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The Peace of Westphalia in the news, March, 2022

March was a busy time for people referring to the Peace of Westphalia, mostly because of the Ukraine war. (I wonder what we will call this war when it is done? The Russo-Ukraine War? The 7 Weeks’ War (he suggested optimistically)? The Steppe War?) I got notification of 10 references for March, half of which were from the Schiller Institute, a/k/a Lyndon Larouche’s organization. As no one takes them seriously, I will only mention them briefly and then move on. The Schiller Institute would like to see an international conference along the lines of the Congress of Westphalia, and has created a petition online. Unfortunately for them, their petition is over a month old and has only 3825 signatories at present — a truly trivial number in a world where billions of people have access, and where a Boston petition relating to outdoor dining has almost 25,000 signatures. Nor do the Schiller Institute’s petition signatories carry particular weight from fame or their role in policy making. Perhaps if their demands for such a conference did not list reimplementation of the Glass-Steagall Act and creation of a national banking system, matters that seem…peripheral at best, they would attract more interest.

I would like to say that the other references are much more interesting, but I am afraid they are not. One article is from the Manila Times and argues that international law is meaningfully enforced by the actions of individual states. In my estimation, such actions are more an example of anarchic behaviour, or international custom at the most generous interpretation, but I don’t disagree with his point that having standards enforced haphazardly is better than having no standards at all.

There is a brief article in Modern Diplomacy that I have trouble understanding because the author struggles with expressing herself in English, which is evidently not her native language. I am not going to undertake a closer analysis at this time. Then there is an article in Mint, which seems to be primarily a financial journal, that mentions Westphalia and the Ukraine war only as a brief segue into the dangerous of war through artificial intelligence.

Next there is an article in Counterpunch, yet another online magazine with which I am unfamiliar. I did recognize Alexander Cockburn’s name among the editorial staff (I suppose in an honorary position, since he has been dead for 10 years), so I assume it has a Communist outlook. The author uses Westphalia as the starting point for an international system in which states do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Since Russia is claiming to act in defense of the Donbas states, this is not a clear-cut example of internal interference. One could argue that the author does have something of a point, since one of Putin’s stated war aims is the de-nazification of Ukraine. However, he does not go in this direction and instead claims that Russia is asserting that Ukraine is not a state. I can’t say for sure that Russia has not made this claim, but this was definitely not the point of Putin’s article from last year. Moreover, I haven’t seen any evidence that Russia aims to dismantle Ukraine as a state and annex it completely (it would be pointless to declare the independence of the Donbas region in that case, since surely they would also be incorporated into Russia).

Finally, there is an article in Jurist, this time by a widely published author who has been writing about nuclear war for nearly 50 years. His argument is that Westphalia left the international system in a “state of nature” and therfore vulnerable to self-annihilation through nuclear war.

None of these articles focusses on the Peace of Westphalia as more than a reference point for non-intervention or state sovereignty. Both of these are wrong, but what interests me is the way they all see a direct continuity between Westphalia and the modern (post-World War II) period, typically citing the U.N. charter as though it were a mere continuation of the treaties of 1648. It does not seem to occur to anyone that there might have been other changes in the meantime, not even such a famous conference as the Congress of Vienna that concluded in 1815.

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