February 26, 2015


The Road from Westphalia (Jessica T. Mathews MARCH 19, 2015, NY Review of Books)

What we have now, "the sole generally recognized basis of what exists of a world order" and the central subject of this book, are the principles of state sovereignty that emerged from a series of negotiations in northern Germany over 350 years ago. Kissinger describes the history of the Peace of Westphalia wonderfully, noting that the Holy Roman Empire alone was represented in those meetings by 178 separate participants from its various states.

From the mass of overlapping rulers--emperors, kings, dukes, popes, archbishops, guilds, cities, etc.--the Peace of Westphalia produced a solution of dazzling simplicity and longevity. The governing unit henceforth would be the state. Borders would be clearly defined and what went on inside those borders (especially the choice of religion) would be decided by its ruler and a matter of no one else's business. In modern terms, the delegates invented and codified state sovereignty, a single authority governing each territory and representing it outside its borders, no authority above states, and no outside interference in states' domestic affairs.

From 1648 until at least the end of the cold war, power became concentrated steadily in the hands of states, though Westphalian principles were never universal. In a historical tour d'horizon, Kissinger traces the different challenges to the Westphalian system--from Russia under the tsars and later the USSR, Japan and China under their respective emperors, India in its pre-British history, and today the Islamic Republic of Iran (in which a state and a religion share sovereignty), and, finally, the Islamist forces that hope to substitute a religious caliphate for secular states. Nonetheless, Westphalia gave birth to international relations as we know them and to the balance of power among legally equal entities. [...]

Across the Atlantic, America's encounter with world order derived from its belief in its special destiny as the engine of human progress. Its history produced a society with, as Kissinger puts it, "congenital ambivalence" between the pursuit of moral principles and national interest. Teddy Roosevelt came close to a synthesis, Kissinger believes, and had he won reelection in 1912 "might have introduced America into the Westphalian system." By bringing America early into World War I he might have thereby changed the course of world history.

Instead, Woodrow Wilson took office, and was all too successful in connecting with what Americans have always wanted to believe about themselves. His genius was to "harness American idealism in the service of great foreign policy undertakings in peacemaking, human rights, and cooperative problem-solving," but his "tragedy" was to "bequeath to the twentieth century's decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics."

When Kissinger's account turns to recent and current events, serious weaknesses surface as he uses this analysis as the sole determinant of American foreign policy. The Iraq war, worthy of close examination because it was by far the greatest foreign policy blunder of recent decades, is wrongly portrayed as having been undertaken in pursuit of Bush's (Wilsonian) Freedom Agenda. While multiple arguments were made by various proponents of the war (ridding the world of a tyrant, bringing democracy to the Middle East, and even improving the chances for an Arab-Israeli peace), the overwhelming case made by the president and his team was that it was the necessary response to the direct threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's invocation of the "mushroom cloud" we might see if we did not act was not an offhand remark. The justification of the war as primarily a defense of freedom and democracy came after it turned out that WMDs were not present.

Kissinger's discussion of the war oscillates awkwardly between an effort to justify it (and his contemporary support for it) and criticism of what the hardheaded Kissinger knows to have been a terribly unwise venture. "I supported the decision to undertake regime change in Iraq. I had doubts...about expanding it to nation building." Kissinger has warm words for George W. Bush ("I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection" ) but immediately afterward notes that attempting to advance American values "by military occupation in a part of the world where they had no historical roots," and expecting "fundamental change" overnight, was unrealistic.

Kissinger's discussion of the war ends on a particularly weak note with the claim that it's too soon to judge because the war may eventually be seen to have catalyzed the Arab Spring: "The advent of electoral politics in Iraq in 2004 almost certainly inspired demands for participatory institutions elsewhere in the region." It is not too soon to know that this view is grasping at straws. The war was almost universally condemned by protest movements and opposition parties across the Arab world. The Iraqi political parties that emerged were largely sectarian, not national, offering exactly the wrong model to others, and in any case they were seen as American creations. 

Ms Mathews is simply confused about what sovereignty has always meant to Americans (and the Anglosphere).  It has a moral component, the consent of the governed, that was lacking in the Westphalian version.  

If we apply this insight to just a few of the topics she touches on:

*Wilson's great failure was not that he intervened late in WWI, but that he sought to vindicate transnationalism rather than popular sovereignty after the war.  The war could only have been worth fighting if we had liberated our allies colonies.

*W's entire case for the Iraq War was indeed to democratize/liberalize Iraq in particular and the region generally.  He allowed Colin Powell and Tony Blair to make the WMD argument because they felt that issue more likely to move their constituencies (the UN and the Labour Party respectively).  But he didn't actually care about the support of either of those groups, scaring the bejeebies out of Mr. Blair by telling him not to sweat the vote because we'd be happy to go it alone.

*And, of course the Arab (Sunni) world protested Iraqi elections, which demonstrated that the Shi'a are the overwhelming mahjority there.  The Sunni and secular Arabs have, likewise, been appalled at victories by Hamas, the Shia of the Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is precisely popular sovereignty that they are objecting to.  They would prefer an antiquated Westphalian system where a sovereign (unelected gets to dictate the religious practices within his borders (and the political and economic, for that matter).  They are essentially holding out against the End of History.

Posted by at February 26, 2015 4:35 PM

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