The Waning of the Westphalian System

The Westphalian model can be considered by far the ultimate basis behind international relations theory for the past four centuries. The model derives from the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War and established the sovereignty of the minor landholdings within the Holy Roman Empire. From this, the assumption that state sovereignty is paramount and that external intervention in nation-states should be very limited replaced feudalism and more dynastic based entities. Since 1648, the Westphalian model has prevailed in determining policy and theory up until the present day. However, in the past decade, the ultimate authority of the state has begun to be eroded as non-state actors such as multinational corporations, supranational bodies such as the European Union, and terrorist organizations have made more and more of a presence on the international stage. The interconnected nature of today’s world may force us to reexamine the Westphalian model.

One of the reasons that the idea of national sovereignty has come into question is that the domestic actions of one country are having greater repercussions for everyone else. This can be seen the most in environmental policy and with the rise of regional organizations to coordinate economic policy. With environmental policy the need for international coordination is obvious. As developing countries become wealthier and more manufacturing industries locate to these countries such as China, their environmental impact on the planet through greenhouse gas emissions and other factors are becoming more of a concern. Because of this, more efforts to coordinate countries’ environmental policy are arising such as the Kyoto Protocol and its extension to 2020 are being worked on. Even bilateral environmental agreements, which would support the supremacy of national sovereignty, are seen as not sufficient in many environmental issues as recognition that a global effort to avert climate change is necessary.

While the movement for more integrated environmental policy is an obvious change, a less obvious movement away from national sovereignty toward regional and global cooperation has been occurring in economic areas. This has mostly been a result of the financial crisis of the past five years. which was largely a shock in how integrated the global economy has become in recent decades. Even some of the major economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s such as the Latin American debt crisis and the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis were largely regional in their scope with relatively limited worldwide effects. However, with the recent recession, there had been much more coordination between countries, particularly in the European Union, on their economic and financial policies in order to revitalize economic growth. The European Union has taken unprecedented steps in giving power to an international organization with the European Stability Mechanism and the European Fiscal Compact. Under these programs, the member states have submitted to more surveillance of their economies by independent fiscal advisory councils and have pledged to reduce their budget deficits to at most three percent of GDP.

Besides the increased cooperation and use of international bodies in dictating policy, the purpose of national sovereignty and the ideal of the nation-state has also declined in recent decades. In many places in the developed world, nationalist sentiment peaked during the 19th century and now holds less importance as the rabid nationalism of that era has largely subsided and the Internet has brought many countries closer together. Most of the current disputes over national territory today stem from economic reasons rather than ethnic reasons. The current dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, while ostensibly a nationality dispute, is almost certainly an economic dispute at its heart as the islands are thought to contain large oil reserves. Similarly, national territorial disputes will be brought up from time to time as populist rhetoric to hide the failings of the government. This is the case in the many times that Argentina has raised the dispute with Great Britain over the Falklands in the past few years.

While the ideal of nation-states and complete state sovereignty may have faded somewhat, the Westphalian system will remain upstanding for the time being. There are still many regions across the globe whose desire for a state that corresponds to their national and ethnic identity forms a part of their motives for independence. For example, while the Scottish and Catalan drives for independence referendum are primarily for perceived financial and economic gains, there is a strong element of nationalism in these efforts. However, the integration of the European Union and possibly other supranational and regional bodies in the future may lessen the drive for national sovereignty. It remains to be seen what will replace the Wesphalian model, but a new system will inevitably supersede it.

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