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Westphalia, Sovereignty, and Freedom

It is not often that I take the time to summarize an article about the relevance of the Peace of Westphalia, but I am going to do so this time because it is such an interesting article, even if it repeats misconceptions about Westphalia. The title is “Freedom, Sovereignty, and Individual Rights,” and it was published online in the Jewish Policy Center about a month ago.

The author begins by asserting that freedom and human rights are only possible within the context of sovereignty, which, of course, he attributes to the Peace of Westphalia. Ironically, he specifically mentions that it took five years to reach the agreements “by the nation states and imperial states.” The fact that imperial states — which are not sovereign entities — were involved in the agreements should have been a flag that Westphalia was not founded on sovereignty.

The author doesn’t elaborate much here on how sovereignty promoted human freedom and flourishing in the ensuing 250 years, but there is no doubt that Europe did flourish and become more free. Then the world wars happened, which the author blames on Germany — that is, on one state rather than on a systemic problem. The worst violence was committed by National Socialist Germany, and the author finds that post-war thinkers have put too much effort into blaming nationalism rather than socialism for the evils. Hence the desire to integrate Europe and destroy national borders with a supra-national governing body.

The author says that the worst recent losses of freedom in Europe have come from the EU, with its handling of Greek and Italian debt crises and various laws that impelled the UK to withdraw. Recently socialist states in Central Europe, notably Poland and Hungary, have been among the most protective of their national sovereignty, underscoring the antagonistic relationship between socialism and both sovereignty and freedom. The author seems optimistic that the worst overreaches of the EU are being clawed back by nations that recognize the threat the organization poses to their national freedom.

He closes with a quotation by a world leader that I struggled to identify:

The essential divide that runs around the world, and throughout history, is once again thrown into stark relief. It is the divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking that they are destined to rule over others and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves.

I can get behind that. The leader goes on to extol the virtue of patriotism in maintaining peace and freedom:

The free world must embrace its national foundations… If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. The future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.

This is, frankly, brilliant. It calls attention to what I think is the central fact of political life: that people should make decisions about their own fate because they are the ones who have a vested interest in the outcome. It also accentuates the fact that nations are not generic political entities, but have unique histories and cultures that make each one exceptional. Those who call for diversity and globalism want to destroy the individuality of nations and exchange for it a uniform global society. They want to erase the colourful flags of our world and replace them with the steel grey of a world government. Ironically, their diversity is no diversity at all, but an ugly uniformity that allows no political innovation, no laboratories of freedom, no deviation from orthodoxy. It is a depressing vision.

By the way, the speaker of the quotations above? Donald Trump to the U.N. General Assembly in 2019. I wonder how long his words will be remembered. I think they rank up there with the greatest speeches I have read, and they were very timely.

I have not yet addressed the author’s central thesis that sovereignty promotes freedom. I think it does. In fact, I wrote an article to this effect for a Festschrift for my advisor 10 years ago. The editors were excited about it at first, but suddenly decided to drop it from the collection for reasons I’m not clear on. I should add it to this website for reference.

As I have stated repeatedly, Westphalia did not establish or promote sovereignty in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, we do see sovereignty emerge as a principle in the 250 years after Westphalia. Why is that? Part of not interfering in another state’s internal affairs is not having an opportunity to do so. Prior to 1648, European states were struggling through the repercussions of the Reformation, which created internal conflicts in a way that had never existed before. After 1648, those states had all reached a settlement that did not totally close off the possible of religious dissent, but drastically limited its scope. The Reformation and its political aftershocks also led to massive popular involvement in government and politics, creating distinctive national political cultures that were much more fully developed than in the Middle Ages. If the inhabitants of a country associate themselves strongly with their nation, they are less likely to be willing to work with foreign governments, and less likely to be tolerant of others who do so.

These factors forced governments to approach international relations differently. They respected the sovereignty of other states, not because they wanted to in principle, but because their opportunities to interfere in others’ sovereignty were so limited. Only very late in the process did theorists attach a name and a principle to this state of affairs, and call it sovereignty.

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