Westphalian sovereignty

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Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is the principle in international law that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. The principle underlies the modern international system of sovereign states and is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which states that "nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." [1] According to the idea, every state, no matter how large or small, has an equal right to sovereignty. [2] Political scientists have traced the concept to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War. The principle of non-interference was further developed in the 18th century. The Westphalian system reached its peak in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it has faced recent challenges from advocates of humanitarian intervention.

International law regulations governing international relations

International law, also known as public international law or law of nations, is the set of rules, norms, and standards generally regarded and accepted in relations between nations. It establishes normative guidelines and a common conceptual framework for states to follow across a broad range of domains, including war, diplomacy, human rights, commerce, and environmental preservation. International law thus provides a mean for states to practice more stable, consistent, and organized international relations.

Sovereign state Political organization with a centralized independent government

In international law, a sovereign state, sovereign country, or simply state, is a nonphysical juridical entity that is represented by one centralized government that has sovereignty over a geographic area. International law defines sovereign states as having a permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood that a sovereign state is neither dependent on nor subjected to any other power or state.

Sovereignty concept that a state or governing body has the right and power to govern itself without outside interference

Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity.



The Peace of Westphalia is considered by political scientists to be the beginning of the modern international system, [3] [4] [5] [6] in which external powers should avoid interfering in another country's domestic affairs. [7] However, recent scholarship has argued that the Westphalian treaties actually had little to do with the principles with which they are often associated: sovereignty, non-intervention, and the legal equality of states. For example, Andreas Osiander writes that "[t]he treaties confirm neither [France's or Sweden's] 'sovereignty' nor anybody else's; least of all do they contain anything about sovereignty as a principle." [8] Others, like Christoph Kampann and Johannes Paulmann argue that the 1648 treaties in fact limited the sovereignty of numerous states within the Holy Roman Empire and that the Westphalian treaties did not present a coherent new state-system, although they were part of an ongoing change. Yet others, often post-colonialist scholars, point out the limited relevance of the 1648 system to the histories and state systems in the non-Western world. [9] Nonetheless, "Westphalian sovereignty" continues to be used as a shorthand for the basic legal principles underlying the modern state system. The applicability and relevance of these principles 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 conflict[ how? ] with Westphalian sovereignty.

Peace of Westphalia Peace treaty ending the European Thirty and Eighty Years Wars

The Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, largely ending the European wars of religion, including the Thirty Years' War. The treaties of Westphalia brought to an end a calamitous period of European history which caused the deaths of approximately eight million people. Scholars have identified Westphalia as the beginning of the modern international system, based on the concept of Westphalian sovereignty, though this interpretation has been seriously challenged.

Internationalism (politics) movement which advocates a greater economic and political cooperation among nations

Internationalism is a political principle which transcends nationalism and advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and people.

Globalization or globalisation is the process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide. As a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, globalization is considered by some as a form of capitalist expansion which entails the integration of local and national economies into a global, unregulated market economy. Globalization has grown due to advances in transportation and communication technology. With the increased global interactions comes the growth of international trade, ideas, and culture. Globalization is primarily an economic process of interaction and integration that's associated with social and cultural aspects. However, conflicts and diplomacy are also large parts of the history of globalization, and modern globalization.


The ratification of the Treaty of Munster, part of the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War. Westfaelischer Friede in Muenster (Gerard Terborch 1648).jpg
The ratification of the Treaty of Münster, part of the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War.

The origins of Westphalian sovereignty have been traced in the scholarly literature to the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The peace treaties put an end to the Thirty Years' War, a war of religion that devastated Germany and killed 30% of its population. Since neither the Catholics nor the Protestants had won a clear victory, the peace settlement established a status quo order in which states would refrain from interfering in each other's religious practices. [7] Henry Kissinger wrote:

Thirty Years War War between 1618 and 1648; with over 8 million fatalities

The Thirty Years' War was a war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One of the most destructive conflicts in human history, it resulted in eight million fatalities not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine, and plague. Casualties were overwhelmingly and disproportionately inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire, most of the rest being battle deaths from various foreign armies. In terms of proportional German casualties and destruction, it was surpassed only by the period January to May 1945; one of its enduring results was 19th-century Pan-Germanism, when it served as an example of the dangers of a divided Germany and became a key justification for the 1871 creation of the German Empire.

European wars of religion series of wars waged in Europe from ca. 1524 to 1697

The European wars of religion were a series of religious wars waged in Europe in the 16th, 17th and early 18th century. The wars were fought after the Protestant Reformation's beginning in 1517, which disrupted the religious and political order in the Catholic countries of Europe. However, religion was not the only cause of the wars, which also included revolts, territorial ambitions, and Great Power conflicts. For example, by the end of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), Catholic France was allied with the Protestant forces against the Catholic Habsburg monarchy. The wars were largely ended by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), establishing a new political order that is now known as Westphalian sovereignty. However, religion-based armed conflict persisted in Europe, such as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–1651) on the British Isles and the Savoyard–Waldensian wars (1655–1690) and Toggenburg War (1712) in the Western Alps, until the 1710s.

Henry Kissinger 56th United States Secretary of State

Henry Alfred Kissinger is an American elder statesman, political scientist, diplomat, and geopolitical consultant who served as United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. A Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938, he became National Security Advisor in 1969 and U.S. Secretary of State in 1973. For his actions negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam, Kissinger received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize under controversial circumstances, with two members of the committee resigning in protest. Kissinger later sought, unsuccessfully, to return the prize after the ceasefire failed.

The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other's domestic affairs and checking each other's ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe's contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states and refrain from challenging their existence. [7]

The principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic affairs was laid out in the mid-18th century by Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel. [10] 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.[ citation needed ]

Emer (Emmerich) de Vattel was an international lawyer. He was born in Couvet in Neuchâtel in 1714 and died in 1767 of edema. He was largely influenced by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. He is most famous for his 1758 work The Law of Nations. This work was his claim to fame and won him enough prestige to be appointed as a councilor to the court of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony.

Nationalism is a political, social, and economic ideology and movement characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity—based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history—and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation's traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism. Nationalism is often combined with other ideologies, such as conservatism or socialism for example.

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. [11] [ dubious ]

After the end of the Cold War, the United States and Western Europe began talking of a post-Westphalian order in which countries could intervene against human rights abuses in other countries. [1] Critics have pointed out such intervention would be (and has been) used to continue processes similar to standard Euro-American colonialism, and that the colonial powers always used ideas similar to "humanitarian intervention" to justify colonialism, slavery, and similar practices. [12] China and Russia have thus used their United Nations Security Council veto power to block what they see as American actions to violate the sovereignty of other nations. [13]

Challenges to Westphalia

The end of the Cold War saw increased international integration and, arguably, the erosion of Westphalian sovereignty. Much of the literature was primarily concerned with criticizing realist models of international politics in which the notion of the state as a unitary agent is taken as axiomatic. [14]

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." [15]

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. [16] Blair was later referred to by The Daily Telegraph as "the man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era". [17] Others have also asserted that globalization has superseded the Westphalian system. [18]

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." [19]

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. [20] In a 2008 article Phil Williams links the rise of terrorism and violent non-state actors (VNSAs), which pose a threat to the Westphalian sovereignty of the state, to globalization. [21]

Military intervention

Interventions such as in Cambodia by Vietnam (the Cambodian–Vietnamese War) or in Bangladesh (then a part of Pakistan) by West Pakistan (the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971) were seen by some as examples of humanitarian intervention, although their basis in international law is debatable. [22] Other more recent interventions, and their attendant infringements of state sovereignty, also have prompted debates about their legality and motivations.

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 states not respecting democratic principles open themselves up to just war by other countries. [23] 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, while hypocritically ignoring the same issues in other countries friendlier to the United States.[ citation needed ]

Further criticism of Westphalian sovereignty arises regarding allegedly failed states, of which Afghanistan (before the 2001 US-led invasion) is often considered an example. [24] 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.

Defenders of Westphalia

Although the Westphalian system developed in early modern Europe, its staunchest defenders can now be found in the non-Western world. The presidents of China and Russia issued a joint statement in 2001 vowing to "counter attempts to undermine the fundamental norms of the international law with the help of concepts such as 'humanitarian intervention' and 'limited sovereignty'". [25] China and Russia have used their United Nations Security Council veto power to block what they see as American violations of state sovereignty in Syria. [13] [26] Russia was left out of the original Westphalian system in 1648, [7] but post-Soviet Russia has seen Westphalian sovereignty as a means to balance American power by encouraging a multipolar world order. [27]

Some in the West also speak favorably of the Westphalian state. American political scientist Stephen Walt urged U.S. President Donald Trump to return to Westphalian principles, calling it a "sensible course" for American foreign policy. [28] American political commentator Pat Buchanan has also spoken in favor of the traditional nation-state. [29] [30]

See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

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International relations Relationships between two or more states

International relations (IR) or international affairs (IA) — commonly also referred to as international studies (IS), global studies (GS), or global affairs (GA) — is the study of interconnectedness of politics, economics and law on a global level. Depending on the academic institution, it is either a field of political science, an interdisciplinary academic field similar to global studies, or an entirely independent academic discipline in which students take a variety of internationally focused courses in social science and humanities disciplines. In all cases, the field studies relationships between political entities (polities) such as sovereign states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs), and the wider world-systems produced by this interaction. International relations is an academic and a public policy field, and so can be positive and normative, because it analyses and formulates the foreign policy of a given state.

Collective security international security philosophy that everyone is safer together; that the security of one is the concern of all

Collective security can be understood as a security arrangement, political, regional, or global, in which each state in the system accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and therefore commits to a collective response to threats to, and breaches to peace. Collective security is more ambitious than systems of alliance security or collective defense in that it seeks to encompass the totality of states within a region or indeed globally, and to address a wide range of possible threats. While collective security is an idea with a long history, its implementation in practice has proved problematic. Several prerequisites have to be met for it to have a chance of working. It is the theory or practice of states pledging to defend one another in order to deter aggression or to exterminate transgressor if international order has been breached.

The International law bearing on issues of Arab–Israeli conflict, which became a major arena of regional and international tension since the birth of Israel in 1948, resulting in several disputes between a number of Arab countries and Israel.

United Nations Security Council veto power Power to veto U.N.S.C. resolutions

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Peace of Münster Treaty between the Dutch Republic and Spain signed in 1648

The Peace of Münster was a treaty between the Lords States General of the United Netherlands and the Spanish Crown, the terms of which were agreed on 30 January 1648. The Treaty is a key event in Dutch history marking formal recognition of the independent Dutch Republic and formed part of the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years' War and the Eighty Years' War.

Interventionism is a policy of non-defensive (proactive) activity undertaken by a nation-state, or other geo-political jurisdiction of a lesser or greater nature, to manipulate an economy and/or society. The most common applications of the term are for economic interventionism, and foreign interventionism.

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Regional integration

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Minority Treaties refer to the treaties, League of Nations Mandates, and unilateral declarations made by countries applying for membership in the League of Nations and United Nations. Most of the treaties entered into force as a result of the Paris Peace Conference.

Baltic–Soviet relations

Relevant events began regarding the Baltic states and the Soviet Union when, following Bolshevist Russia's conflict with the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—several peace treaties were signed with Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet Union and all three Baltic States further signed non-aggression treaties. The Soviet Union also confirmed that it would adhere to the Kellogg–Briand Pact with regard to its neighbors, including Estonia and Latvia, and entered into a convention defining "aggression" that included all three Baltic countries.

In 1999, international relations scholar Susan Strange introduced the term "Westfailure" in her posthumously published article entitled The Westfailure System. The term "Westfailure" is a portmanteau and a pun on the term Westphalian system. Commonly used in International Politics, the Westphalian system refers to the system of state sovereignty that emerged out of treaties signed during the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Strange describes the Westphalian system as one that perpetuates non-intervention, the universal recognition of state sovereignty, and the "legitimate use of violence within a given territory." Put simply, the Westphalian system promotes a system where each individual state has the inalienable authority to govern their own internal affairs without interference from other states or non-governmental actors. The principal aim of Strange's article is to highlight how this system of international governance is failing and does not "satisfy the long-term conditions of sustainability."


  1. 1 2 "To protect sovereignty, or to protect lives?". The Economist. 15 May 2008.
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