The Westphalian question 3

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse, Henry Kissinger wrote:

ISIS’s claim has given the millennium-old split between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam an apocalyptic dimension. The remaining Sunni states feel threatened by both the religious fervor of ISIS as well as by Shiite Iran, potentially the most powerful state in the region. Iran compounds its menace by presenting itself in a dual capacity. On one level, Iran acts as a legitimate Westphalian state conducting traditional diplomacy, even invoking the safeguards of the international system. At the same time, it organizes and guides nonstate actors seeking regional hegemony based on jihadist principles: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria; Hamas in Gaza; the Houthis in Yemen. Thus the Sunni Middle East risks engulfment by four concurrent sources: Shiite-governed Iran and its legacy of Persian imperialism; ideologically and religiously radical movements striving to overthrow prevalent political structures; conflicts within each state between ethnic and religious groups arbitrarily assembled after World War I into (now collapsing) states; and domestic pressures stemming from detrimental political, social and economic domestic policies … The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.

What was Kissinger talking about? What did he mean by “a legitimate Westphalian state”? What does “Westphalian” mean?

Commander J. E. Dyer views what is happening in the Middle East – and so in the world – very much as we do (though she approaches it from a different angle). She discusses Kissinger’s article and explains what is meant by “Westphalian”.

She writes:

Reading Henry Kissinger’s typically well-considered and intelligent article for the Wall Street Journal this weekend (“A Path out of the Middle East Collapse”), I had a growing sense that it isn’t so much a prescription for the future as a description of the past.

We wholly agree. Dr. Kissinger is not seeing the world as it is. He has not grasped – or been hit by – the import of the events that are unfolding: millions of Sunni Muslims, terrified of the power America has put in the hands of Shia Iran, flowing in a great tidal wave out of the Middle East to break on Europe’s shores and swamp the continent.

The sense began with the first paragraph, in which Kissinger defines the scope of what’s collapsing, and dates it only to 1973, when the U.S. moved to stabilize the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War.

But far more than recent U.S. policy on the Middle East is collapsing today.  What we’re seeing is more like the collapse of “Rome” itself:  the organization of Western power as a Europe-centric territorial phenomenon, setting unbreachable boundaries north, south, and west of a restless and perennially “unorganizable” Middle East.

Last year, we might have said that it was “Sykes-Picot” that was collapsing: a popular shorthand reference to the European colonial disposition of Middle Eastern boundaries at the end of World War I.  But that was last year.  Now it’s 2015, and with the utter paralysis of Western nations in the face of massive and unforeseen, unarmed migration, it’s clear that Roman Europe itself is no longer a meaningful reality.

Consider:  the Roman Empire in its heyday would not have tolerated this migration.  Neither would the Europe of muscular Christendom, or the Europe of trading monarchies, of the Westphalian nation-state era, of the “concert of Europe” era, or of the Cold War.  As long as Europe had a civilizational idea of defending and preserving itself, the legacy of Rome was alive.  Altered, perhaps, with the passage of time and the emergence of new ideas, but still kicking.

Today, the legacy of Rome looks to be an empty shell.  There is territory left, of course – but there is no idea.  In fact, the West has spent much of the last 50 years apologizing for ever having had its signature idea, and vowing to no longer have it.

Without that idea, the West has no motive to organize itself against destruction, either internal or from an external source.  The idea of the West is ultimately what has collapsed, at least as an organizing principle that preserved for many centuries, and for multiple purposes, the security boundaries of “Rome.”

And with that collapse goes the whole structure of expectations that made Dr. Kissinger’s prescription for American policy possible.

This point crystallized for me at the end of his article, when he wrote these words (emphasis added):

The U.S. role in such a Middle East [i.e., with a stability structure supported by U.S. policy] would be to implement the military assurances in the traditional Sunni states that the administration promised during the debate on the Iranian nuclear agreement, and which its critics have demanded.

In this context, Iran’s role can be critical. The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.

But that’s just the problem.  Without a dominant European idea – the civilizationally confident Europe of “Rome” – there is no such thing as a Westphalian state.  There is no form of power or authority that can enforce Westphalian rules.  Nor is there any great nation with a motive to enforce them.

This is too big a subject to bite off all of in a single blog post.

We found that too. This is a vast, deep, and overwhelmingly important subject. It will take much thinking about, beyond the bewilderment of the present moment.

So let me just look at two aspects of the proposition here.  One is Westphalianism itself, and why we should recognize that it must be under assault from today’s events.

Ultimately, what we call Westphalianism, after the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, is an attempt to enable nation-states to coexist pragmatically – a good in itself, enshrined as the “advantage of the other,” or the “common good” – without settling theological questions. …

The nations of 1648 had no intention of ceasing to see themselves as Christian organizations on the earth.  What they intended to do was cease making theological disputes (i.e., Protestant versus Catholic disputes, which were the main ones among the belligerents at the time) a casus belli between them.

Westphalia was a watershed statement … that the armed might of the state should not be used, implicitly against the common good, to vindicate or enforce specific theological interpretations of God. The genius of Westphalianism is that the scope of national sovereignty is held to be not limitless, but limited. …  Westphalianism leaves the things of God to God, and attends to the things of Caesar.  Westphalianism is based on a moral assumption, but is essentially an idea of pragmatism.

This is why the resurgence of apocalyptic Islam is antithetical to Westphalianism.  Predatory Shia Iran and the rise of Sunni state-Islamism – not only in the form of ISIS, but in the form of the longer-organized Muslim Brotherhood – are real and meaningful evidence that the bloody, thrashing Islamism of today is not Westphalian, and cannot be. … 

Which is to say, “is not tolerant, and cannot be”.

The premise of Westphalianism is that all the nations are trying to get along, and need a modus vivendi to regularize things.

The premise of Islamism is that nationhood itself doesn’t matter – indeed, is there to thwart Islamic unity, and must be overset.

These two premises can’t coexist.  The Treaty of Westphalia was signed by a group of nations that all agreed on nationhood.  Even internationalist Communism, the horseman of apocalypse in the 20th century, had uses for nationhood that could keep it pragmatically satisfied for decades.  Communism was willing to accept that the state would eventually wither away, but still act like a state in the meantime.

Islamism sees the nation-state as a rampart of evil, blocking the path of the caliphate.  Islamism has the excuse of belief for not respecting the rules of state sovereignty under Westphalianism.

We can’t assume away the strength or pervasiveness of the Islamist challenge to Westphalianism.  Maybe as recently as 2014, it was possible to be complacent about that.  But the earthquake of migration into Europe has reached a level that is proving against Europe, on a daily basis, that Westphalianism is not even in operation anymore.  This is the second aspect of the problem that we have to consider.

The current migration crisis means Westphalianism is dead.

If Westphalianism were still in operation, the migrant crisis wouldn’t have reached its current proportions.  Westphalian states would see it, properly, as something to defend themselves against, and would take pragmatic measures to stem the tide.  Those measures would include intervention abroad, to stabilize foreign conditions, and paying other nations to take the migrants, as well as setting strict limits on immigration and advertising clearly that the doors were closed.  Deportation and physical barriers would be seen as regrettable, perhaps, but hardly as moral evils.

The Westphalian view is clear that humaneness doesn’t demand sacrificing the benefits of national sovereignty for hundreds of millions of people.  Yet that self-abnegating idea is the default proposition governing the response of Europe – and even of the United States – to the current migration crisis.

If the West won’t enforce Westphalianism in defense of its own territory and communities, there’s no reason to think Westphalianism will be enforced on Iran.  The unenforceability of the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear program arises from the same deficit of Western confidence in the use of state power.

And because the fundamental clash going on is between Islamism and a collapsing idea of Western civilization, this dynamic is too big to be put in balance by a mere restoration to the framework of 1973 or 1919.  That’s not actually possible, in any case – and even 1818 and 1648 don’t go far enough back. Those dates were about Christian states proving things to themselves.

It’s Islamism to which the evolutionary Western idea of multilateralism, limited sovereignty, and freedom of conscience for peoples has now to be proven.  This is a real geopolitical crisis point, not an abstraction.  If necessary, the Western idea has to prove itself over Islamism.

In the process of doing that, “Westphalianism” will inevitably evolve, to some extent.  We will end up rewriting it.  I think we’ll preserve most of it, but it will have to find a way to stand, and not give way, before a religious concept that negates Westphalianism’s very foundation; i.e., the limited-sovereignty nation-state.  I’m not sure we can foresee at the moment what it will all look like when we’re done.

One thing we can say as we part here, however, is that this tremendous crisis in world affairs represents an opportunity, for people who love limited government, freedom, and hope.  

Only with that last sentence we disagree. Commander Dyer’s website is called the Optimistic Conservative. Ours, at this point, though similarly conservative, is pessimistic.

We see the world changing for the worse. We see the idea of liberty slipping away, because the liberal democracies of the West no longer want it. 

We do not understand why they don’t want it, but it seems plain enough that they don’t.

  • Luther

    Years ago I read that Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri understood that the Treaty of Westphalia was a construct that held the West together, and that they were actively working to demolish the concept so that the Caliphate would be over one Ummah with no boundaries.

    I’m afraid we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Western civilization.

    • Thanks, Luther. That’s an interesting piece of information. Unexpected that those two would think about the Treaty of Westphalia and what it meant. Perhaps they were regular readers of Kissinger!

  • liz

    She’s right that Islamism cannot be Westphalian, but wrong to think that the West can “prove” the Western ideas of limited sovereignty and freedom of conscience to Muslims. I don’t think they are capable of grasping such concepts. They are in a time warp from the barbaric past, and proud of it!
    You might as well try teaching apes calculus. They would tear up the paper and throw it back at you along with their feces for insulting their intelligence.
    Muslims have one goal in this migration, and that’s to impose what they consider to be their vast superiority on the world. They’ll destroy civilization in the process, and celebrate it as a great success.