The Westphalian system of sovereign states was established in 1648 as part of the Peace of Westphalia. There were three core points to the treaty:
- The principle of state sovereignty;
- The principle of (legal) equality of states;
- The principle of non-intervention of one state in the international affairs of another.
Over the years, the Westphalian model became universally accepted, and widely respected. But, with time, came changes to the society, and, with them, came critique of the system. Today, challenges to this model of international relations come from various fields, such as international security, humanitarian activity, and global economy. Still, the Westphalian state system plays a huge role in the modern society, although it needs adjustment to today’s society’s needs.
The idea of sovereignty is a widely supported one. The notion that every state has the right of self-governance over its people and territory builds the foundation for interstate peace, but, at the same time, experiences much critique.
Along with giving each state the privilege to make its own decisions, sovereignty gives benefits to individual nations, while providing multiple disadvantages. The plusses of the idea are obvious: each state can decide the best for its people, thus, hopefully, developing economically, socially, and politically. Other states, no matter how powerful, do not have the right to take upon the rule of a sovereign country. The principle of autonomy does not allow exploitation of the weaker on the scale of the relations between states. In ideal, sovereignty does not let the EDCs give into the temptation of restructuring the LDCs for their own needs. Many leaders, especially in the countries of Asia and the Middle East, support the notions of self-determination and non-intervention, both in terms of political and cultural influence. On the other side, individual countries, when isolating from the world, sacrifice the immense long-term benefits of international cooperation. In order to bring benefits to all countries, rules that are to be developed for the international community need to respect the various opinions on global issues, instead of focusing on the needs of the richest, most technologically developed nations. If the laws respect the needs of the community, the purpose of sovereignty is partially lost, which means that with globalization and development of international networks, sovereignty needs to be given up for the sake of international progress.
In the Fareed Zakaria’s Culture is Destiny: Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew1, the former Prime Minister of Singapore emphasizes the importance of cultural atmosphere in the development of a particular country. Therefore, if a country makes the decision to preserve its culture, the neighboring nations’ attempts to change its cultural environment can be perceived as violations to the principles of sovereignty. Various foreign activities, such as bringing foreign businesses into the isolating country would disturb its barriers for outside intervention of any kind. At the same time, forbidding the introduction of international businesses in a country would be contradicting to the recently developed idea of liberalization of trade.
Second half of the twentieth century was identified with the spread of the ideas of liberalism around the world, and into many spheres of activity. The development of liberal international institutions in the past decades is a great example of that. These organizations, while serving a great range of purposes, often get in the way of ideals of the Westphalian system. Followers of liberalism often support spread of the Western model of societal interactions, which includes democratic form of government, open markets, and implementation of human rights in every part of the world. In many cases of non-Western, as well as Western, countries, the idea of spreading the ideas of liberalism is strongly opposed with the argument of national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the more powerful Western governments continue pressing on the opposition of their values by, sometimes, inhuman methods. The concepts of the Westphalian system protect the victims of forced spread of liberty.
The WTO and the IMF are excellent examples of interference of international institutions and national sovereignty. In the case of Bretton Woods institutions, there is a clear confrontation of the struggle for global economic openness vs. sovereignty of individual players. In the WTO, the majority of independent countries are either members or perspective members. Its purpose is to open up the world market by removing trade barriers, by creation of a multilateral trading system. The WTO favors the laissez-faire approach to international business development, while fighting protectionist policies of any level, thus interfering with the right of self-determination of each participant. WTO officials argue that sacrificing the short-term goals of protectionist behavior brings benefits to the whole world, thus affecting all of its members. Sovereignty can help protect a state from short-term economic losses, such as unemployment in certain areas of professional work; but, it brings in the benefits of international cooperation, thus increasing the effectiveness of production of each individual member. Helen Milner, political scientist from Stanford University, mentions that international economic institutions, like the Bretton Woods institutions, “constrain the behavior of the most powerful countries and provide information and monitoring capacities that enable states to cooperate,”2 which further supports the work of international economic institutions. The Westphalian principles need to consider the point that, often times, giving up individual interests results in greater long-term outcome, both for the international community in overall, and for every player in particular.
In terms of security issues, there are several problems with the 1648 principles of Westphalia. One of them is caused by the change in the international nature of conflicts. Another security issue with the old standards of sovereignty is created by modern technology.
Nowadays, conflicts mostly arise within countries, rarely affecting the surroundings of the conflicting nation. Although some supporters of absolute sovereignty may argue that individual states should not care about the ongoing events of their neighbors, it might very well be in the interests of each player of the international arena to participate in peacekeeping in the nations that experience. The extent to which these international peacekeeping operations should be taken is debated by many. Thinking about this subject, one might consider different causes of violence inside states. When the disorder in a country is part of a coup d’état, outside intervention would probably be unnecessary, additionally interfering with the process of self-determination. A different case of an ongoing genocide in a country, especially if it seems to have the potential to cross the national borders, could be the time when an early intervention would tackle an immense threat to world peace. Moreover, even if the situation does not seem close to going outside a state’s borders, it might be necessary to intervene in a state that has the potential to be wiped off the earth, or to commit massive violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The problem with the notion of pacifying involvement is the fact that leaders of some particular states deem themselves to be the world judges, allowing themselves to get involved, guided often, by self-interest, in the conflicts that are far from threatening global peace. This setback should be mitigated by the enforcement of principles of international cooperation through international institutions which respect the opinions of a variety of state actors.