Friday, May 27, 2016

The "State" of International Security: History, Theory, Practice

We study conflict and security problems, and we try to think of approaches to overcoming those problems. How should we do that, though? I believe we should view any approach effort through a lens shaded by three filters: history, theory, and practice. This is essentially the pedagogical model the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) uses to teach up-and-coming operational and strategic thinkers. Over the next three weeks, I would like to share a bit of history that informs theory put into security practice. Let us begin where all contemporary history of state conflict begins — Westphalia. Today’s story goes something like this.

The international system of state-based, sovereign political organization began with the reordering of Europe following the 30 Years’ War. Peace treaties signed in Westphalia, commonly known as the Peace of Westphalia, ended the war and established the idea of states and the principle of state sovereignty. Over time, these Western structures and ideas were adopted (or imposed) around the world. Consequently, many of the international security challenges today are a function of the breakdown of those state structures and a dilution of the principle of state sovereignty. Sound familiar? Here is some context:

From the Army War College's Guide to National Security Issues Volume 1, Chapter 14, Theory and Practice of Modern Diplomacy: Origins and Development to 1914

“Europe created modern diplomacy because Europe created the modern, geographically sovereign state — the so-called Westphalian state — after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The new form of international actor that has characterized the modern international system required a new kind of diplomacy, matched to its needs and consonant with its nature.”[1]

From the Army War College's Guide to National Security Issues Volume 2, Chapter 10, The International System in the 21st Century

“While the nation-state, first codified by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, remains the dominant political body in international politics, its ability to influence events and people is being challenged by an assortment of nonstate actors, failed or failing states, and ungoverned regions.”[2]

From Henry Kissinger, World Order

“The Peace of Westphalia became a turning point in the history of nations because the elements it set in place were as uncomplicated as they were sweeping. The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order. The concept of state sovereignty was established.”[3]

Is this true? Well, let us begin at the beginning of this story. Actually, let us begin at the end of the beginning of this story — 1648 and treaties signed at Münster and Osnabrück in Westphalia. We will save the preceding 30 Years War for later. What did the treaty actually say? Let us find out by reading the English translation of the text. The Avalon Project, through Yale’s Law School has an accessible rendering. It is not terribly long, but it is very detailed as to provisions of authority and responsibility for restitution ordered onto many regional actors. As you read it, keep this layered question in mind — are we living in an international system ordered by a Westphalian concept of states based on a principle of state sovereignty? Here is a preview of the treaty’s opening:

That there shall be a Christian and Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity, between his Sacred Imperial Majesty, and his most Christian Majesty; as also, between all and each of the Allies, and Adherents of his said Imperial Majesty, the House of Austria, and its Heirs, and Successors; but chiefly between the Electors, Princes, and States of the Empire on the one side; and all and each of the Allies of his said Christian Majesty, and all their Heirs and Successors, chiefly between the most Serene Queen and Kingdom of Swedeland, the Electors respectively, the Princes and States of the Empire, on the other part. That this Peace and Amity be observ'd [sic] and cultivated with such a Sincerity and Zeal, that each Party shall endeavour to procure the Benefit, Honour and Advantage of the other; that thus on all sides they may see this Peace and Friendship in the Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France flourish, by entertaining a good and faithful Neighbourhood.[4]

[1] See U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues, Volume I, (2012), p. 179. Available at:
[2] See U.S. Army War College to National Security Issues, Volume II, (2012), p. 137. Available at:
[3] See Kissinger, Henry, World Order (2014), p. 26. Available through Amazon at:
[4] See Treaty of Westphalia, Article I, available at:

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Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your interest in the topic. It adds a little more to how we understand our world.