314 – What’s all the fuss about the Westphalia Settlement?

Posted on March 3, 2015 by


In his latest book,[1] Henry Kissinger praises the Western “world order” that originated with the Westphalia settlement: “Since the end of Charlemagne’s empire, and especially since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europeans have striven for balance (rather than unity) in international affairs, first in their own continent and then globally” says the book’s blurb. Westphalia is achieving iconic or even mythical status. Is it warranted?


On the substance, there is an important precursor: the Augsburg Settlement of 1555, which established the principle of cujus region huius religio[2] later underlying Westphalia. Augsburg reflected a political more than a military stalemate (Charles V had defeated the Protestant Schmalkadic Coalition but could not go further than the battlefield). As the underlying principle attests, it was an “agree to disagree.” As a precursor, even Augsburg was nothing new. Such reciprocal “non-interference concordats” have existed at least since the XIIth century – at least in Switzerland. I’m sure we can find many other instances in Europe.

The Augsburg settlement applied to the Holy Roman Empire only. Westphalia extended the principle to Western Europe as a whole. It reflected the exhausted stalemate after 30 years of war that ravaged Germany[3] and had bled surrounding states in Europe white (they paid for the war in kind and troops).[4]

After Westphalia, the struggle for hegemony in Europe did not change – it only changed justification and location:

  • According to Westphalia, the ruler is the ultimate arbiter of a country’s sovereignty. Wars were waged to put compliant sovereigns in place – the European XVIIIth century is littered with “wars of succession” (Spain, Austria, Poland);
  • Wars were waged outside Europe to put “empty” territories under the rule of this or that Western power (thus forever changing the equilibrium). The argument went that either the autochthonous ruler was “illegitimate” or the “land was empty” or a mix of both. There went the Americas, Australia and Polynesia, the Philippines.
  • “Non-interference” based on sovereignty clashed with the principle of “free trade” the West was trying to impose worldwide. So the former was scuttled to make room for the latter. China, Japan, and other Asian and African countries took the brunt of this derogation from Westphalia principles.

One might conjecture an inverse view of the role of Westphalia. Far from establishing some “world order,” it exported Western Europe’s warring states’ condition to the world – while imperfectly safeguarding the West. An apt analogy may be the hurricane, with its quiet center surrounded by a roaring storm.

Westphalia’s institutions were minimal: the occasional Congress and kin relationships among ruling houses. In a system, institutions serve to lower freedom of choice and yield stability and previsibility. The imperfections in the Westphalian institutions generated information asymmetries[5] that inevitably had to lead to war at the core.[6] The moralistic call for “transparency” in diplomacy in effect aimed at eliminating the information asymmetries by giving all parties to the system full knowledge of the others’ intentions.

The US stepped in at Versailles proposing better institutions and rules for the world system to go by. Whether these rules were “idealistic,” the silent expression of American hegemonism or ignorance of context, need not detain us here. “All of the above” would not be an unjustified judgment. But is such a system sustainable? Henry Kissinger makes the case for a continued leadership role of the US in the world as the ultimate decider in world affairs. System stability demands a “sovereign” to keep the coop in order.

One may present the position succinctly as:

“At its extreme, this reasoning holds that the US should not be bound by international rules, even those it has itself developed but should occupy a position above the rest. In this view, it is in the world’s interest, not merely the American interest, for the US to do so. A month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Max Boot of The Wall Street Journal called on America to unambiguously “embrace its imperial role.” “The organizing principle of empire,” according to the like-minded Stephen Rosen in The National Interest, “rests on the existence of an overarching power that creates and enforces the principle of hierarchy, but is not itself bound by such rules.”[7]

Kissinger (and others even more than him) believes that a world system is in the need of a Sovereign. He is “the one who has the power to decide the state of exception, where law is indefinitely ‘suspended’ without being abrogated” (see Carl Schmitt’s definition and his treatment by Giorgio Agamben). Kissinger harks back to the idea of the sovereign standing alone, above the fray and thus free of partisan interest,[8] as the ultimate guarantor of the “common weal.”

Again, nothing new. The proper role of the Sovereign was argued at length in the context of the relationship between the Crown of Spain and the subordinate Kingdom of Naples at the turn of the XVIIth century.[9] The Neapolitan aristocracy opined (unsurprisingly) that the King’s role was to stand “above the fray.” The Vice-Roy, at the time, noted that the King should wield his “right of exception” in a “hidden” (hence unpredictable) manner. Any overt justification would limit the king’s freedom of action and show him to be subject to meta-rules.[10]

But do we need such a sovereign at all? The issue cannot be settled theoretically in any case so that an analogy may be useful.

The Greeks developed the corbel arch,[11]

Trabeate Arches

Take away the center stone, and the arch collapses. We have here Kissinger’s thesis.

The Romans developed the vaulted arch.


In building such an arch, a temporary support is needed while masons position the keystone. After that, the arch is self-supporting. In this arch, no keystone is visible – all bricks play the same role. Sometimes keystones are identified in the structure, but this is only for decoration: once in place, the keystone loses its unique role and is at par with all other elements.

The US may well have played the part of the keystone in erecting a more sustainable world system. The psychological difficulty for a “keystone country” is to recognize the inevitable – its very success coincides with the end of its exceptional role.

Abandoning exceptionalism is to acknowledge the equally constructive role of all other “stones.” We were fortunate that in 1949 China simply “stood up,” rather than trying to achieve recognition through aggression (Germany, Soviet Union, and Japan). Silent evidence of China’s now acknowledged role in the world is the fading in international discourse of the term “yellow race.” Islam – in its two forms – has failed so far and has been the object of relentless overt and covert gunboat diplomacy. The strategic goal of world stability leads through the eye of the needle of recognition of these civilizations as “keystones”.


[1]               Henry KISSINGER (2014): World order. Penguin, New York.

[2]           “The Peace established the principle cujus region, ejus religio, which allowed Holy Roman Empire’s states’ princes to select either Lutheranism or Catholicism within the domains they controlled, ultimately reaffirming the independence they had over their states. Subjects, citizens, or residents who did not wish to conform to the prince’s choice were given a period in which they were free to emigrate to different regions in which their desired religion had been accepted.” (please note that the settlement enshrines “ethnic cleansing”). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Augsburg

[3]               Anthony GRAFTON – C. V. WESTWOOD (2005): The thirty years war. New York Review of Books, New York.

[4]           The Kingdom of Naples, which depended from Spain, was bled white to finance the war. This led a Revolution in 1647, which was put down. See Rosario VILLARI (2009): Un sogno di libertà. Napoli nel declino di un impero 1585 – 1648. Mondadori, Milano.

[5]           “In economics, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions, which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry.” In 2001 the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to George AKERLOF, Michael SPENCE, and Joseph E. STIGLITZ for their “analyses of markets with asymmetric information.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_asymmetry

[6]           Christopher CLARK (2013): The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. Penguin, New York.

[7]           Jessica T. MATHEWS (2015): The road from Westphalia. New York Review of Books, March 19.

[8]           Interestingly, this reasoning undergirds the US Constitution of 1789. See Eric NELSON (2015): The royalist revolution. Monarchy and the American founding. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

[9]           See Rosario VILLARI (2009): Un sogno di libertà. Napoli nel declino di un impero 1585 – 1648. Mondadori, Milano.

[10]          Much of pagan criticism of Christianity centered on the fact that an “almighty god » could only be arbitrary, lest he be seen as subject to transcendent laws and thus bound in some way.

[11]          A corbel arch is constructed by offsetting successive courses of stone (or brick) at the springline of the walls so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway (often, the last gap is bridged with a flat stone). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbel_arch

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