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Peace of Westphalia in the News, February 2023, Continued

Most mentions of Westphalia that I come across relate to sovereignty, and do so in a deductive way that is hardly worthy of discussion. An article in Telos, on the other hand, is much more thoughtful. I’m not sure if it’s right, but it definitely has caused me to stop and think about it. The author cites Hannah Arendt that a nation-state model can either promote a heterogeneous collection of states, as in classical sovereignty, or a continually expanding nation such as the British and French empires or Nazism or pan-Slavism. We are, he argues, at a decision point in world history as Russia and China present the latter alterative whereas the former is more desirable.

I haven’t read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism so I can only base my comments on the extremely brief summary provided in the article. I do not find the “expanding nation-state” model convincing because it overlooks important points. Nazism and pan-Slavism were about uniting a single nation (defined ethnographically), and so they did involve encroachment into existing states, but with clearly defined limits to what they ultimately hoped to achieve. Notice that German made no attempt to incorporate France, for example, into the Reich; it was occupying it during the war, but it remained a separate entity. Britain and France expanded massively in the late 19th century, but did so by conquering areas outside of the state system. In the case of Britain, it did not conceive of its conquests as part of its nation-state but rather exercised control by means of protectorates and treaties. France, it is true, did try to incorporate its conquered populations into the nation-state, but its expansion was still at the expense of governments that were not really incorporated into the international system. Regardless of what one may think of their justification, I find it hard to believe that anyone today is going to promote national expansion into territories that are fully integrated into the international system.

This last point is what doesn’t bode well for Ukraine and Taiwan. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and, although they have made an effort in the last few decades to distinguish themselves as a separate nation, still have the legacy of the “One China” policy. They (or the PRC) are an anomaly in a nation-state system, and conquest would not violate the system but clarify it. Ukraine at least is a U.N. member (and was in fact so even during the Soviety era) but its status as a separate nation is still not firmly established. Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”set the stage for the invasion, setting out its justification in tradional national terms.

In short, I am inclined to view the current international crises, not as a challenge to national sovereignty by a separate and distinct world-view, but rather as a clarification of existing anomalies. Unfortunately, anomalies like this are almost uncountably large in our world, leaving untold opportunities for war by bellicose leaders. Instead of the nation-state’s being the center of legitimacy, we should really focus on self-determined states — that is, governments that are chosen by the peoples that they rule, regardless of whether they constitute a distinct nation or not. This still leaves plenty of opportunity for ambiguity and potentially war, but it would rule out aggression by Russia against Ukraine or China against Taiwan, since there is no question that the targeted states are inhabited by people who want to be independent.

Our other article for today is about the friendship of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel the Elder. The fact that I study the early 17th century has a lot to do with the fact that I took a 17th century art history class as an undergraduate and fell in love with the Baroque, and Rubens in particular. Rubens was not only an amazing painter, but also sometimes served as an ambassador for the Spanish Crown, of which he was a subject. This particular article makes the relationship between Rubens and Breughel sound like a miracle because it occurred during an era of religious strife, but in fact both Rubens and Breughel were Flemish Catholics so their friendship doesn’t seem that remarkable to me. The article did inspire me to look up Breughel’s paintings, which are lovely, and I learned that he collaborated on “The Return from War” with Rubens. This painting has special significance for me, as it can be considered a metaphor for peace. It is a strange painting because it has a completely horizontal composition, and the subjects are completely on the right-hand side; the left half of the painting is all background. I particularly like how Mars appears in traditional Greek armour, but the background shows several cannon that would have been typical of 17th century warfare.

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