The Westphalian settlement, the result of peace treaties signed in 1684 that ended both the Thirty Years' War of the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch, ushered the era of the nation state firmly onto the global stage. Since 1684, nation states have dominated the global stage and respect for national sovereignty has become the foundation of international relations.
In the twenty-first century, three factors seem to be eroding the stability of the Westphalian settlement:
- Massive multinational corporations have little national allegiance.
- New, non-state actors—such as the al Qaeda terror network—have emerged.
- Electronic communication increasingly makes national borders irrelevant for spreading ideas and moving money.
On the one hand, the emerging sense that humans are members of a global family offers the planet's best hope for the future. Reciprocal altruism, which began with concern for one's genetic kin, then progressively expanded to include clan, tribe, and nation, now appears to be stretching once again, to embrace all people and often all living things. Nationalism represents an exclusionary, parochial perspective that focuses on short-term gains rather than long-term survivability. Furthermore, nationalism is, at best, consistent with Christianity as only an interim measure, one that falls short of the Creator's concern for all creation and equal care for all.
On the other hand, respect for national sovereignty has helped to prevent wars, deterring nations—at least some of the time—from aggressive, overt interference in the affairs of other nations and empire building. These courses of action do not produce enduring positive results, as evidenced historically by the tragedies that resulted from European colonial empires and the more recent US fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Even the British in North American produced tragedy, e.g., the fate of Native Americans and the legacy of chattel slavery.)
In part, the Westphalian settlement lasted because multiple powers prevented one another from gaining permanent hegemony. The Cold War was the most recent of these contests. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been the world's sole superpower. This has not been good for the US or for the world. The US—nor any other nation, for that matter—cannot unilaterally solve the world's problems. US efforts to exercise hegemony have repeatedly failed. The current administration may or may not have a clear foreign policy; it may or may not seek to exercise US power assertively. However, our best hope for the future lies in other nations joining us as equal partners or the global stage. Engagement and not dominance represents the path with the best odds of leading to world peace.
Transitions are almost inevitably difficult.
In the UK, all three factors eroding the Westphalian settlement have produced a problem that is likely to become increasingly common. Affluence (the result of world trade, a function of multinational corporations) has resulted in many immigrants coming to Britain. These immigrants, influenced by their Muslim faith and foreign ideologues (i.e., formal and informal non-state actors communicating electronically), are attempting to take control of some of the state operated schools. In at least some Birmingham schools, for example, students a year short of graduation seen holding hands have been expelled. In a manner foreign to British values and traditions, which include a strong emphasis on pluralism, narrow-minded Islamist extremists have successfully imposed their standards on others, appropriately triggering public concern. (Investigative Project on Terrorism Blog, "Blueprint's Discovery Fuels UK 'Trojan Horse' Concerns," April 29, 2014) The US and Europe are likely to experience similar problems.
Another set of problems associated with the demise of the Westphalian settlement is the increasing desire among various groups—defined by factors including ethnicity, religion, etc.—to control their own destiny, either as a state within a state (e.g., the demand of Kurds for autonomy within Iraq) or as an independent nation (e.g., in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia). In the UK, this desire for autonomy is evident in demands for Welsh and Scottish devolution. The US, with its growing numbers of immigrants and racial tensions, will not be immune from similar demands.
Somehow, if Homo sapiens are to survive, let alone thrive, we must find a way to respect one another and to live together in harmony. Given our rapid destruction of earth's capacity to support human life, the imperative of peace with justice must cease to be regarded as hoping for pie in the sky and instead must set our personal and communal agendas.