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Westphalia, raison d’état, and the United Nations

Our focus article for today makes the usual mistake of associating Westphalia with sovereignty, but it is interesting in other respects. It is the first article I have seen in a long time to use the term “raison d’état,” meaning “reason of state.” This was a popular term originating in the late 16th century and is usually taken to mean a government policy based around strengthening the state at the expense of other goals, especially religion. I used to think we needed to understand this concept better in relation to the Peace of Westphalia, but I have come to the conclusion that raison d’état is the default mode of every statesman in every time period. Other things can be important, but it is a rare case indeed in which a statesman doesn’t put the state first (unless he is just focussed on enriching himself, which is a different sort of issue).

In any case, the author of this article argues that sovereignty and raison d’étate are two principles from Westphalia that dominated in international relations up to WWII. At that time, multilateral institutions (such as the U.N.) emerged that sacrificed sovereignty for peace and human rights. In his assessment, we have taken a step backwards in multilateralism recent, with rising international tensions and a couple of major wars interfering with the sort of co-operation that multilateralism requires.

Almost everything I have read about sovereignty indicates that it has been in full retreat for at least a quarter century if not much longer. I am not judging whether that is true, but I find it interesting that this author believes that it is making a comeback.

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