By William Pfaff
The first time I heard there was a “war” against Westphalia was in a talk given to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2003 by George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. She said that the Westphalian system of sovereign international relations—agreed upon at that German city in 1648, as part of the treaty that ended the terrible and wasteful Thirty Years’ War—was now outdated and should be discarded. Since then, it has more and more been dismissed in academic and policy discussions devoted to new proposals for “global governance.”
The Westphalian agreement was that all nations henceforth were to be considered absolutely sovereign within their own borders. Intervention in the religious or political affairs of another state was forbidden.
This was a reaction to the war that had just concluded—or actually, the series of small wars over a 30-year period that has since been treated as a single great war involving Catholics against Protestants and Hapsburgs against Bourbons. Its best modern historian, C.V. Wedgwood, has justly said that the Thirty Years’ War “need not have happened and it settled nothing worth settling ... an object lesson on the dangers and disasters which can arise when men of narrow hearts and little minds are in high places.” The war in which Rice and President Bush shared responsibility, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and all that followed, was precisely such a war, deserving exactly that judgment.
Rice, though, was claiming that if the Westphalian international system were replaced by an American-led alliance of democracies ruling the world, international peace would prevail. Such a system has in one or another form been America’s foreign policy objective ever since Woodrow Wilson, even while American-instigated small wars of one or another kind, or American interventions in other peoples’ wars, have dominated recent years, intended to promote democratic global governance—all of them unsuccessful in outcome, or inconclusive. Even Kosovo/Serbia remains rife with tension, their frontier policed by foreigners.
Yet “global governance” has been probably the most fashionable subject in academic and professional international relations studies. The reason is simple to identify. “Europe” has been a success. At least a success until now, notwithstanding the economic ravages of the Wall Street crisis and the banking frauds that damaged the City of London and other West European markets and economies. Politically, the EU has been successful. Otherwise, as Thierry de Montbrial, founder of the World Policy Conference—which held its fifth annual session earlier this month in Cannes—wrote in his introduction to the meeting, the past five years have not produced much to support the argument of emerging world democratic convergence.
The most prominent argument made, above all in Germany, with respect to the crises in the southern EU member economies, has simply proposed still more European economic and monetary unity. This despite the rise in British political and popular anti-European (and anti-euro) sentiments, which have made British withdrawal from the EU a real if still remote possibility.
These days, domestic and international politics mainly concern national issues and clashes of interest. “[R]eal asymmetric economic relations do not look like the perfect markets of text books,” Montbrial writes, adding that, “financial markets are not always rational but can experience stress or even chaos; ... economic cycles are unlikely to be abolished anytime soon; ... [and] the era of ideological enthusiasm for globalization is over.”
The most important issues of political “governance” of concern these days are those of the Egyptian constitutional referendum and who will eventually govern Egypt; the civil insurrection in Syria; and the new form taken by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in all of which both the United States and the European Union remain impotent or irresolute observers.
Rice’s vision in 2003 of an American-dominated international democratic hegemony cannot today be taken seriously. The American public is increasingly unwilling to support the kind of large-scale military actions that Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush. The Obama government is likely to find that world domination through its own drone attacks and “lily-pad” military bases policing the Middle East and Africa unfeasible as well as internationally unacceptable.
State sovereignty in the EU has indeed been weakened but far from replaced by European federation, and that is in a society with 2,000 years of religious and cultural integration. The Middle Eastern societies—despite 13 centuries of religious unity, the great Arab caliphates and the Ottoman experience—are fragile even where state sovereignty exists and can be enforced. The George W. Bush administration idea of a “New Middle East” proved a fantasy. In the Far East, old empires are reasserting their sovereign claims. Global governance has yet to prove its relevance to any civilization except that of the post-Enlightenment West, and one can question its relevance there. Political identity remains bound to national history—the fundament of sovereignty.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.