Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

Today we have the rare article that not only mentions Westphalia but is primarily about it, and in particular its status as the origin of the modern state system. This is an article with the somewhat clumsy title of “Beyond the Twilight of the Westphalian Myth” on a site called E-International Relations. The article begins by stating that most arguments against Westphalia as the start of the international system do not offer an alternative, which seems like a curious criticism to me. The most likely alternative is that there has not been a single origin, but rather the gradual developement of a system through long praxis. Be that as it may, this article proposes the end of World War II as an alternative point for the origin of the state system.

This does make sense in some respects, especially in the one feature most commonly attributed to Westphalia — sovereignty — because I do believe (based on my limited knowledge) that sovereignty became a generally acknowledged principle of international relations only starting in 1945. I have often thought of the irony that people began attributing sovereignty to Westphalia at just the point when sovereignty was actually beginning to take hold. You could probably make a case that the changes starting in 1945 were dramatic enough to call a new international system, although, prima facie, that seems like a stretch.

Even if it is, however, it seems hard to argue (as the author does) that there was no international system prior to 1945. It may have been incomplete, informal, and lacking in many respects, but surely there was an international system. The author seems to lay a lot of emphasis on the fact that the post-WWII era is actually systematized, which is certainly true; not only because of the U.N. charter, but I suspect the total number of treaties has increased exponentially in the past 80 years as well. But having the rules of a system written down is not a requirement for having a system. States operated in an international environment in the 19th century; it was, of course, anarchic, as our present system continues to be (in spite of the U.N.) and the rules were largely customary principles, but it can absolutely be described as a system and can be analyzed systematically. For that reason, I find this article more of a vague attempt at analyzing the modern state system rather than anything particularly systematic or thorough.

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