Point: The Westphalia Legacy and the Modern Nation-State

Article excerpt

Ending the Thirty Years' War in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia is often viewed as the progenitor of modern nation-state sovereignty. The war completed the decline of the Habsburg Empire which had already lost power in Western Europe following the revolt in the Netherlands and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The end of Habsburg dominance altered the balance of power in Europe. Coinciding in part with the Protestant Reformation, the Peace of Westphalia further weakened Papal authority throughout much of Europe. Consequently, most scholars view 1648 as a turning point in history and international relations marking the transition from feudal principalities to sovereign states. (1) The Westphalian system is thus viewed as the foundation for understanding modern international relations.

The significance of Westphalia has nevertheless been scrutinized recently by political scientist Stephen Krasner and others who question the whole notion of continuity in state sovereignty. (2) They note, for example, that the Holy Roman Empire did not officially end until the Napoleonic Wars. The recent triumph of internationalism and globalization presents a more formidable challenge. The increasing power of organizations like the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the European Union (EU) suggest that nation-state sovereignty is declining and perhaps served merely as an interlude in a world dominated by imperialistic institutions. For Krasner, the EU is simply the "new Rome." (3)

Prior to the Peace of Westphalia, most polities in Europe were ruled by an emperor, a leading clergyman, or a feudal lord. Although the Papacy and feudal aristocracy retained some power, after Westphalia the Holy Roman Empire's ability to enforce its ecclesiastical and political hegemony was virtually destroyed. With Spain acknowledging the independence of the Netherlands, the German states gaining political autonomy, and Austria's failure to seize control of Central Europe, the most dominant empire in Europe was severely debilitated. As a result, the very nature of European politics changed following Westphalia. This ended any chance of Europe being united under an emperor, nor would the Roman Catholic Church ever again enjoy a monopoly on political or spiritual power. After 1648, national sovereignty, characterized by autonomy and interstate competition, became the primary governing system among European states.

The Papacy also lost much of its political power following the Peace of Westphalia. Under the Habsburgs, especially Spanish King Philip II, the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed enormous control over much of Europe despite the rising tide of reform. Prior to Westphalia and the Protestant Reformation, a Papal Bull issued in 1302 by Boniface VIII argued that the Pope was a higher authority than any temporal ruler. (4) The Peace of Augsburg (1555) challenged that authority by granting each German Prince the right to designate whether his state would be Catholic or Lutheran according to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, his religion); individuals had no say in the matter and other faiths were not recognized. While the Peace of Augsburg was certainly a chink in the Papal armor, the Roman Catholic Church retained much of its authority in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia, however, damaged the Papacy by extending the Peace of Augsburg to recognizing Calvinism. After 1648, "religion and ideology were to be considered within the domestic jurisdiction of each territorial state and to be eliminated as aspects of international relations." (5) This not only solidified national sovereignty, it also laid the foundation for the modern competitive state system.

With the political and religious authority of the Habsburgs essentially destroyed and the Papacy weakened by the Thirty Years' War, wealthy aristocrats realized the importance of befriending the newly established monarchs and secular leaders. …