The Limits Of Westphalia: Reflections On The Demise & Awakening Of International Relations Post 9-11

It must have horrified the great Dr. Kissenger to publish a book immediately prior to September 11.  “Does America Need A Foreign Policy” was published the summer of 2001.  Reading it in light of September 11 proved hollow for so many committed professionals whom for centuries have proposed and believed in a discipline whose premise predicated a form of control over events.

With the arrival of Islamic terrorism, an entire discipline was upended with disastrous personal results for those committed to its pedantic jargon.  If the ’emperor had no clothes’, then most certainly his advisers were even more exposed.

How to make sense of such an extraordinary gaffe?

The answer rests with understanding the currents that dominated a craft as well as remembering that an entire class even if well informed by rigor can still breed hubris with tragic consequences.

The beginning of such self confidence is found in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia.  Although defiantly tied to the Protest Reformation’s premise of autonomy that hardened with the arrival of both the Enlightenment and its offspring, the industrial revolution.  The social impact of mechanized production upon parochial sovereignty produced the enormity of nationalism.  For many nations in western Europe this became an absolute principal to be fervently pursued masked as interests in geologic spheres.  As crude as this was, it only masked the failure of most of Europe to answer the claims made by the success of the American Revolution.

We see the limitations of such an incoherent political structure when we acknowledge that Nations simply cannot claim sovereignty as absolute, for the internal character of a regime is not completely autonomous.  Witness the war aims of the Unites States and its western allies post World War II along with United Nation resolutions regarding both war crimes and genocide.

The premise of autonomy remained a thin veil when the West finally confronted the enormity of radicalized militant Islam.  How could the west fail to see the limitations of its political statecraft?  The answers lie in understanding three historical themes that dominated such a craft.  The Peace of Westphalia triumphed because of its adherence to: impermeable notion of Nation States, limited military technology and by extension an implicit understanding that States could wait an unambiguous threat.  All that vanished on September 11, and with it the United States embraced an imperative for pre-emptive action.

It was Jeanne Kirkpatrick who admonished Bush that it was not in our national self interest to establish a historical precedent for pre-emptive action.  It would immediately become a principal available to every nation, so the administration began courting the resolutions prescribed by the U.N.  Even though their are historical precedents to unilateral action (Cuban Missile Crisis, Haiti, Bosnia, Clinton in Iraq, Sudan.)

Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Warrior Politics” reveals that the Peace of Westphalia and the principals guiding international geostrategic imperatives is a mirage that only fits neatly into strict compartmentalized thinking.  The kind of thinking that prevails in the West.

For Kaplan and Kirkpatrick, the Cold War obscured, displaced the ambiguity of our current emerging crisis so often predicated as a ‘clash of civilizations’.  Most international relations experts like Fouad Ajami, Amir Tahari, Benni Avni and Bernard Lewis are insistent that Westphalian systematics, having its origin in thought divorced from life (typical of Protestanism), remained unable to help its adherents gain traction in a solution.

The great running tension that dominates those who aspire to engage political statecraft are those that understand September 11 as a dividing line and those who do not.

Nevertheless, the imperatives of Westphalia render the West impotent in its challenge to radical militant Islam.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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