Westphalia in the Modern Context
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 14 Mar , 2023

Significance of the Treaty of Westphalia

For many years Germany became the principal theatre of European diplomacy and war, and consequently,the development of German national unity was delayed. But the Treaty of Westphalia pronounced the dissolution of the old order in the empire andit facilitated the growth of new powers in its component parts, especially Austria, Bavaria, and Brandenburg. The treaty was recognized as a fundamental law of the German constitution and formed the basis of all subsequent treaties until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.( Adam Augustyn-Britannica ).To understand the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia, one must first understand the history of the Protestant Reformation. A Protestant is someone who “protests” against the theology of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther, a German theological, objected to the theology and practices of the Catholic Church and founded his own branch of Christianity, known today as Lutheranism. The Holy Roman Empire should not be confused with the Roman Empire. “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire.” The Holy Roman Empire controlled much of Europe between 800 AD and 1806 AD. Most of the people who lived in the empire were ethnic Germans, but there were other groups as well, including Czechs, Slovaks, and Italians.While the empire was ruled over by an emperor, local princes had enormous power over their individual regions. This was a factor in both the Thirty Years’ War and the Treaty of Westphalia. Many of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire were sympathetic toward Luther’s philosophy.

Martin Luther’s Revolution

Since the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was Catholic, Luther’s religious revolution was a major problem in the empire. The division between Catholics and Protestants was not limited to the princes of the empire. Cormac Shine writes in History Todaythe source of this enduring myth can be traced to an influential article by Leo Gross, described by one critic as ‘the Homer of the Westphalia myth’, which was published in the American Journal of International Law in 1948. Writing on the tercentenary of the Peace, soon after the founding of the United Nations, the Austrian-born legal scholar described 1648 as ‘the majestic portal which leads from the old into the new world’ and ‘the starting point for the development of international law’. This is still the dominant image of Westphalia: a major turning point between the medieval and the modern, the birth certificate of the international legal order. Political and legal theorists generally adopt wholesale the views promoted by Gross, while historians have done little to dispel this myth.Even today, when scholars regularly invoke the need for a ‘post-Westphalian’ order or wonder what lies ‘beyond Westphalia’, they implicitly take Westphalian sovereignty as their natural starting point. For when oneconsiders the content and context of the treaties of Westphalia, it is clear that they did not radically alter the nature of sovereignty, nor did the Peace invent a new international system.The idea that Westphalia paved the way for an international system of sovereign states relies on the argument that the treaties dismantled the twin supreme authorities of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Westphalia officially gave imperial princely states the power to sign treaties. Overlapping sovereignties were as much a fact of life and a source of conflict after 1648 as they had been before. Westphalia still figures so prominently in the history of international law and politics.

Westphalia in Present-Day Context

Ananswer is perhaps the ahistorical nature of those two disciplines. Westphalia is detached from its context and assigned great importance because it suits the narrative of existing international law and international relations.  So 1648 marks the first stepping stone on a path that leaps neatly from there to 1815, 1919, and 1945 to the present day. By cutting out events before this date and painting Westphalia as the birthplace of the sovereign states system, the historiography of international law and politics is narrowed to make the formation of the existing settlement seem inevitable. Any alternatives outside the realm of sovereign states are discounted. It would be difficult to page forward without reference to Adolf Hitler who triggered the devastation of the Second World War, Joseph Stalin,and the cold war.

Vladimir Putin’s Red Line

The most recent warningby Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the Western Bloc not to cross the red line that Russia would consider a threat to its security. Putin had asked the Western bloc to ensure that Ukraine should remain neutral or in other words should not be a part of NATO or European Union countries. US President Joe Biden totally disregarded Putin’s urging and continued to arm Ukraine with sophisticated arms though it is fully understood that the US would not be putting her soldiers on Ukrainian soil. Meanwhile, Russia the latest development in the words of Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s former Presidentrings the bell of nuclear threatshould the West continue its policy of ignoring Russia.It is difficult to fathom the seriousness of the threat as at the same time one also hears the bells of Russian proposals of peace talks with the West. It is possible that Russia may agree with the territory she has regained in Ukraine and be assured of her position as a superpower. It would be foolhardy for Zelensky or the Western powers to seek a military defeat for Russia in Ukraine. Putin must be allowed to satisfy the Russian people of a victory( of sorts) and the West should start its process of easing sanctions against Russia.

Taiwan Complication

An added complication is the position of China in the Ukraine issue. The problem is a possible miscalculation by Xi Jinping that the US pre-occupationwith Ukraine opens for him the door for an adventure in Taiwan. Xi Jinping had repeatedly stated that Taiwan is an integral part of mainland China and China is determined to bring the breakaway region within its fold. China has the advantage of a distance 2103 kilometers (1307 miles). In the case of the US its nearest base in Japan is much further away. Besides the Taiwan army is determined to foil any attempt by China to cross the strait and in the process would lose hundreds of amphibian ships making any cost-benefit analysis against China. Additionally, the US is committed to defending Taiwangiving the US the advantage over Xi Jinping’s inexperience in dealing with superpowersthat the post-Second World War US-Soviet Union had. Defense analyst Ian Easton, whose 2017 book, “The Chinese Invasion Threat,” imagines what war might look like based on leaked Chinese military documents, suggests that somewhere between 1 to 2 million combat troops would have to cross the strait if Taiwan’s defenses were at full strength. (If China already had Taiwan on the back foot by instigating a coup or assassinating its president, a smaller force might be feasible.) A Chinese landing on Taiwan would “be the most complex operation in modern military history,” said Michael Beckley, a professor at Tufts University and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies US-China competition. ( Joshua Keating-Jan 13 2023). Finally, it all comes down to a modern version of Thucydides’Trap with complications inherent in modern diplomacy. The world is not prepared for the extinction of mankind. So a solution has and will be found.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kazi Anwarul Masud

former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh.

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