Westphalian sovereignty

"State sovereignty" redirects here. For state sovereignty in the United States, see Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Westphalian sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country's domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law. The doctrine is named after the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, in which the major continental European states – the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, Sweden and the Dutch Republic – agreed to respect one another's territorial integrity. As European influence spread across the globe, the Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to international law and to the prevailing world order.[1]

Scholars of international relations have identified the modern, Western-originated, international system of states, multinational corporations, and organizations, as having begun at the Peace of Westphalia.[2] Both the basis and the conclusion of this view have been attacked by some revisionist academics and politicians, with revisionists questioning the significance of the Peace, and some commentators and politicians attacking the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states.

Traditional view

The traditional view of the Westphalian system is that the Peace of Westphalia was an agreement to respect the principle of territorial integrity. In the Westphalian system, the national interests and goals of states (and later nation-states) were widely assumed to go beyond those of any citizen or any ruler. States became the primary institutional agents in an interstate system of relations. The Peace of Westphalia is said to have ended attempts to impose supranational authority on European states. The "Westphalian" doctrine of states as independent agents was bolstered by the rise in 19th century thought of nationalism, under which legitimate states were assumed to correspond to nations—groups of people united by language and culture.

The Westphalian system reached its peak in the late 19th century. Although practical considerations still led powerful states to seek to influence the affairs of others, forcible intervention by one country in the domestic affairs of another was less frequent between 1850 and 1900 than in most previous and subsequent periods.[3]

The Peace of Westphalia is important in modern international relations theory, and is often defined as the beginning of the international system with which the discipline deals.[4][5][6][7]

International-relation theorists have identified several key principles of the Peace of Westphalia, which explain the Peace's significance and its effect on the world today:

  1. The principle of the sovereignty of states and the fundamental right of political self determination
  2. The principle of legal equality between states
  3. The principle of non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another state

These principles are shared by the "realist" international relations paradigm today, which explains why the system of states is referred to as "The Westphalian System".

Both the idea of Westphalian sovereignty and its applicability in practice have been questioned from the mid-20th century onward from a variety of viewpoints. Much of the debate has turned on the ideas of internationalism and globalization which, in various interpretations, appear to conflict with Westphalian sovereignty.

Modern views on the Westphalian system

The Westphalian system is used as a shorthand by academics to describe the system of states which make up the world today.[8]

In 1998, at a Symposium on the Continuing Political Relevance of the Peace of Westphalia, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said that "humanity and democracy [were] two principles essentially irrelevant to the original Westphalian order" and levied a criticism that "the Westphalian system had its limits. For one, the principle of sovereignty it relied on also produced the basis for rivalry, not community of states; exclusion, not integration."[9]

In 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech in Chicago where he "set out a new, post-Westphalian, 'doctrine of the international community.'" Blair argued that globalization had made the Westphalian approach anachronistic.[10] Blair was later referred to by The Daily Telegraph as "the man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era."[11] Others have also asserted that globalization has superseded the Westphalian system.[12]

In 2000, Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer referred to the Peace of Westphalia in his Humboldt Speech, which argued that the system of European politics set up by Westphalia was obsolete: "The core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the European balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of closer meshing of vital interests and the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions."[13]

In the aftermath of the 11 March 2004 Madrid attacks, Lewis 'Atiyyatullah, who claims to represent the terrorist network al-Qaeda, declared that "the international system built up by the West since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse; and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state".[14]

Others speak favorably of the Westphalian state, notably European nationalists and American paleoconservative Pat Buchanan.[15][16] Some such supporters of the Westphalian state oppose socialism and some forms of capitalism for undermining the nation state. A major theme of Buchanan's political career, for example, has been attacking globalization, critical theory, neoconservatism, and other philosophies he considers detrimental to today's Western nations.

Globalization and Westphalian sovereignty

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the imperative of globalization and interdependence led to international integration, and the erosion of Westphalian sovereignty. Much of the literature was primarily concerned with criticizing realist models of international politics in which the Westphalian notion of the state as a unitary agent is taken as axiomatic (Camilleri and Falk 1992).

The European Union's concept of shared sovereignty is also somewhat contrary to historical views of Westphalian sovereignty, as it provides for external agents to influence and interfere in the internal affairs of its member countries.

In a 2008 article Phil Williams links the rise of terrorism and other violent non-state actors (VNSAs), which pose a threat to the Westphalian sovereignty of the state, to globalization.[17]


Military intervention

Since the late 20th century, the idea of Westphalian sovereignty has been brought into further question by a range of actual and proposed military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Vietnam and Crimea, among others.

Humanitarian intervention

Interventions such as in Cambodia by Vietnam (the Cambodian–Vietnamese War) or military intervention in Bangladesh (then a part of Pakistan) by India (the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Pakistan-initiated response (Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 within it) had a questionable or weak basis in international law.

However, there is debate about whether other recent infringements of state sovereignty, such as in Kosovo (then a part of Serbia and Montenegro) by NATO (the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia) and subsequent separation of Kosovo from Serbia, in Iraq by the United States and a few other allies such as the United Kingdom (the 2003 Iraq War), in Georgia by Russia (the 2008 South Ossetia war), or in Libya by NATO (the 2011 Libyan civil war), also reflected these higher principles or whether the real justification was simply the promotion of political and economic interests.

A new notion of contingent sovereignty seems to be emerging, but it has not yet reached the point of international legitimacy. Neoconservatism in particular has developed this line of thinking further, asserting that a lack of democracy may foreshadow future humanitarian crises, or that democracy itself constitutes a human right, and therefore nation states not respecting democratic principles open themselves up to just war by other countries.[18] However, proponents of this theory have been accused of being concerned about democracy, human rights and humanitarian crises only in countries where American global dominance is challenged, such as the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, Belarus, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, etc., while hypocritically ignoring the same issues in other countries friendlier to the United States, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Georgia, and Colombia.

Failed states

Further criticism of Westphalian sovereignty arises regarding allegedly failed states, of which Afghanistan (before the 2001 US-led invasion) is often considered an example.[19] In this case, it is argued that no sovereignty exists and that international intervention is justified on humanitarian grounds and by the threats posed by failed states to neighboring countries and the world as a whole.

Some of the recent debate over Somalia is also being cast in these same terms.[19]

See also

Further reading


  1. Henry Kissinger (2014). "Introduction and Chpt 1". World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History. Allen Lane. ISBN 0241004268.
  2. Gabel, Medard; Bruner, Henry (2003), Global Inc.: An Atlas of the Multinational Corporation, New York: The New Press, p. 2, ISBN 1-56584-727-X
  3. Leurdijk, 1986
  4. Osiander, Andreas (2001), "Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth", International Organization, 55 (2): 251–287, doi:10.1162/00208180151140577. Here: p. 251.
  5. Gross, Leo (January 1948), "The Peace of Westphalia", The American Journal of International Law, 42 (1): 20–41, doi:10.2307/2193560, JSTOR 2193560.
  6. Jackson, R.H.; P. Owens (2005) "The Evolution of World Society" in: John Baylis; Steve Smith (eds.). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 53. ISBN 1-56584-727-X.
  7. Croxton, Derek (1999), "The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty", International History Review, 21 (3): 569–591, doi:10.1080/07075332.1999.9640869, JSTOR 40109077
  8. Osiander, p. 251.
  9. Solana, Javier (November 12, 1998), Securing Peace in Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, retrieved 2008-05-21
  10. Bellamy, Alex, and Williams, Paul, Understanding Peacekeeping, Polity Press 2010, p. 37
  11. Harris, Mike, "Why is Tony Blair lending credibility to Kazakhstan's dictator?", The Telegraph, February 2, 2012
  12. Cutler, A. Claire (2001), "Critical Reflections on the Westphalian Assumptions of International Law and Organization: A Crisis of Legitimacy", Review of International Studies, 27 (2): 133–150, doi:10.1017/S0260210500001339.
  13. Fischer, Joschka (May 12, 2000), From Confederacy to Federation – Thoughts on the Finality of European Integration, Auswärtiges Amt, archived from the original on 2002-05-02, retrieved 2008-07-06
  14. Berman, Yaniv (April 1, 2004), Exclusive – Al-Qa'ida: Islamic State Will Control the World, The Media Line, archived from the original on 2004-06-10, retrieved 2008-07-06
  15. Patrick J. Buchanan (January 1, 2002), Say Goodbye to the Mother Continent, retrieved 2008-05-21
  16. Patrick J. Buchanan (May 23, 2006), The Death of the Nation State, retrieved 2008-05-21
  17. "Resources". www.isn.ethz.ch. Retrieved 2016-09-20.
  18. Olivier, Michèle (October 3, 2011). "Impact of the Arab Spring: Is democracy emerging as a human right in Africa?". Rights in focus discussion paper. Consultancy Africa Intelligence. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  19. 1 2 The Washington Quarterly, Volume 25, Issue 3, 2002 "The new nature of nation‐state failure" Robert I. Rotbergab
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