, 1993, 237). The break of human rights and other universally counting values is usually condemned by the international community of states, followed by external pressure such as economic sanctions as it was the case in South Africa with its government following a policy of apartheid (enforced by the National Party between 1948 – 1994), even if such state fulfills the principles of sovereignty.

Beside such critical issues diplomatic, economic and political alliances further symbolize a watered down understanding of classical sovereignty principles. With respect to this, particularly the European Union (EU) challenges the conventional view of state sovereignty. The Union’s concept of shared sovereignty under e.g. a common European law and the Court of Justice of the EU (Damien, 2010, 143 – 144) breaks with the conventional Westphalian understanding of state sovereignty and territoriality and its idea of national jurisdiction which is valid only in clearly defined boundaries. Regarding economic aspects, the EU has created a single market across the whole territory of its member, including a single currency. This single market established a free circulation of goods, services, capital and people in the EU. These phenomenon’s further dissolves the principles of territoriality and sovereignty so that the “Union emerged as anything but a Westphalian super state” (Denca, 2007, 77).

The Modern State System is not based on a Single Event

While the above presented does not speak in favor of a ‘Westphalian System’ in contemporary times, Teschke explains that there has not been a true ‘Westphalian System’ in the past 300 years either. The claim of Miller that the Peace of Westphalia demarks the decisive point in the transformation of the medieval to the modern period in Europe (Miller, 1994, 20 – 23) is rejected by Teschke. Although he admits that particularly 17th century England represents the starting point for a change in the development of a modern international state system, it is argued that “no single event or date” can be identified that marks a “caesura towards inter-state modernity” (Teschke, 2002, 8) . Although England in the 16th and 17th century experienced a first rise or agrarian capitalism and “the conversion of dynastic sovereignty into parliamentary sovereignty” (Teschke, 2002, 36) , the transition to modernity occurred between the 18th and the 20th century, starting with the French Revolution and ending with the First World War. As such, the transformation was more a ‘mixed case’ of events, rather than one decisive breaking point (Teschke, 2002, 7).  Moreover, although there was indeed a break with the “old territorial accumulative logic of IR”, this change was heterogeneous and unequal. For instance, from 1713 onwards, there was no real balance of power. Instead there was a dynastic balance with England as the conscious privileged balancer (Teschke, 2002, 32 – 35).

The Fallacy of a Decentralized System After 1648

According to Miller, the medieval conception of order was a strictly hierarchical system with the supreme authorities of emperor and pope: “Peasants were born to till the fields, princes to rule” (Miller, 1994, 22). However, the principles of the Peace of Westphalia abolished this hierarchical social system and instead, a “decentralized, scattered power has been regarded as “the legitimate mode of organization” for the global international system (Miller, 1994, 23). Although Miller further claims that both the medieval and the modern political systems were anarchical and characterized by the absence of a central rule, the medieval normative system sought to reinforce the central rule whereas the main principle of the modern world system was decentralization. This innovation of a “decentralized system of sovereign and equal nation-states” (Miller, 1994, 21) and thus also the dissolving of the medieval hierarchical social system and its determined social property relations represents a decisive breaking point from the medieval to the modern state system.

Teschke, however, rejects this assumption that the evolution of decentralized states changed social property relations. It rather was that the overall control remained in the hands of absolutist monarchs as the “parcellized sovereignty of the feudal age was transformed into dynastic sovereignty as the private property of the king” (Teschke, 2002, 35). Consequently, the structure of social property relations between the 14th and 17th century experienced a move from feudal rent regime to a centralized kingly sovereignty. Moreover, this “sovereignty was personalized by the monarch who regarded and treated the state as the private patrimonial property of the reigning dynasty” (Teschke, 2002, 13). Especially the French absolutist monarch and roi soleil, Louis XIV, and his devise ‘L’État c’est moi’ symbolizes such proprietary kingship. Such perception of dynastic empire building and foreign policy and a monarchia universalis did not find an end with Westphalia since “prevailing conceptions of geopolitical order revolved in monarchical states – well beyond 1648 – around notions of universalism and hierarchy” (Teschke, 2002, 15). Geopolitical issues and foreign policy remained private family matters of the reigning monarchy. This is emphasized by the persistence of dynastic Empire building, dynastic unions and dynastic wars and rules of succession as public international law as well as the constitutional anchoring of private family law (Teschke, 2002, 13 – 15). These explanations clearly contradict Miller’s claim of an administrative break from a central towards a decentralized state system.

Such interpretation of sovereignty did not really change with the rise of capitalism and a modern society. Capitalism was defined by the logic of circulation and production. The social system based upon a set of property relations in which direct producers were separated from means of subsistence. Consequently, hired labor power generated profits so that the surplus value which can be siphoned off can be reinvested in means of production and technological innovation that increase productivity and dynamic process of economic growth. The historical precondition for this however was, the separation of direct producers from the means of production leading to free wage labor. This happened particularly in England during the 17th century where bonded peasants moved to agrarian wage labor under a class of capitalist landlords, renting out land to tenants. This derailed the Stuart absolutism as there was a shifting from political accumulation based on feudal rent regime to a regime of economic accumulation based on capitalist wage regime. Ultimately, this meant that “if absolutism implied the centralization and persisting personalization of political power by dynasties, then capitalism implies the centralization and depersonalization of political power in form of the modern state” (Teschke, 2002, 31).

Assessment and Conclusion

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 initiated the notion of a ‘Westphalian System’. This primarily means that states enjoy(ed) the principles of sovereignty, territoriality, autonomy and self-determination as well as the principles of equality and legality. Krasner claims that the Westphalian system has been little more than ‘organized hypocrisy’ for many states (Krasner, 1999, 58 – 70). This might be too harsh. However, Miller’s claim that Westphalia represents a fundamental break with the medieval system and the starting point for the modern system can only hardly be defended if considering the arguments of Krasner and especially Teschke. Under the question whether the ‘Westphalian System’ ever existed, this essay has analyzed arguments which do not support such an existence in contemporary times and between 1648 and the 19th century. It might be concluded that Westphalia can be seen as an arbitrary; however, it is impossible to define a certain date when modernity starts. Rather it was a mixed case with no single date as Teschke argues. By using his social property relations theory, Teschke rejects the conventional realist medieval-to-modern importance of e.g. Miller. Instead, there has been an uneven transition to modernity which happened between the 18th and 20th century with Great Britain as starting point.

Krasner also argues that there never has been a true implementation of sovereignty and clearly defined boundaries. Goods, people, information etc. were always able to circulate between countries more or less unrestricted. This phenomenon which is nowadays usually known as globalization and interconnectedness challenges the Westphalian ideas. Moreover, European countries’ colonialism and imperialism contradicts the Westphalian notion of sovereignty, territoriality and self-determination. Such is also often disregarded in contemporary times by e.g. military interventions, economic sanctions and other forms of forced pressure.

The 21st century surely represents a fundamental challenge for the notion of a ‘Westphalian System’, too. Particularly the example of the European Union as a confederation of states and its concept of shared sovereignty, reaching beyond state sovereignty, territoriality, strict boundaries and exclusive self-determination as external agents can interfere in nation’s internal affairs.

Consequently, the Peace of Westphalia and its principles might be regarded as the founding ideal for forming the normative structure or even constitution of the modern world order, however, it was only, if at all, in the 20th century that it’s organizing principles acquired a certain status. The presented arguments represent a fundamental challenge to the Westphalian ideal of sovereign statehood and further principles. It is therefore doubtful whether the idealistic notion of a ‘Westphalian System’ ever existed.


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  13. Western, J. / Goldstein, J.: ‘Humanitarian Intervention Comes of Age: Lessons From Somalia to Libya’ in Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 6, pp. 48 – 59, New York 2011.
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