A world of messy borders? Get used to it
September 4, 2012
According to one scholar, state sovereignty has never been as important as we think.
Concern for the sovereignty of nations runs like a drumbeat through almost every debate on foreign policy. Are corporations exerting too much influence on sovereign governments? Is a larger power pulling the strings of a smaller one; are international bankers putting too much outside pressure on some nation’s treasury? Is a humanitarian crisis severe enough to warrant breaching a border?
The idea of the world as a perfect patchwork of self-ruled nations is so essential to our understanding of how the world works that we’re rarely aware of it. When we worry about wars, or trade disputes, or multinational companies throwing their weight around, we’re worried in part because we see these as disruptions of an otherwise neat and stable system of sovereign states.
To experts, this is called the “Westphalian” system, and it has a date of birth: 1648, when a series of treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia transformed an unruly war-torn Europe into a network of cleanly delineated nations. Since that time, the basic notion of Westphalian sovereignty has become an organizing principle for scholars and statesman, policy makers and generals. And as the global map changed in the 20th century from a system of colonies and territories to a world of mutually recognized nations, it is the Westphalian model that prevailed.
But now, in a provocative paper, a young scholar has suggested that it might also be a chimera—that such a cut-and-dried international system has never really existed, and that the normal order of the world looks more like a shifting network of influences that operate across and within borders.
In a paper published in the International Studies Quarterly, Sebastian Schmidt, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in political science, argues that today’s idea of sovereign statehood arose as a convenient fiction after World War II. Under the pressures of that time, he says, scholars looking to build a functional international system following two global wars began to ignore the muddy and complex historical realities of statehood—and instead adopted the Westphalian ideal as a kind of useful shorthand for thinking about the world’s proper order.
‘These challenges we face have been around before.…I want to take a little bit of the bogeyman out of globalization.’
The primary target of Schmidt’s work is scholars, who he hopes will acknowledge that modern policy making relies on an oversimplified version of the Westphalian story. But his argument also offers a helpful way to think about the world now. In his conception, much of what worries observers today—globalization, intervention, power plays—is built into the way the world works, and always has been.
“These challenges we face have been around before, in other forms,” Schmidt says. “I want to take a little bit of the bogeyman out of globalization.”
The more consistent version of the world order, which Schmidt describes as a fluid “society of states,” is one in which governments have always jockeyed for power with private interests, outside powers, or meddling clerics; in which borders and lines of influence are much fuzzier than we might like to think.
It is at once messier and more enduring than the static ideal that has driven our understanding of states for centuries. Schmidt’s argument suggests that there is less cause for alarm than we often think in threats to sovereignty, and also that the past may be a richer source than we realize for useful experiments to resolve the problems of today.
The primacy of sovereign nations, in the long view, is a recent development of history. In Europe, before the Peace of Westphalia, the continent’s city-states competed with larger kingdoms and the Holy Roman Empire in a perpetual violent struggle for territory and resources. It was hard to distinguish among different kinds of authority. In some places, the pope held sway; in others, a monarch; in still others, a family or group of families whose power stemmed less from their territory than from the wealth they created through commerce or industry.
In this welter of influence, 1648 undeniably marked a watershed. The Westphalian Peace took shape during four years of negotiations and congresses, culminating in a series of peace treaties that gave states more authority at the expense of the Vatican. It marked the maturation of a method of state-to-state negotiation that already existed in inchoate form then, and which today continues to be the basis of diplomacy.
But, Schmidt points out, that moment did not mark as clear-cut a change as the history books often have it. The Holy Roman Empire, whose influence was rooted in faith rather than territory, persisted as a power in Europe for 150 years afterward. Religious and ethnic strife continued, and Europe hosted a long parade of wars right into the contemporary era. Economically speaking, Schmidt argues, an international gold standard bound the world’s treasuries much more tightly than they are connected today, while in the colonial era joint-stock ventures like the British East India Company had influence that dwarfed that of their descendants such as the contemporary oil giant BP…