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The Westphalian Mirage

March 26, 2012

Sebastian Schmidt in The Wilson Quarterly:

Few serious discussions of globalization go very far before sage allusions to “the Westphalian system” start flying. The term is a catchall description for the rules of the game that have prevailed in international politics since the European treaties collectively called the Peace of Westphalia were signed in 1648. Today, we tend to measure the uncertainties created by globalization against the solid foundation established by the Peace.

The only problem, writes Sebastian Schmidt, a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, is that the foundation is a mirage. The Westphalian system that scholars and others confidently cite as a standard was not what it seems. The ructions of our present-day globalization may not be as unprecedented as we think.

The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War, which began as a bloody struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Germany and later drew in other European powers, and the Eighty Years’ War, fought between Spain and the Dutch Republic. That much is beyond dispute. But the Peace is also said to have replaced the unsettled state of international borders and politics with a system of “sovereign, equal territorial states” immune to intervention by outsiders. (No longer, for example, would the Holy Roman emperor meddle in the domains of German princes.)

From that perspective, the 21st century certainly looks very different.  [More]

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