The future of our time: Rewriting ‘Westphalianism’

The future of our time: Rewriting ‘Westphalianism’

Reading Henry Kissinger’s typically well-considered and intelligent article for the Wall Street Journal this weekend (“A Path out of the Middle East Collapse”), I had a growing sense that it isn’t so much a prescription for the future as a description of the past.

The sense began with the first paragraph, in which Kissinger defines the scope of what’s collapsing, and dates it only to 1973, when the U.S. moved to stabilize the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War.

But far more than recent U.S. policy on the Middle East is collapsing today.  What we’re seeing is more like the collapse of “Rome” itself:  the organization of Western power as a Europe-centric territorial phenomenon, setting unbreachable boundaries north, south, and west of a restless and perennially “unorganizable” Middle East.

Last year, we might have said that it was “Sykes-Picot” that was collapsing: a popular shorthand reference to the European colonial disposition of Middle Eastern boundaries at the end of World War I.  But that was last year.  Now it’s 2015, and with the utter paralysis of Western nations in the face of massive and unforeseen, unarmed migration, it’s clear that Roman Europe itself is no longer a meaningful reality.

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Consider:  the Roman Empire in its heyday would not have tolerated this migration.  Neither would the Europe of muscular Christendom, or the Europe of trading monarchies, of the Westphalian nation-state era, of the “concert of Europe” era, or of the Cold War.  As long as Europe had a civilizational idea of defending and preserving itself, the legacy of Rome was alive.  Altered, perhaps, with the passage of time and the emergence of new ideas, but still kicking.

Today, the legacy of Rome looks to be an empty shell.  There is territory left, of course – but there is no idea.  In fact, the West has spent much of the last 50 years apologizing for ever having had its signature idea, and vowing to no longer have it.

Without that idea, the West has no motive to organize itself against destruction, either internal or from an external source.  The idea of the West is ultimately what has collapsed, at least as an organizing principle that preserved for many centuries, and for multiple purposes, the security boundaries of “Rome.”

And with that collapse goes the whole structure of expectations that made Dr. Kissinger’s prescription for American policy possible.

This point crystallized for me at the end of his article, when he wrote these words (emphasis added):

The U.S. role in such a Middle East [i.e., with a stability structure supported by U.S. policy] would be to implement the military assurances in the traditional Sunni states that the administration promised during the debate on the Iranian nuclear agreement, and which its critics have demanded.

In this context, Iran’s role can be critical. The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.

But that’s just the problem.  Without a dominant European idea – the civilizationally confident Europe of “Rome” – there is no such thing as a Westphalian state.  There is no form of power or authority that can enforce Westphalian rules.  Nor is there any great nation with a motive to enforce them.

This is too big a subject to bite off all of in a single blog post.  So let me just look at two aspects of the proposition here.  One is Westphalianism itself, and why we should recognize that it must be under assault from today’s events.

Westphalianism under assault

Ultimately, what we call Westphalianism, after the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, is an attempt to enable nation-states to coexist pragmatically – a good in itself, enshrined as the “advantage of the other,” or the “common good” – without settling theological questions.

Every nation that signed the treaty considered itself officially a Christian nation: God was invoked often, in the name of each nation’s existence, purpose, and power – and vice versa.  The nations of 1648 had no intention of ceasing to see themselves as Christian organizations on the earth.  What they intended to do was cease making theological disputes (i.e., Protestant versus Catholic disputes, which were the main ones among the belligerents at the time) a casus belli between them.

Westphalia was a watershed statement, not that the power of the state superseded the reputation or truth of God, but that the armed might of the state should not be used, implicitly against the common good, to vindicate or enforce specific theological interpretations of God.

The genius of Westphalianism is that the scope of national sovereignty is held to be not limitless, but limited.  God is universally sovereign; a nation is not.  Westphalianism leaves the things of God to God, and attends to the things of Caesar.  Westphalianism is based on a moral assumption, but is essentially an idea of pragmatism.

"The Westphalian Peace in Muenster," 1648. Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681). (Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of www.geheugenvannederland.nl)
“The Westphalian Peace in Muenster,” 1648. Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681). (Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of www.geheugenvannederland.nl)

This is why the resurgence of apocalyptic Islam is antithetical to Westphalianism.  Christianity was able to deem Westphalianism compatible with godly provision, because Christianity neither prophesies nor requires an earthly empire.

But predatory Shia Iran and the rise of Sunni state-Islamism – not only in the form of ISIS, but in the form of the longer-organized Muslim Brotherhood – are real and meaningful evidence that the bloody, thrashing Islamism of today is not Westphalian, and cannot be.

The idea of a revolutionary Islamic Iran “returning to a Westphalian role” is a chimera.  Iran won’t return to anything even approaching a Westphalian role without two indispensable conditions: regime change in Iran, and the establishment among the modern nations of an enforceable mode of next-Westphalianism.

I think of it as next-Westphalianism because we will have to go through a paroxysm of aggressive Islamism, and reacting to Islamism, to get to it.  (We’ll also have to revisit the role and purpose of the Western state in the lives of citizens, although that’s a subject for a different post.)

The premise of Westphalianism is that all the nations are trying to get along, and need a modus vivendi to regularize things.  The premise of Islamism is that nationhood itself doesn’t matter – indeed, is there to thwart Islamic unity, and must be overset.

These two premises can’t coexist.  The Treaty of Westphalia was signed by a group of nations that all agreed on nationhood.  Even internationalist Communism, the horseman of apocalypse in the 20th century, had uses for nationhood that could keep it pragmatically satisfied for decades.  Communism was willing to accept that the state would eventually wither away, but still act like a state in the meantime.

Islamism sees the nation-state as a rampart of evil, blocking the path of the caliphate.  Islamism has the excuse of belief for not respecting the rules of state sovereignty under Westphalianism.

We can’t assume away the strength or pervasiveness of the Islamist challenge to Westphalianism.  Maybe as recently as 2014, it was possible to be complacent about that.  But the earthquake of migration into Europe has reached a level that is proving against Europe, on a daily basis, that Westphalianism is not even in operation anymore.  This is the second aspect of the problem that we have to consider.

The current migration crisis means Westphalianism is dead

If Westphalianism were still in operation, the migrant crisis wouldn’t have reached its current proportions.  Westphalian states would see it, properly, as something to defend themselves against, and would take pragmatic measures to stem the tide.  Those measures would include intervention abroad, to stabilize foreign conditions, and paying other nations to take the migrants, as well as setting strict limits on immigration and advertising clearly that the doors were closed.  Deportation and physical barriers would be seen as regrettable, perhaps, but hardly as moral evils.

The Westphalian view is clear that humaneness doesn’t demand sacrificing the benefits of national sovereignty for hundreds of millions of people.  Yet that self-abnegating idea is the default proposition governing the response of Europe – and even of the United States – to the current migration crisis.

If the West won’t enforce Westphalianism in defense of its own territory and communities, there’s no reason to think Westphalianism will be enforced on Iran.  The unenforceability of the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear program arises from the same deficit of Western confidence in the use of state power.

And because the fundamental clash going on is between Islamism and a collapsing idea of Western civilization, this dynamic is too big to be put in balance by a mere restoration to the framework of 1973 or 1919.  That’s not actually possible, in any case – and even 1818 and 1648 don’t go far enough back.  Those dates were about Christian states proving things to themselves.

A new process

It’s Islamism to which the evolutionary Western idea of multilateralism, limited sovereignty, and freedom of conscience for peoples has now to be proven.  This is a real geopolitical crisis point, not an abstraction.  If necessary, the Western idea has to prove itself over Islamism.

In the process of doing that, “Westphalianism” will inevitably evolve, to some extent.  We will end up rewriting it.  I think we’ll preserve most of it, but it will have to find a way to stand, and not give way, before a religious concept that negates Westphalianism’s very foundation; i.e., the limited-sovereignty nation-state.  I’m not sure we can foresee at the moment what it will all look like when we’re done.

One thing we can say as we part here, however, is that this tremendous crisis in world affairs represents an opportunity, for people who love limited government, freedom, and hope.  The Western framework that has been increasingly hostile to those very benefits is crumbling, even as it has fallen mostly into the hands of what Jonah Goldberg famously called “liberal fascists.”

We might even say that Westphalianism has been protecting the wrong things for some time now.  The brittle weakness of a Westphalian West’s top-level organization doesn’t mean that Western peoples are weak, that Western ideas are weak, or that intellectual and economic freedom are weak.  It means, rather, that we haven’t been living by our own ideas.

In the emerging crisis, we need to watch for opportunities to live by those ideas anew.  I’ve written before that the world today is more wide-open than at any time since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  That doesn’t mean only that Russia has a freer hand in the Middle East than she has ever had before (although it does mean that).  It doesn’t just mean, either, that the Islamists trying to use the nation-state to advance their ends need to watch their step – although it does mean that, too.

It also means that nothing but inertia is holding the heavy-handed, overspent governing factions of the modern West in power.  And that inertia is bleeding off fast.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.